The British coast has long attracted artists who come for the light, the ever-shifting vistas and duality of land and sea.
From well-known resorts such as St Ives – home of Barbara Hepworth – to more recent hotbeds such as Margate and Eastbourne, the UK’s coast is embroidered with artistic jewels that will satisfy a cultural hunger and make good, year-round destinations where you can duck into galleries if the heavens open. i travel is exploring the best of them in its Seaside Break series – here are some of the highlights for your next British seaside break.
It has been 12 years since Turner Contemporary brought the art world’s attention to this Thanet coast resort in Kent, but that doesn’t mean it has rested on its laurels. The town has gone from “shabby has-been to emerging cultural destination”, writes Lesley Gillilan in her Margate guide. It’s also now home to Tracey Emin’s TKE Studios, as well as the Pie Factory and Eclectic Art Gallery.
From the sea wall outside Turner Contemporary, look out for Anthony Gormley’s figurative cast-iron sculpture Another Time, alone in the water and only visible at low tide. A Banksy work appeared on a wall in the town on Valentine’s Day.
Back on land, and on the edge of town, Cliftonville’s Tom Thumb Theatre is the smallest in the UK with just 45 seats. The converted Victorian coach house (a venue since 1984) offers a regular programme of cabaret, comedy, film, music and drama. Cliftonville is also home to the shared exhibition space Hotel Michele.
This big, East Sussex town is well known for the decisive battle that marked the beginning of the Norman conquest of England and took place on its outskirts (now known as the town of Battle).
Anna McNeill Whistler – subject of the painting Whistler’s Mother – lived on St Mary’s Terrace and is buried in Hastings Cemetery. Her son, the artist James Whistler, painted his mother in 1871.
Hastings Contemporary gallery overlooks the fishing boats near the Old Town and first opened in 2012 (closed Mon-Tues, £9). In lockdown it made waves by operating remote robot tours of its galleries. If you’ve got a family to entertain then the Hastings Museum & Art Gallery is an engaging stop (closed Mon, free), hosting events throughout the year.
After exploring the galleries, writer Joe Short recommends browsing the independent shops that line the cobbled streets of the Old Town in his guide to Hastings, not least the much-visited Tudor house-turned-hipster home store, A G Hendy.
This East Sussex town proudly claims to be the “sunniest resort in the UK”, writes Connor McGovern in his guide to Eastbourne. The town will be particularly bright when it hosts the Turner Prize on 5 December this year.
A gateway to the Seven Sisters Country Park, and historically written off by many as “God’s waiting room”, Eastbourne is a classic seaside resort of Victorian-era hotels that are gradually updating to include hip new additions such as Port Hotel whose bar serves Sussex-brewed beers and cocktails.
After delving into Little Chelsea with its independent shops and antiques emporium, culture-hunters should make a beeline for the colourful Towner Eastbourne gallery, which houses one of the county’s foremost collections of contemporary art, including several works by local artist Eric Ravilious.
For some artistic inspiration, set off for the South Downs Way, which starts just outside the town. You’ll pass the “Beachy Head Story”, an exhibition charting the formation and history of the headland, and Birling Gap, home to a beach and plenty of rock pools. Keep heading west and you will tackle the Seven Sisters – the series of cliffs whose chalk faces have become an icon of the English coast.
“The long pebble beach in Aldeburgh is one of the best known in Suffolk, the coastline so expansive and dramatic that it inspired the music that made its resident Benjamin Britten one of the greatest composers of the 20th century,” writes Kasia Delgado in her guide to this Suffolk resort.
These days, the town hosts several big festivals, including a Literary Festival in spring (usually March, sometimes May), the 24-day Festival of music and the arts in June, a Food and Drink Festival in September and a Documentary Film Festival in November.
A new, elegant places to stay is The Suffolk – a historic coaching inn on the High Street and has just been renovated, with a popular restaurant and rooms upstairs.
Kasia recommends starting a trip at Aldeburgh’s “Scallop” sculpture, that rises up from the shingle beach. The 4m-high stainless steel artwork, a memorial to Benjamin Britten, who lived in Aldeburgh for the last 30 years of his life, was made by local-born artist Maggi Hambling in 2003. “While it has not been universally popular among locals, author Susan Hill, who lived in Aldeburgh and has written five novels there, has referred to it a ‘glorious thing of power and beauty’.”
Make time to visit Snape Maltings on the bank of the River Alde, surrounded by an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is a heritage site which has grown out of the Aldeburgh Festival, founded by Benjamin Britten in 1948, and is home to independent shops and galleries, places to eat and performance venues.
While St Ives is the undisputed art capital of Cornwall, Penzance and neighbouring Newlyn – home to the Newlyn School of Art and art colony that flourished here at the end of the 19th century – have plenty to offer the culturally curious.
Richard Vaughan highlights the Penzance Art Festival (mid-May to July) in his guide to the Cornish town, as well as the red-brick Chapel House boutique hotel, a Georgian town house with contemporary local art on every wall. Another arty hangout is the chic Artist Residence boutique hotel, which has a terrace with a shack serving cocktails and bar bites.
Once settled in, Richard recommends visiting Penzance’s independent galleries, including the Cornwall Contemporary and PZ Gallery, as well as the Newlyn Art Gallery, which highlights contemporary artists and well-known figures from the original Newlyn Art School set.
“Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole come as a trio, but each holds its own attractions, such as Bournemouth’s literary history – it offered inspiration to Thomas Hardy and was once home to Robert Louis Stevenson,” writes Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith in her guide to the popular Dorset resort.
Head to the Russell-Cotes Gallery at the top of East Cliff to see intriguing artworks, including a replica of the Parthenon Frieze. The picture is slightly different to the original after decorators mixed up the panels during installation. Closed Mondays, £7.50, russellcotes.com.
Each autumn, Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival brings one-off and often unusual exhibitions to the town, from installations to exhibitions and performances.
Meanwhile, Giant is a new contemporary art gallery and is the UK’s largest artist-run gallery space outside London, hosting exhibitions and projects by international artists.
“This traditional seaside town has more than 20 beaches”, writes Amy Burns in her guide to the Dorset resort on the Jurassic coast.
Weymouth puts its abundance of golden sand to good use at sculpture park SandWorld, which sits in the grounds of Lodmoor Country Park (sandworld.co.uk). A recreation of Elizabeth II’s head and the tomb of Tutankhamun are among the highlights.
On the harbour, Cove Gallery houses original paintings and limited edition prints, as well as handmade glass, ceramics and bronze sculptures by British artists and makers.
Dorset-born Paul Liggins is the artist in residence at The Harbour Gallery on Weymouth’s Custom House Quay where visitors can watch him at work in the gallery.