Kate Simon: Don't gamble on the ash cloud, try a British beach break

They're flying the flag across Britain. The Blue Flag that is, the one awarded to beaches with the cleanest water and sands, and with safe, top-notch facilities.

The annual results of this seashore audit couldn't have come at a better moment, just as everyone's trying to decide if they're going to risk the ash cloud and book flights for summer hols abroad, or stay safe at home and gamble on the British weather.

So how did we all do? Well, the keepers of the figures for Northern Ireland won't reveal the beaches on their coastline that have won this accolade until next month. But the results are out for England, where 71 beaches made the grade – down one on last year, but who's counting. Scotland held steady with seven, the same as in 2009. And Wales added seven beaches to its list of champions this year, with 45 gaining the award.

But the Blue Flag isn't the only criterion that you can apply when deciding on your staycation destination. The award, which is made by a European body, the Foundation for Environmental Education, has inspired a number of home-grown spin-offs.

Keep Britain Tidy – rather a throwback of a name for a body charged only with overseeing England's shores – introduced the Quality Coast Awards in 2007 for beaches that are "well managed but may not reach Blue Flag standards for water quality". In just three years the number of beaches achieving the benchmark has jumped from 77 to 111 – see them at keepbritaintidy.org.

Scotland has its Seaside Awards, judged in two categories, resort and rural. Fifty-six were handed out this year, compared with 60 in 2009, a drop that the organisers, Keep Scotland Beautiful, attribute to local authority budget cuts. You can see the winners on a downloadable map from Tuesday at keepscotlandbeautiful.org.

Keep Wales Tidy also runs a Seaside Award as well as its long-standing Green Coast Award, which recognises beaches that have the highest water quality but will not have the infrastructure necessary for Blue Flag status. A record 50 Green Coast Awards were made this year – go to keepwalestidy.org.

All the organisations put the improving quality of the water around our coast down to ongoing investment by local authorities and water companies. But some of the praise should go to Surfers Against Sewage, a body which turned 20 this month.

The non-profit-making organisation was founded in Cornwall in 1990 by a group of surfers led by Chris Hines. (Find out about his latest work in the feature on Martinhal, pages 69-71.) They kept getting ill after being in the water but their efforts to solve the problem were met with apathy from the river authorities and newly privatised water companies.

Protests spread to other parts of the British coast, and the group became known for turning up with surfboards, wetsuits and gas masks. Real results started to come within a year when health studies were launched in five coastal UK locations.

The successes of the subsequent two decades are too numerous to mention, but SAS has become one of the country's most influential environmental pressure groups. Find out more at sas.org.uk. More power to their surfboards, I say.

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