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Sunrise at Pegwell Bay

4 unusual tales from Britain's beaches

Image: Sunrise at Pegwell Bay |

From mammoths to vampires, mermaids to Roman invasions, the British shoreline has seen its fair share of action. Whether it’s the piskies and abandoned mine shafts of Cornwall, or Viking hoards descending upon Lindisfarne, almost every beach, cove, and clifftop we holiday on has a tale to tell.

Settle in with your ice cream and explore four UK beaches that had a lot more than glamping going on.

1. Saltwick Bay, Whitby

It’s no surprise Bram Stoker found inspiration for his vampiric musings in Whitby. Shipwrecks, ghosts, mermaids, and the beautiful Whitby Abbey ruins provide the perfect Gothic backdrop.

Established in 625, the abbey was one of the oldest Benedictine monasteries Henry VIII destroyed during his suppression. The king declared that the huge bells should be taken to London for scrap so that they never rang out across the bay again. Understandably the locals were horrified at such sacrilege and tried to prevent them leaving, screaming curse after curse upon the king and the men carrying them to the boat at Tate Hill pier.

On a calm, bright June day the bells left Whitby, but as the boat rounded Black Nab in Saltwick Bay it sank carrying the bells to the ocean floor where they remain. It’s rumoured that the peels of the bells are still carried in on the breeze from the depths of Black Nab.

2. West Bay, Dorset

With taxes on luxury goods such as spices, wine, perfume, tea, and spirits skyrocketing to fund the Napoleonic wars, it’s no wonder smuggling became rife in the UK.

While Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn put Cornwall firmly on the smuggler’s map, huge operations were also afoot in Dorset between 1700-1830. Smugglers began arming themselves in the mid-17th century when smuggling became punishable by death and the Coastguard began policing the British coastline.

Two of Dorset’s most notorious smugglers were Isaac Gulliver, known as ‘The Gentle Smuggler’ due to his reluctance to kill anyone whilst smuggling, and Jack Rattenbury, who relished his nickname ‘Rob Roy of The West’. Gulliver ran a band of around 15 men, known as the White Wigs. He planted a ring of trees at his farm on Eggardon Hill to act as a landmark for incoming smuggling boats. Although revenue men chopped down the trees and Isaac moved on in 1780, the path leading down from the hill is still known as Gulliver’s Lane.

Born in Beer, Devon, Rattenbury had a long career as a fisherman, seaman, and smuggler. He was regarded as an exceptional sailor having first gone to sea at the age of nine, and falling into smuggling at 16. While his exploits took him all over the world he always returned to Dorset. His wife Anne often used his supply of fine brandy to convince local judges of his innocence whenever caught. Though mostly illiterate, Jack dictated his stories to a local clergyman in 1837 and ‘Memoirs of a Smuggler’ is still available today.

3. Pegwell Bay, Kent

Sitting between Ramsgate and Sandwich in Kent, Pegwell is now known as a nature reserve with extensive mudflats and saltmarshes. But as the presence of a full-size replica of a Scandinavian longboat suggests, the bay’s history was less wildfowl, more wild and foul.

Sailing from Denmark in 1949, The Hugin commemorated the 1,500th anniversary of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England. This is believed to be the area where Hengist and Horsa first landed and Hengist’s daughter was betrothed to Vortigern, the King of Kent.

During archaeological digs in 2017, the remains of a large defensive base dated at around 54 BCE was unearthed, suggesting that Pegwell Bay was also the original landing site for Julius Caesar’s invasions. It’s believed that the fort protected around 800 boats, 2,000 horses and approximately 20,000 men. Further excavations have revealed bones complete with authentic battle damage alongside the remains of iron weapons such as the pilum (Roman javelin).

4. Sandwood Bay, Scotland

Finally, we come to Sandwood Bay, described by a 17th century map maker as an ‘extreme wilderness’ through which wolves freely roamed. Once the site of a Pictish settlement, the area’s name is believed to be derived from the Viking name for sand water and those who landed their longboats there would drag them across the sand into Sandwood Loch for safety.

Some of those longboats could still be in the bay as ahead of the building of the aptly named Cape Wrath lighthouse in 1828, Sandwood earned a reputation as a ship graveyard due to the number of wrecks it caused. With the remnants and bodies washing ashore, it’s unsurprising that bands of ghostly sailors have been apparently sighted walking the beach towards the ruined Sandwood Bay Cottage, as well as many reports of a ghostly, bearded sailor banging on doors and looking through windows.

Sandwood Bay also claimed Sergeant Michael Kilburn’s Spitfire, which crash-landed there in September 1941 following engine failure. Fortunately, you won’t catch Kilburn haunting Sandwood as he escaped the crash uninjured. The Spitfire was unrecoverable and slowly claimed by the sea, but the failed Rolls Royce Merlin engine occasionally emerges when the tide allows.