There is a rhythm to winter by the sea and in Brighton, it begins in November, with the starlings.
According to Countryfile, up to 40,000 birds arrive from as far away as Scandinavia to winter alongside their native cousins on Brighton’s pier. In fives, sevens, eights and by the dozen they come, over the chimney pots and rooftops to the sea, growing the flock before your eyes. In one of nature’s great choreographed shows, the formation swirls and ripples over, under and between the girders of the city’s two piers, marking sunrise and sunset, between November and February.
In cold weather, when our instinct is to hunker down, it can be a battle to connect with the elements. And yet for many of us communing with nature, and fulfilling that biophilic need, is essential in winter. I had no relationship with winter until I moved from a city to live by the sea. I had never seen a winter sunrise. A pilchard was something I ate. Now, thanks to year-round swims, I can’t imagine life without them.
Bobbing about for a minute or two before breakfast feels like the ultimate winter cheat. Sunrise, however fleeting, can reveal itself on the dullest of days. There might be geese, a blizzard of starlings over the West Pier, and on rare occasions, a seal. Our swimmers’ WhatsApp group is filled with “swimrises” murmuration clips, tide times, moon phases and – over to you Southern Water – sewage warnings.
No two days are the same. Instead of the pounding rollers you were expecting there might be frothy, silky “champagne surf”. In winter “swimming” is a misnomer. Rough days are for “pilcharding” – sitting on the pebbles, holding on, and letting the salty water wash over you or, at low tide, jumping up and down in the waves and whooping like a six-year-old.
Living by the sea teaches you to read the sky. Cloud pillows on the horizon, giving the sea an extra dimension. Winter sunrises gild the edges of low cloud and coddle the sky like fire. Up on the cliffs or the Sussex Downs on a chilly December afternoon, an unexpected sunset can change everything.
As the starlings gather so do the storms (come with a hood; not a brolly). At the merest hint of a break in rain or cloud – coast dwellers are out – queuing for ice cream, greeting friends and neighbours, running, walking dogs or wrapped in blankets on the pebbles. On this wintry seaside passeggiata, summer’s bunfight becomes a distant memory. The promenade and beaches are ours, and not a minute is wasted.
If you’ve never seen a murmuration, hop on the train this winter, head down Queen’s Road and position yourself on or by one of Brighton’s two piers, at dusk. It might be the best wildlife show you’ll see this side of the Serengeti.
Five great seaside escapes for winter
Tidal views at a Cornish inn
The sublime setting of the thatched-roofed Pandora Inn on Restronguet Creek draws drinkers and diners year round. But in the winter months its low-beamed ceilings, snug corners and flickering fires come into their own. The menu includes a fabulous fish pie and a first-rate Ploughman’s and a Cornish cream Tea is served from 10am to 5pm. Get there on a short loop walk from Mylor Bridge or take the longer walks from Mylor Yacht Harbour and Flushing.
Where to stay: Chic and comfy rooms featuring petrol blues, timber and sandy beiges set the tone at Falmouth’s St Michael’s Resort (doubles from £113). Keep toasty in the barrel sauna, hot tub and heated indoor pool.
Step out on Kent’s new Coastal Path
This newly opened 25-mile stretch of the King Charles III Coastal Path between Ramsgate and Whitstable offers something for everyone. Wander around Botany Bay’s chalk sea stacks, explore the remains of St Mary’s Church at Reculver, tuck in to fresh seafood at Whitstable’s oyster shacks, ride the carousel on Herne Bay’s historic pier or see some art at Turner Contemporary in Margate. At Broadstairs, Charles Dickens’s holiday home, Bleak House, overlooks Viking Bay. Enjoy the same sea view with a pint at The Charles Dickens.
Where to stay: Margate’s Old Barrel Store offers dog-friendly cottage-style accommodation in what was a former brewery building.
A warming dram along the Scottish coast
Enjoying a milder climate than much of Scotland, the Highland region of Moray Speyside has all the makings of a romantic winter escape filled with bracing coastal walks, dolphin spotting, visits to fishing villages and whisky tasting. More than half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries are found here, including the gold-plated working distilleries of Glenlivet, Glen Moray and Glenfiddich, the UK’s only working cooperage, in Dufferin, and the 18th-century Strathisla Distillery. If the skies are clear head to Lossiemouth East Beach or Bow Fiddle Rock at Portknockie, for the chance to see the northern lights.
Where to stay: Book a sea view room at The Golf View Hotel and Spa (doubles from £120) in Nairn for views of the Moray Firth and Black Isle and access to the Moray Way, the white beaches of Findhorn, Speyside’s Malt Whisky Trail and two 18-hole golf courses.
Seeing stars in Wales
Located at the tip of Wales, the Pembrokeshire Coast is home to eight Dark Skies sites. In summer Broad Haven South Beach is known for its wind dune-backed beach; in winter the towering cliff stacks above are a prime spot for viewing meteor showers, comets, constellations and galaxies including our own Milky Way. The National Trust hosts special dark sky events at the nearby Stackpole Centre. Nearby Stackpole and Bosherston are within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.
Local produce features heavily on menus at the award-winning Stackpole Inn, which also does a good line in local beer from the likes of Purple Moose and Mumbles breweries and whiskey from Penderyn.
Where to stay: Turn the star-gazing trip into something extra special at the Strawberry Gothic-style Penally Abbey (doubles from £190), overlooking the sea near Tenby.
Vitamin sea in Yorkshire
Beachside saunas: it’s a thing. Brighton’s Beach Box Sauna opened its converted horsebox saunas at Banjo Groyne over a decade ago and today you’ll find wood-fires saunas on, or near beaches in Norfolk, Suffolk, Dorset, Aberdeen, the East Neuk of Fyfe, the Isle of Wight, Cork, Kerry and Kent.
Whitby Wellbeing has pop-up tent saunas around Yorkshire’s northeast coast, in Whitby, Scarborough, Hornsea, Cayton Bay, Runswick Bay Saltburn and Seaton Carew. Check out the calendar of festive and full and new moon events.
Where to stay: Scarborough’s dog-friendly Bike & Boot hotel (doubles from £80) is a five-minute stroll from the beach. The hotel has a relaxed restaurant, bike and surfboard storage and a cinema room with showings at 3pm, 6pm and 9pm.