Best art beaches: Sand, sea and a smattering of sculpture

Susie Stubbs
Photo of Maggi Hambling's Scallop sculpture by the sea

In our never-ending quest to find new ways of combining art and the outdoors, we give you Britain’s best art beaches. Drum roll, please….

Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside. Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone? There’s little more beautiful than the sight of a moody sea stretching horizon-ward, its edges only met by a lowering sky. But every so often, there is something more beautiful: when a cleverly commissioned coastal artwork manages to live up to Mother Nature’s majesty. To save you the trouble of looking, we’ve scoured the nation’s coasts and come up this guide to the best art on Britain’s beaches. Crafting your own sandcastle, optional.

Another Place, Crosby

Crosby beach is notable for one thing: the installation in 2005 of Another Place, Antony Gormley’s 100 life-size iron men. They stud the beach, King Canute-like, appearing to stand firm against an incoming tide. They inevitably lose, and are slowly submerged every time the sea sweeps in. Nearby, the beach at Formby has rolling sand dunes, a red squirrel reserve and an expanse of usually quiet beach – combine a visit to the pair if you fancy a day out. Car parking on site at Crosby, National Trust car park at Formby; no cafes or shops at either.

The Great Promenade Show, Blackpool

Lancashire’s finest and one of Britain’s most famous beaches, Blackpool is home to the Great Promenade Show, a 2km-long outdoor exhibition that features work by artists such as Bruce McLean and Peter Blake. Nearby, the Grundy Art Gallery and opulent architectural highlights including the Tower Ballroom, Winter Gardens and Grand Theatre add to the mix, while the beach itself is a seven-mile stretch of golden glory. Easily accessible by train.

Turner Contemporary, Margate

This David Chipperfield-designed gallery is a work of engineering art. Raised up on the promenade, the gallery is so close to the sea that its exterior was designed to withstand the battering-ram force of winter storms. If that makes it sound unforgiving, it kind of is, in an acid-etched glass kind of a way. Yet the Turner Contemporary also stands on the site of a guesthouse frequented by JMW Turner; it offers the chance, via floor to ceiling windows, to take in what Turner called “the loveliest skies in Europe.” Margate’s sandy beach, a developing town and the Shell Grotto (a mysterious, underground cavern decorated with over four million shells), all make Margate more of a draw. Don’t miss Alex Chinneck’s “sliding down house”, which remains in the town only until October. Easily accessible by train.

Scallop, Aldeburgh

The 20th century composer, Benjamin Britten, spent much of his life in the fishing town of Aldeburgh. His work (notably the tragic sea-faring opera, Peter Grimes) took inspiration from the Suffolk sea that laps up against the town, and traces of his legacy can still be found there, from museums and a John Piper-designed memorial window (at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul) to the town’s shingle beach. This is where you’ll find Maggi Hambling’s Scallop, a four metre-high steel sculpture that is pierced by a phrase taken from Peter Grimes (“I hear those voices that will not be drowned”). It is a melancholy and rather elegant reminder of the savagery of both sea and man. Park at Thorpe Road (between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness).

Orford Ness

This twelve mile-long National Trust nature reserve is one of the most delicate shingle beaches in the world, its rare wildlife and habitats preserved – bizarrely – by the fact that for eighty years it was used by the MOD to carry out secret, bomb-shaped experiments. The abandoned military structures have been left to crumble, and today the island provides rich, inspirational pickings for artists. In 2012, the National Trust commissioned Jane and Louise Wilson to create new work in response to the Ness’s strange landscape. The results were as curious as the island itself. Jane and Louise Wilson installed a series of yardsticks in locations across the island; they appeared again, as did Orford itself, in a disturbing exhibition in 2012, one that ruminated on the toxic legacy of Chernobyl. There’s nothing to see on the island now, but its haunting atmosphere makes it worth a visit with or without aesthetic accompaniment. Access limited, and only via the National Trust ferry from Orford Quay. No shops (stock up in the village beforehand).

St Ives

This is another artist’s colony but one of a more benign kind: a former fishing town that became home to some of the giants of 20th century art: Barbara Hepworth, Alfred Wallis, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. Tate St. Ives is midway through a much-needed expansion and the town’s tiny, hilly lanes are tightly packed come summer, yet the Barbara Hepworth Museum – the artist’s former home, garden and studio – is peaceful enough to remind you why art, light and the landscape here are so inextricably linked. Just don’t try and drive through St Ives on a summer’s day and expect to escape with your sanity intact (we speak from experience). Rail services via St Erth Station, or park at Lelant Saltings Station and take the half-hourly train into St. Ives (10 mins).

Sand Sculpture Festival

This festival – somewhat confusingly – runs simultaneously in Brighton and Weston-super-Mare. Expect thousands of tonnes of sand, dozens of “sand artists” and enormous sculptures whose inspiration apparently ranges from The Hunger Games and Beatrix Potter (in Weston) to the Leaning Tower of Pisa (in Brighton). And, yes, while we admit that the humble sandcastle lacks the aesthetic clout of, say, Gormley’s efforts, they collectively hit the spot just that bit better than Damien Hirst’s half-dissected, stripped and pregnant Verity, the 65 foot-high woman who stands in strident pose at Ilfracombe. Give us a sand version of Peter Rabbit over Hirst’s seaside sculpture any day. Both easily accessible by train.

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