For three years in a row, Bamburgh has been named the UK’s best seaside town in an annual ranking by Which? – with the Northumberland village scoring an impressive 88 per cent in this year’s survey.
The Lincolnshire beach resort of Skegness, meanwhile, has floundered at the bottom of the table for the past four years running, this year tying for last place with Clacton-on-Sea with a dismal score of 48 per cent.
But what is the difference between the best and the worst? And is the worst really that bad? I’m holidaying in both Bamburgh and Skegness, along with a friend, to find out.
In the former, there are ‘magical’ views and a ‘knockout’ beach, but some surprisingly high prices. While in the latter, there are shots of Jagermeister in the morning, littered cigarette butts – but an impressive bounty of amusements. Read on for more…
For three years in a row, Bamburgh has been named the UK’s best seaside town in an annual ranking by Which? – while Skegness (above) has ranked bottom for four years running
Ailbhe MacMahon holidays in both Skegness and Bamburgh to find out what the difference is between the best and the worst seaside resorts – and whether the worst is really that bad. She’s pictured above on Skegness’s Blue Flag beach
BEACHES AND SEAFRONT
Skegness’ Blue Flag beach is huge, sandy and a clear hit with families, who have heaps of room to spread out and throw down their picnics, buckets and spades. We see a pair of detectorists scouring the sand, a paraglider floating overhead and children bodyboarding in the sea. Some empty cups and crushed McDonald’s packaging are littered here and there on the sand on Saturday afternoon, but by Sunday morning it’s cleaned up and the beach is spotless.
The pier itself – which dates back to 1881 – is pretty, festooned with fairy lights and with old-timey writing spelling out ‘Skegness’. And it’s about to get an ambitious makeover. A noticeboard unveils plans to turn it into ‘an exciting and educational visitor attraction’ with ‘stylish glass dome shelters’ and pockets of greenery.
FOOD AND DRINK
Ailbhe has an ‘excellent’ Italian dinner at Tarantino Restaurant in Skegness. It’s pictured above at the end of the night
A handful of stalls, such as Charlie’s Shellfish and Coffee Bar, sell fresh shellfish. Dressed crab and tubs of mussels are priced at just a few quid
Around the seafront there’s stall upon stall selling doughnuts, ice creams and booze-infused slushies, while the smell of fish and chips wafts from the cafes. On first impressions, everything seems sugar-coated or deep-fried, but a handful of stalls sell fresh shellfish too – dressed crab and tubs of mussels for just a few quid.
And a star turn comes in the form of Tarantino Restaurant, the town’s Italian eatery. It’s packed on Saturday evening, but we manage to get a table and have an excellent dinner – truffle arancini (£5.90) and calamari (£8.90) to share, with tricolore salad (£7.90) for mains and a lovely bottle of Sicilian Miral Nero d’Avola (£22.50).
Ailbhe spends £99 on a ‘clean and comfortable’ room at the Savoy hotel near the seafront
Our berths are at the Savoy hotel on North Parade, a handy spot a few minutes from the seafront. It costs £99 to book through Booking.com.
The welcoming staff let us check in early and while the room itself has no frills, it’s clean and comfortable.
TOURIST ATTRACTIONS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Ailbhe says that Skegness is ‘chock-a-block with attractions’. Image three shows the ‘Upside Down House’ amusement
A map in the centre of town is supposed to outline the town’s highlights, but it’s been partially torn away – although a sign in its place assures that a ‘new map is coming soon’.
It doesn’t matter, as it’s easy to see that Skegness – or Skeg Vegas as it’s nicknamed – is chock-a-block with attractions, starting with the endless arcades and bingo halls. There’s an ‘Upside Down House’, several mini golf courses, pedalos for hire and the Altitude44 climbing course, which bills itself as ‘the UK’s tallest urban ropes course’. At the heart of the seafront is the Skegness Pleasure Beach theme park, home to candy-coloured dodgems, a Ferris wheel, a ghost train, and more. It’s a kind of paradise for kids.
Our visit coincides with the annual SO Festival, which sees open-air plays hosted in Tower Gardens and performers taking to the streets.
A handful of historic sites take you back to Skegness’s Victorian heyday, from the neo-Gothic clocktower to the fountain crowned by the town’s ‘Jolly Fisherman’ mascot, who had a starring role in a 1908 advert with the now-iconic slogan ‘Skegness is SO bracing’.
The standard of evening entertainment is more of a grey area. I ask a bartender if she has any tips for where to go on a Saturday night in the town, and she recommends a bar called ‘Busters’. When I ask her if it’s any good, she shrugs and replies that ‘it is what it is, it’s Skeggie’.
Skegness Beach is at its most scenic when you wander south, away from the ruckus of the fairground rides towards the quiet of the Gibraltar Point National Nature Reserve
The town is a peculiar mishmash of Victorian heritage and rainbow-coloured shops selling bucket hats and vapes. It isn’t the prettiest but there’s a kitschy charm to it.
Sitting on the beach, the main view is of the Lincs Offshore Wind Farm 8km (five miles) off the coast. Some may find the wind turbines an eyesore but they’re impressive – signage on the beach informs bathers that they can ‘meet the annual electricity needs of more than 300,000 households’.
The beach is at its most scenic when you wander south, away from the ruckus of the fairground rides towards the quiet of the Gibraltar Point National Nature Reserve, where skylarks, waders and brent geese can be spotted, depending on the season.
If you’re looking for a bargain, there’s a bundle of charity shops and stalls selling trinkets and seaside staples. In one shop, I’m tempted by a feather-trimmed cowboy hat, while another has some strange hyper-realistic dolls on display, which seem to stop passersby in their tracks.
PEACE AND QUIET
‘While it’s busy in the daytime, it’s quieter than expected on a Saturday night, and actually quite peaceful and empty on Sunday morning,’ says Ailbhe
There’s a stag party doing shots of Jagermeister on our train at 9.30 in the morning. When a hen do boards they convince the bride-to-be to do a shot with them. They then announce that everyone should avoid the train toilet because one of their group ‘dropped his guts’ in there. It seems like a bad omen for the rest of the trip.
But when we get to the town, the hen and stag parties trickle off into the bars, and holidaying families and pensioners are the ones that fill the streets. While it’s busy in the daytime, it’s quieter than expected on a Saturday night, and actually quite peaceful and empty on Sunday morning.
VALUE FOR MONEY
Lunch deals on display at Ocean Cafe near the seafront. Kids’ meals, in some restaurants, are priced at as little as £2.30, Ailbhe finds
Ailbhe writes: ‘Skegness is a good shout for a budget beach break’
Skegness is a good shout for a budget beach break. I see uber-cheap pints for £3.50. You could easily get lunch for under a fiver – there are places selling haddock and chips for £4.50 and egg baps for £2.20. For dessert, you could get a 99 ice cream with all the trimmings for around £2.
And the pricing takes into account the variety of holidaymakers who love Skegness. One place advertises a ‘senior citizen special’ – cod or haddock with chips, bread and butter, and a cup of tea for £6.99. Kids’ meals, in some restaurants, are priced at as little as £2.30.
It’s no hassle to get there by train. LNER takes us from London’s King’s Cross station to the town of Grantham, before we change on to one of the relatively frequent East Midlands Railway trains to Skegness. The view from the window seat is picturesque as you near the coast, cutting past a sprawl of green Lincolnshire fields and the chocolate-box Heckington Windmill.
A local tells Ailbhe that ‘lots of people knock [Skegness]’ but that it can be ‘lovely’
The flashy attractions and sugar-loaded snacks at every turn make the place a sensory overload, but that’s part of its charm. It’s not for everyone but it’s a winning recipe for many, with Skegness welcoming 2.3million visitors a year. The holidaymakers I see there seem to be having a blast.
A waitress at a cafe in the town tells me that ‘lots of people knock [Skegness]’ but that it can be ‘lovely’ when it’s quiet. ‘Everyone is really friendly,’ she adds.
There seems to be a problem with littering and parts of the town look a little run down. I see lots of cigarette butts scattered along the streets, for instance. If a little TLC was injected into the town – and visitors took more care to pick up their rubbish – Skegness could be restored to its glory days. Perhaps the restoration of the pier will herald a turning point.
While waiting for a table at Tarantino Restaurant, I get speaking to another first-time visitor in Skegness. I ask her what she thinks of the town, and she describes it as a ‘strange little place’. In her words, it’s ‘bizarre and excellent at the same time’. I second that.
SCORES OUT OF FIVE: Beaches and seafront – 3. Food and drink – 3. Accommodation – 3. Tourist attractions and entertainment – 5. Scenery – 2. Shopping – 3. Peace and quiet – 2. Value for money – 4. Transport – 5. Overall score – 66 per cent.
Northumberland village Bamburgh scored an impressive 88 per cent in this year’s Which? survey
Pictured left is Ailbhe on Bamburgh’s beach. Bamburgh Castle – described by one local as the ‘best sandcastle in England’ – is in the background. The beach gets five stars in this year’s Which? survey
BEACHES AND SEAFRONT
I’m not surprised Bamburgh’s beach gets five stars in the Which? survey – it’s a knockout. There’s no litter. The sand is pale gold and soft underfoot – almost tropical. The water is clear and a shade of blue that you rarely see in the UK. A barista in the village tells me that she believes it’s the area’s water quality that makes Bamburgh (pronounced ‘bam buh ruh’) so popular.
I see clusters of families paddling in the sea and building sandcastles, but the beach is so vast and long that it could never feel crowded.
The cherry on top is the sight of Bamburgh Castle – built atop a mammoth heft of rock – looming over the beach. I chat with one local woman who describes it as the ‘best sandcastle in England’.
FOOD AND DRINK
Ailbhe goes for dinner in The Castle Inn (above two images) as its menu has the cheapest prices for dinner in the village
Above is R Carter and Sons butchers, where you can get ‘three bangers in a bap’ for a bargain £3. Their sausages have been voted the finest in Northumberland, it proudly notes
It’s surprisingly expensive to go for dinner in Bamburgh – most restaurants have main dishes around the £20 to £30 mark. The place to go is Michelin Guide-recommended fish restaurant The Potted Lobster, but it’s fully booked on Saturday night. I end up going for a pub dinner in The Castle Inn as its menu has the cheapest prices, but regret it when my underwhelming veggie burger (£14.95) arrives at the table. It has an inviting beer garden, however.
Lunch options are better. The sign for the ‘Butcher, Baker, Sausage Roll Maker’ marks the entrance to R Carter and Sons butchers, where you can get ‘three bangers in a bap’ for a bargain £3. Their sausages have been voted the finest in Northumberland, it proudly notes. Plus, the business is a piece of Bamburgh’s history – as the sign hanging outside says, ‘it’s been carnivore heaven since 1887’.
Ailbhe stays in the ‘sweet’ Hillcrest House Bed & Breakfast right in the village (above three images), where friendly owner Malcolm and his son go the extra mile for guests
I pay £125 for a night in Hillcrest House Bed & Breakfast right in the village. It’s a sweet little place if somewhat dated.
Friendly owner Malcolm and his son seem to go the extra mile for guests – two cyclists seated near me at breakfast are presented with the kippers they’ve requested, even though they aren’t on the breakfast menu.
TOURIST ATTRACTIONS AND ENTERTAINMENT
‘Bamburgh is a honey pot for history enthusiasts,’ says Ailbhe. Above are actors in Anglo-Saxon dress at Bamburgh Castle
The village’s fascinating St Aidan’s Church (above two images), which dates back to 635AD
Bamburgh is a honey pot for history enthusiasts. The big attraction, naturally, is Bamburgh Castle, which recently doubled as a Nazi stronghold in the new Indiana Jones blockbuster. A day ticket is £15.50 for adults and a family ticket is £41. You get mesmerising views of the sea from the canon-lined ramparts. Kids seem transfixed by the haunting dungeons in the belly of the castle, which are filled with mannequin prisoners.
Free-to-enter, meanwhile, is the fascinating St Aidan’s Church, which dates back to 635AD. A must-see is the eerie church crypt, wherein lies a row of ossuary boxes containing the bones of 7th and 8th-century locals.
The graveyard holds an ornate monument to Grace Darling, a local lighthouse keeper’s daughter who rose to fame when she helped to rescue survivors from an 1838 shipwreck. There’s also a museum dedicated to her, though it’s closed during our visit.
A poster in the village advertises an upcoming sandcastle building contest (the theme is ‘sea creature’) and there’s a playground, a golf course and cricket matches at the pavilion – complete with signs warning to ‘beware of flying cricket balls’. It’s all very endearing, but you’d run out of things to do after a day or two if you didn’t have a car.
‘The sight of the castle soaring over the village is spectacular,’ writes Ailbhe
Ailbhe says that ‘the beach is so vast and long that it could never feel crowded’
This hill beside Bamburgh Castle was once voted ‘one of the UK’s top 10 lunch spots’, a plaque reveals
Bamburgh Castle as the sun goes down. Ailbhe describes the view as ‘magical’
The sight of the castle soaring over the village is spectacular. As for the village itself, it looks like a filming location for Midsomer Murders, with flowers clinging to the walls and couples playing croquet on the pavilion.
When the sun starts to set, we stand atop a hill beside the castle – a perch once voted ‘one of the UK’s top 10 lunch spots’ – and admire the scenery. The view, with the Farne Islands archipelago fading into the horizon, is nothing short of magical. There’s no doubt Bamburgh deserves the full five stars it was awarded for scenery in the Which? ranking.
There’s not much in the way of shopping, but that’s down to the village’s size. The main shop is a teeny deli called The Pantry that sells local produce such as Northumberland cheeses and preserves. For souvenirs, you can pick up prints and postcards in the Bamburgh Castle gift shop.
PEACE AND QUIET
‘It seems the majority of visitors in Bamburgh are daytrippers,’ Ailbhe writes
Bamburgh’s popularity and its tiny size are at odds with one another – it can get jampacked in the daytime. We can’t get a seat at The Copper Kettle Tea Rooms at lunchtime as it’s full up. A whopper queue of families and dog walkers forms on the main street, stemming from the Wyndenwell café – the town’s purveyor of ice creams. But it seems the majority of visitors are daytrippers, as once dusk falls, it’s sleepy and silent.
VALUE FOR MONEY
I’m taken aback by the restaurant prices in the village – even coming from London. Lots of travellers would be priced out of a visit. The cost of accommodation, on the other hand, is standard. Generally, however, it doesn’t compete with Skegness’s cheap and cheerful prices.
LNER takes travellers to Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is a bus ride away from Bamburgh. Pictured above is an LNER Azuma train zipping along the Northumberland coast
We catch an LNER Azuma train from London King’s Cross to Berwick-upon-Tweed, the northernmost town in England, speeding past the isle of Lindisfarne and its 16th-century castle as the train traces the Northumberland coast. From the town, the X81 bus to Alnwick – which runs a few times a day – takes us straight to Bamburgh.
I can see why Bamburgh ranks in first place time and time again. It offers an enchanting cocktail of beautiful scenery and magnificent historic sites. A local woman tells me that travellers typically overlook Northumberland in favour of Devon or Cornwall, but ‘once they’ve come and seen what it’s like, they keep telling their friends and coming back’. The steep restaurant prices are off-putting, however. I’d recommend renting self-catering accommodation or dining in nearby village Seahouses, where prices are more reasonable.
All in all, Skegness and Bamburgh are worlds apart, but they each have a unique appeal – and seem to be luring holidaymakers in their droves.
SCORES OUT OF FIVE: Beaches and seafront – 5. Food and drink – 3. Accommodation – 4. Tourist attractions and entertainment – 5. Scenery – 5. Shopping – 2. Peace and quiet – 4. Value for money – 3. Transport – 5. Overall score – 80 per cent.