There’s never been a better time for a Great British beach holiday. Gavin Haines grabs his bucket and spade.

Come on in, the water’s lovely. Okay, so it might be a tad chilly, but there has never been a better time to take the plunge in Britain’s seas.

At least that’s according to the Marine Conservation Society (MSC), which this week commended a record number of British beaches for their excellent water quality.

“It’s great news,” says Rachel Wyatt of the MSG. “It shows just how good British beaches can be.” We couldn’t agree more, but don’t take our word for it. Check out our top 20 British beaches and make your own minds up.

1) Durdle Door, Dorset

Durdle DoorDurdle Door is arguably the most scenic beach in Britain
olliemtdog / Thinkstock

The natural limestone arch at Durdle Door helps make this beach one of the most beautiful in Britain. Located along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, bathers here have been known to stumble upon dinosaur fossils.

Best for: Fossil hunting, hiking, photography.

2) Bamburgh Beach, Northumberland

Bamburgh BeachHigh tide at Bamburgh Castle along the Northumberland coast
Creative Commons / 2630ben

Dominated by Bamburgh Castle, this dramatic stretch of Northumberland coast is home to the award-winning Bamburgh Beach. Its golden dunes have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the rich diversity of flora and fauna.

Best for: History, nature, hiking.

3) Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset

Burnham Beach A lighthouse at low tide in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset
krzych-34 / Thinkstock

Birdwatchers, body boarders, beach bums – they’re all drawn to Burnham-on-Sea, which is a gateway to 7-miles (11km) of glorious, golden beaches. The “lighthouse on legs” is a highlight for many visitors.

Best for: Watersports, sunbathing, lighthouse anoraks. 

4) Barafundle Bay, Pembrokeshire

Barafundle BayThe pristine sands of Barafundle Bay in scenic Pembrokeshire
Kevin Eaves / Thinkstock

Once a private beach belonging to a wealthy local family, Barafundle Bay is accessible only by foot. It’s a short hike from the nearest car park, but its pristine sands and limpid waters are well worth the effort.

Best for: Escaping, hiking, swimming.

5) Croyde Beach, Devon

Croyde BeachCroyde Beach is a top spot for swimmers and surfers
Scooby53 / Thinkstock

A surfer’s paradise in the winter, during the calmer summer months this beach is taken over by heat-seeking holidaymakers. It’s worth jostling for space with them because this North Devon beach is a gem. Sand dunes and rock pools add to its beauty.

Best for: Surfers, families, sunbathing.

6) Durness Beach, Highlands

Durness BayThe beautiful Durness Beach is hidden away in northern Scotland
Clark Hamilton / Thinkstock

Located on the northern tip of mainland Scotland, this is one for the intrepid beachgoer. Those making the pilgrimage through the Highlands will be rewarded for their labours with fine, golden beaches and azure waters that wouldn’t look out of place in the Med.

Best for: Escaping, hiking, scenery.

7) Hayle Beach, Cornwall

Hayle BeachThe golden sands of Hayle Beach, Cornwall
Creative Commons / Andrew

Hayle boasts not one, not two, but three golden beaches, which combine to form one vast, sandy paradise along the north coast of Cornwall. A prime spot for sunning and swimming, the local osprey and avocet populations also draw birdwatchers.

Best for: Bathing, beach walks, birdwatching.

8) Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris

Luskentyre BeachWe promise you, this is Scotland
davejpr / Thinkstock

We know what your thinking; how did that photo of the Caribbean get in here? Well, although the fine white beach and sapphire sea looks tropical, this piece of paradise actually belongs to the Isle of Harris in… Scotland. It’s unremittingly beautiful, if not a wee bit chilly.

Best for: Scenic walks, nature, bathing.

9) Perranporth Beach, Cornwall

Perranport BeachPerranporth Beach in Cornwall is a picture of perfection
Creative Commons / Andrew

Rolling swells during the winter have made Perranporth a top spot for surfers, but during the calmer summer months its golden sands lure anyone from artists to sunbathers. Surrounded by hills, the beach is also popular with hikers.

Best for: Surfing, sunbathing, hiking.

10) Rhossili Beach, Swansea

Rhossili BayThe remains of a ship wreck at Rhossili Bay, Wales
Esen Tunar / Thinkstock

A 3-mile sweep of golden sand, Rhossili has been voted Britain's best beach several times. Its second claim to fame – this is where the world record for skinny-dipping was broken – owes to its relative isolation. Come the summer, you'll find surfers in the swell, couples in dunes and walkers admiring the views.

Best for: Surfers, Swansea day-trippers, ramblers.

11) Saunton Sands, Devon

Saunton SandsA storm rolls in at Saunton Sands in North Devon
Lesley Rigg / Thinkstock

This North Devon beach is another surfing hotspot. However, board-riders make up just a fraction of those visiting this 3-mile (4.8km) stretch of sand, which is the gateway for gorgeous hiking trails along the dramatic coastline.

Best for: Surfing, swimming, coastal walks.

12) Sennen Cove, Cornwall

Sennen CoveThe sun sets over Sennen Cove in Cornwall
Creative Commons / Tom Harding

Tucked away on the Land’s End Peninsula, this Cornish beach is a true gem. Popular with sun-seekers during the summer, the nearby harbour is used as a launch site for scuba divers, who can discover the wreck of S.S. Datetree, which sank off Sennen in 1914.

Best for: Surfing, scuba diving, sunbathing.

13) Seven Sisters, East Sussex

Seven SistersThe Seven Sisters chalk cliffs along the coast of East Sussex
Creative Commons / Samuel Justice

The Seven Sisters – a dramatic series of chalk cliffs along the East Sussex coast – are best viewed from the beaches below at low-tide. From here you’ll be in little doubt as to why they were chosen as the backdrop for so many films.

Best for: Scenery, photography, hiking.

14) Soar Mill Cove, Devon

Soar Mill Cove Sunbathe in secrecy at Soar Mill Cove, South Devon
Creative Commons / Peter Castleton

Locals in South Devon won’t thank us for including this on our list – they’d rather keep it secret. But some things are too good not to be shared and this beach is one of them. Framed by the craggy cliffs of Bolt Head, this tiny inlet is accessed via scenic coastal paths.

Best for: Escapism, nature, hiking.

15) Portminster Beach, Cornwall

St Ives beachWho needs the Med when you've got St Ives beach in Cornwall?
Noel Bennett / Thinkstock

St Ives is a quintessentially British holiday resort, but the sapphire waters and fine golden sands of Portminster Beach could easily belong to the Mediterranean – there are even palm trees. The Med theme continues with its fine café, restaurant and white beach huts.

Best for: A classic British holiday with hints of the Med.

16) Studland Beach, Dorset

Studland BeachHolidaymakers can phone home to gloat from Studland Beach
Paul McArdle UK / Thinkstock

Located on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset (which is not, in fact, an island), Studland is characterised by long sweeping beaches, undulating sand dunes and biodiverse heathland. As well as white sands and clear waters, it is also home to a dedicated nudist beach.

Best for: Nudists, sunbathing, swimming.

17) West Wittering, West Sussex

West Wittering The sun sets over the white sands in West Wittering, West Sussex
Creative Commons / Ross Huggett

When you’re an ageing rocker that has it all, what do you spend your fortune on? A beach hut in West Wittering, apparently. At least that’s what Keith Richards did in 2006. And a fine decision it was too; this sandy resort has one of the most pristine beaches in England.

Best for: Rolling Stones, sunbathers, nature lovers.

18) Widemouth Bay, Cornwall

Widemouth Bay Whatever the weather, Widemouth Bay is a joy for beachgoers
Creative Commons / Daniel

Once a haven for smugglers, Widemouth Bay has a wider appeal nowadays; during winter the pounding Atlantic surf lures surfers and hardy outdoors types, while in the summer the white sandy beach teems with swimmers, sunbathers and strollers.

Best for: Surfing, strolling, summer holidaying.

19) Woolacombe Bay, Devon

Woolacombe BayThe coastal path to wonderful Woolacombe Bay in Devon
Fingerszz / Thinkstock

Located in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, during the summer months Woolacombe Bay throngs with holidaymakers. They come for the sweeping sand and rolling surf, which also attracts board riders. The nearby cliffs are popular with hikers and birdwatchers too.

Best for: Bathing, board sports, nature.

20) Osborne Beach, Isle of Wight

Osborne BeachQueen Victoria's private beach was opened to the public in 2012
English Heritage

Formerly a private beach for Queen Victoria, this royal coastline was opened to the public in 2012. Visitors can admire the views from the regal alcove and even inspect the “bathing machine” built to protect her majesty’s modesty whilst she was taking a dip.

Best for: History, royal bathing, escapism.

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The 20 quirkiest stays in Britain
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