With the rising cost and hassle of traveling abroad, this summer the British coast has seemed like the perfect choice for a healthy dose of sun, sea and sand. There is only one threat to this idyllic scene: sewage.
From Cumbria to Cornwall, beaches have been polluted with untreated waste, released by water companies into rivers and the sea. The problem has been exacerbated by weeks of hot, dry weather, followed by storms that have overwhelmed drainage systems, although evidence and campaigns suggest that sewage is discharged for thousands of hours each year, not just during extreme weather events.
Alarmingly, data published last Friday revealed that every beach between Brighton and Hastings was contaminated with sewage, and a number were closed to the public at the weekend. While normal service has since resumed, other beaches are now suffering from sewage incidents, and the levels of E.coli and other dangerous bugs in certain bathing waters make for worrying reading.
So how do holidaymakers go about finding a clean beach to visit this holiday? Traditionally, many have relied on the annual Blue Flag ranking to make their choice. The Clean Beach Award undoubtedly has strict criteria, and for the 2022 summer season just 80 beaches in England received the accolade – although some may be surprised to find that this has increased from 71 in 2019 and just 12 when the scheme was launched back in 1987. Beaches is assessed on water quality, safety and services among other categories, and it remains a good indicator of consistent cleanliness.
But in light of recent events, it appears that even Blue Flag status is no guarantee of a sewage-free swim. In fact, beaches such as Sheerness in Kent, Ingoldmells in the Midlands and Brightlingsea in Essex all had sewage spills this year while flying the flag. And anecdotally, on a trip to Margate main sand last week (another blue flag stretch), the stench of sewage was inescapable and a slowly rotting seagull was spread out on the beach. Hardly, a commendable picture.
It is worth noting that beaches can be deprived of the award if they do not meet “one or more criteria, with consequences for the health and safety of beach users or the environment”. In some cases, beaches are given 10 days to correct a problem, but if it is deemed serious, they will be stripped of their award immediately and for the rest of the season.
Still, so far no beaches seem to have been penalized for the recent sewage problems, despite the forced closures. Another limitation of the award is that Blue Flag status is usually only awarded to larger beaches, which offer facilities such as loos and car parks, meaning that smaller stretches of sand, which can be far more pristine and clean, are often overlooked.
Arguably a more useful resource for vacationers looking to avoid polluted water is Surfers Against Sewage, which provides real-time information on sewage discharges at beaches across the country. The Environment Agency’s Swimfo website also provides up-to-date (and historical) data on bathing water quality, with the latest samples taken in the last fortnight or so. Cross-reference this data with blue flag status (for larger beaches) and you have the best chance of a clean swim.
The cleanest beaches to visit this holiday
Below we’ve highlighted 10 beaches across the country that have consistently scored high in terms of cleanliness, currently have good water quality (according to Swimfo) and don’t suffer from sewage problems. Many also have Blue Flag status and have received a Seaside Award for being well managed. We have also revealed some of the beaches that are currently experiencing sewage incidents or are prone to pollution. Note that the situation can change quickly – for better or for worse – so it’s always a good idea to check the latest updates on the day of travel.
Treyarnon Bay, Cornwall
Although not a Blue Flag beach (perhaps due to its limited facilities), Treyarnon Bay near Padstow was rated the cleanest beach in England earlier this summer. A survey by waste management company Business Waste measured E-coli levels in seawater at 425 beaches across the country over the past two years and found the bay had the lowest levels of the faecal indicator. Other Cornish beaches that scored well included Praa Sands East, Kennack Sands, Constantine Bay and Church Cove.
Combesgate Beach, Woolacombe, Devon
Another beach that has consistently good water quality is Combesgate, which is 600 meters above Woolacombe and has a number of rock pools to explore. It has maintained very low levels of harmful bacteria throughout the summer according to Swimfo, which has rated its water safety as excellent since 2017.
Shell Bay North, Dorset
Dorset has a number of clean beaches to choose from, not least Shell Bay at the mouth of Poole Harbour, whose water quality ratings from Swimfo make for particularly enjoyable reading. For a glitzy alternative try nearby Sandbanks, often called Britain’s answer to the Hamptons, which has been awarded a Blue Flag for 35 consecutive years.
Whitby Beach, North Yorkshire
The only Blue Flag beach on the Yorkshire coast remains a good option for swimmers, despite its neighbors suffering recent sewage incidents – Runswick Bay was forced to close last weekend. Swimfo class the water quality as excellent and the latest samples (taken within the last two weeks) showed no increase in E. coli.
King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth
The north-east is not flush with excellent bathing spots, with only six blue flag beaches and unstable water quality. However, King Edward’s Bay is flying high, with excellent water quality and littering observed on only 12 per cent of visits. Extra marks are awarded for its fantastic seafood restaurant, Riley’s Fish Shack, which is perfect for a post-swim snack.
It may not be the most glamorous beach resort in the UK, but Blue Flag winner Skegness is among the cleanest, potentially due to the lack of rivers or freshwater inputs. The most recent water quality test (taken eight days ago) shows very low levels of E. coli in the water.
East of England
Cromer Beach, Norfolk
The popular Blue Flag resort of Cromer, famous for its crabs, is a good choice for a bank holiday because of its vast expanse of sand and gravel as well as its jetty and promenade. Water quality has been declared consistently excellent since 2017, with sewage residues observed in only 2 percent of official visits and no oil or tar to speak of.
Botany Bay, Broadstairs, Kent
Of Broadstairs’ seven beaches, Blue Flag Botany Bay is arguably the best choice, with a wide sandy beach backed by limestone cliffs. Adjacent Joss Bay also has a flag and is popular with surfers, but visitors will be asked to avoid the city’s central Viking Bay, which has only received an ‘adequate’ annual rating from Swimfo and has consistently recorded high levels of potentially harmful bacteria .
Aberdour (Silversands), Fife Coast
You don’t have to travel to the Outer Hebrides to find a clean beach in Scotland. Aberdour (also known as Silver Sands) on the Fife Coast is quite a Blue Flag option, which unlike some of its fellow Scottish award winners has kept its water clear throughout the summer. Note that Scotland’s water quality assessments can be found here.
Wales has 53 Blue Flag beaches, 23 of which were also awarded a Seaside Award this year – a UK-based accolade that recognizes clean water and facilities. Saundersfoot in Pembrokeshire lives up to both prices and includes 900 meters of sandy beach and a small harbour. Part of the Carmarthen Bay Special Area of Conservation, it has surprisingly clean water and minimal litter. Note that swimming quality data for Wales can be found here.
The beaches to avoid this holiday due to sewage spills
According to real-time data from Surfers Against Sewage, a number of beaches are currently struggling with sewage problems or are at risk of pollution. In Cornwall, it is reported that storm sewage has been released at Long Rock beach near Penzance in the last 48 hours. It is the same story at Gyllyngvase Beach, a popular resort located at the mouth of the River Fal, and the small sandy beach at Millendreath near Looe suffers from the same problem. These events reveal that while Cornwall boasts some of the country’s cleanest bathing water, there is certainly a mixed picture across the county.
Elsewhere, swimming is not recommended at Weston Main beach in Weston-Super-Mare due to a “poor annual classification” – two sewer overflows discharge directly into the sea here. Southport is reported to be at risk of reduced water quality due to sewage flowing from the River Ribble, while several beaches in Morecambe and Walney Island are also to be avoided due to recent pollution. On the east coast, Scarbrough has seen sewage discharges over the past two days, as has Warkworth Beach near Morpeth.