The perfect beach comes in two versions. One is infinitely long, with translucent green waves rolling towards the shore and a hinterland of yellow dunes to explore. The other is a tiny, cliff-hemmed cove, with brilliant white sand, still, clear water, and at either side rocks to clamber and dive from, enclosing pools stuffed with darting, swaying and brightly coloured sea life.

Both are wild, yet accessible. The air is warm, the sea cool - and if there are others present, they are well-proportioned, well-behaved and well spaced out. When you tire of them, they simply vanish . . .

British beaches are less than perfect. The water is freezing, the weather often useless and the surroundings spoilt by tacky resort towns or ugly caravan sites.

But bad development has spoilt seasides the world over. With one of Europe's longest coastlines these islands have a wealth of superb beaches, many backed by glorious countryside. In the remotest areas they remain uncrowded.

Our coastal sewage pollution is not as bad as Germany's and on a par with France, according to European Union statistics. Last year almost 80 per cent of 457 designated bathing beaches met the EU's minimum standard.

The percentage is steadily increasing. One of the main reasons why water bills have risen faster than inflation in recent years is the need for heavy spending on coastal sewage treatment. We are paying for cleaner beaches, so we might as well enjoy them.

North-west England is the only region where there is a dearth of tolerably clean beaches. Only 40 per cent of them met the minimum standard - which, put simply, requires that in 19 out of 20 samples taken during the summer months, each litre of seawater must contain no more than 20,000 of the coliform bacteria that pack your lower intestines.

Yet within a few years, resorts such as Blackpool should meet the EU standard and become marketable themselves as suitable for swimming.

The search for clean beaches is becoming easier. The Reader's Digest Good Beach Guide (David and Charles, pounds 14.99, hardback) and The Heinz Guide to British Beaches 1994 (Vermilion, pounds 6.99, paperback) were published this spring. Last week the Tidy Britain Group announced the 65 winners of its Premier Seaside Awards and granted 100 second-ranking Seaside Awards. Simultaneously, 17 British resorts were granted the EU's Blue Flag.

The Reader's Digest guide, researched and written by the Marine Conservation Society, is crammed with colour photographs and pieces of Ordnance Survey map. It recommends 71 UK beaches, describes their appearance, facilities, surroundings and safety, and gives brief information on the water quality of about 400 others.

The Heinz guide, by Fred Pearce, offers better value for money. It has no illustrations and only crude maps, but mentions 1,000 beaches in Britain and

Ireland, and recommends 186 - with 52 chosen as particular favourites. It touches on such things as local walks, beers, bird watching, surfing and nudity.

Both guides make courageous attempts to explain the EU's complex bathing-water directive (which is now being revised), and use its parameters and standards to grade beaches into five categories, from 'fail' through to 'super-clean'.

Almost all the beaches on our map not only meet the EU minimum standard but also stricter but non-compulsory guideline standards in the directive. At a dozen, no bacteriological sampling has been done; but they are not close to a sewage outlet and should comfortably achieve the EU standard.

Beach users should not, however, become obsessed with sewage bacteria. A British study into sea bathing and health published earlier this year concluded that swimmers in sewage-polluted waters were indeed more likely to report diarrhoea and gastro-intestinal symptoms than those who swim in pollution-free sea, but this sewage-linked illness was only detectable when the water fell below the directive's minimum, mandatory standard. (The four-year study also showed that swimming in unpolluted seawater brought an increased risk of eye irritations, skin rashes and ear and throat infections.)

There is a case for staying dry at beaches such as Brighton's, which failed to achieve the EU minimum standard last year. But I would not shun a fine beach with the right ambience because it failed to meet the EU's tougher guidelines.

Both guides recommend Winchelsea in East Sussex, which has excellent water quality. Maybe so, but it's an uninteresting shingle beach with an ugly sea wall. I much prefer Camber, three miles east, with its dunes, broad sands and inferior but adequate water quality.

Heinz and Reader's Digest have next to nothing to say about the unmonitored beaches in far-flung parts of Britain, such as the Outer Hebrides and the Isles of Scilly. Here are beaches that really do approach perfection, apart from their weather, water temperature and accessibility. They also lack lifeguards and flags to warn you of undertows and dangerous currents.

Such beaches could not qualify for the Tidy Britain Seaside Awards. Successful applicants have to be regularly cleaned, have safety and first-aid provision and access and facilities for disabled visitors.

In all, there are 28 on-shore criteria for resort beaches and eight for the more rural strands away from towns. Dogs are banned between May and September, and water quality must meet the EU standard.

The Premier Awards are given to beaches which also meet other EU guidelines for freedom from sewage (involving total coliforms, faecal coliforms and faecal streptococci). The same applies for the 17 resorts that successfully applied to fly the European Blue Flag.

Councils that apply for these Seaside Awards have their beaches inspected at least twice during the summer before a decision is made. This year nine out of 174 applicants were refused on grounds such as having sub-standard toilets, littered car-parks or beaches bearing glass and 'sewage related' material.

And what about the weather? Heinz is helpful here. It lists the 10 sunniest, 10 warmest and 10 driest stretches of coastline as recorded by the Meteorological Office. Alas, not one beach is on all three lists.

Together, these guides recommend hundreds of beaches on the British coastline. Which are the very best? That is a matter of taste.

Studland Bay, Dorset, is the favourite of Fred Pearce, author of the Heinz guide. Tens of thousands agree, so don't expect solitude. Owned by the National Trust, it is a three-mile arc of white sand, backed by dunes and wetlands which are a nature reserve. The sand slopes gently beneath the water and the waves are usually tame because the beach faces east. The sea is very clean and there are splendid views along the coast: on most days you can see The Needles on the Isle of Wight.

Kate Loretto, editor of the Reader's Digest guide, picks Gullane in East Lothian, a sandy bay one-and-a-half miles long with dunes and Muirfield golf course behind. There are black lava rocks at either end and to the east is a series of tiny bays that can be reached only on foot.

My own recommendation is Kynance Cove in Cornwall - but consult a timetable because its sands disappear entirely at high water. Cliffs surround the cove and rock

islands can be reached across causeways of sand. The jagged coastline, topped by heather moorland, is owned by the National Trust, which has made great improvements to car-parking and to healing clifftop erosion caused by visitors.

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