Escape route: Weekends by the British seaside

Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside. In their new book, '52 Weekends by the Sea', Brigid Benson and award-winning photographer Craig Easton reveal a year's worth of hand-picked breaks that include dramatic views, quirky cafés and stunning hikes along the length of Britain's coastline. Here's a taste of just five of them
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The Independent Travel

Llandudno, North Wales

On a beautiful evening, the splendour of Llandudno is magical: elegant hotels, dressed in seaside pastels, grace the north shore promenade, a necklace of white lights adds sparkle and exotic palm trees suggest that your weekend away is somewhere much further than the north Wales coast.

Landudno is the dream-come-true of the influential Mostyn family. Using the General Enclosure Act of 1845 (known in Wales as Deddf y Llaadrad Mawr, the Great Theft Act), they turned common land by the sea into a grand resort for the middle class. Gracious buildings and wide boulevards, fit for Victorian horse-drawn carriages and cabs, were laid out on a grid pattern, to create a sense of airy refinement.

Handsome canopies and intricate ironwork are still part of the scene along Mostyn Street, yet the town is not set in aspic. The Oriel Mostyn Gallery, established in 1901 by Lady Augusta Mostyn, was the first in the world to show exclusively the work of women artists; still forging ahead, it has an exciting reputation for bold contemporary art.

Llandudno is on an isthmus that connects the Great Orme with the hinterland. Two impressive beaches sweep around either side of the town. The North Shore appears like a golden stage, between two dramatic headlands, Great Orme's Head and Little Orme's Head. In summer the scene is vibrant: red-and-white deckchairs, traditional Punch and Judy shows, lifeboat displays, donkey rides and community hymn-singing on the sweeping prom.

Opened in 1878, Llandudno's pier is one of the finest in Britain. The cast-ironwork is outstanding; strong columns support the structure, delicate balustrades and fine lattice-work railings embellish it.

Hacked out of the Great Orme's vertical limestone cliffs, Marine Drive is Llandudno's superb corniche. Pedestrians can walk the scenic 2.5-mile circuit free of charge; drivers pay a £2.50 toll. Circling the headland on a bright, clear day brings the Wicklow Mountains, Isle of Anglesey, Puffin Island and Conwy Castle into view. For refreshment, there's plenty to choose from. Try the popular Fish Tram Chips café and takeaway opposite the lower tram station; cross the tracks to the friendly Kings Head pub.

It's said that the Vikings named the Great Orme headland "Horma Heva", meaning "sea monster", and that's just how it looks as it rises out of the deep. Walkers taking the challenging summit path trail, Igam Ogam, zigzagging up from West Shore, or footpaths from Marine Drive, catch their breath at the peak, with panoramic views to Snowdonia, Anglesey, the Isle of Man, Blackpool and the Lake District.

It's hard to resist alternative routes to the top. If you have a head for heights, ride the UK's longest cable-car ride, departing from Happy Valley. Gondolas glide at 80 feet above the ground past villages, farms and the largest known prehistoric copper mine in the world. If you'd rather not dangle, take the tram. The Great Orme's cable-hauled street tramway system is one of just three in the world; experience the others in San Francisco and Lisbon.

Llandudno station is connected to the main North Wales coastal railway line at Llandudno Junction.

Blakeney, Norfolk

Shingle ridges, flinty villages, small ports and big blue skies are just a few reasons to visit the open, windswept landscape of north Norfolk. There's easy walking on the Peddars Way and the North Norfolk Coast Path and when you're weary, you can ride the Coasthopper bus to supper.

In late autumn and winter, wave upon wave of wild geese abandon distant breeding grounds and the Norfolk sky fills with travellers in search of rich coastal habitats. Hundreds of exhausted, wind-blown migrants touch down at Holkham National Nature Reserve, a five-star haven of seablite bushes for shelter, open water, rich muddy shallows, creeks, dunes and salt marshes protected by the pine woods of Holkham Meals. Allow a couple of hours for a lovely walk on the sands from here to rainbow beach huts at the ancient port of Wells-next-the-Sea.

Ride into town on the Wells Harbour Railway, one of two at the port. The steam trains of the Wells & Walsingham Light Railway will whisk you to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, known as England's Nazareth. Visit Big Blue Sky, a cheery emporium of art, books, textiles and great stuff from Norfolk. Dynamic Catherine Edgington has created a fun place to shop. She's passionate about keeping things local; every item shows the distance it's travelled to her inspirational store.

Ferries sail from Morston to Blakeney Point at the end of a long shingle spit where common and grey seals breed. The prospect of walking the length of the 3.5-mile spit appears easy, but intersecting dykes and channels make the boat trip a safer bet. Learn about wildlife at the Point in the former lifeboat station, now a National Trust information centre.

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust visitor centre at Cley Marshes is birding Nirvana: more than 300 species have been recorded. The stylish building makes the most of green technology and huge café windows overlook the marsh. The landscape has changed dramatically since medieval times when the grand church at Cley-next-the-Sea overlooked boats entering the harbour of Blakeney Haven. Now landlocked, St Margaret's is at the edge of a marsh, the harbour is long gone but the village thrives with its pottery, smokehouse, delicatessen, gallery, cafés, pubs and landmark windmill.

Blakeney is accessible from Sheringham, itself on a railway branch line from Norwich, on Coasthopper bus 36.

Kirkcudbright, south-west Scotland

Little has changed since Dorothy L Sayers' 1931 description of Kirkcudbright (pronounced Kir-coo-bree), in Five Red Herrings. Colourful heritage, snug cobbled streets and 18th-century boulevards make the artists' town on the banks of the River Dee a great weekend visit.

Start your visit at the historic Tolbooth Art Centre: an excellent free audiovisual presentation traces the development of the artists' colony led by E A Hornel, leader of the Glasgow School. Explore Hornel's pink limewashed home at Broughton House, administered by the National Trust for Scotland. In the magnificent wood-panelled gallery, considered to be one of the finest rooms in Scotland of its period, the refined bachelor read antiquarian books surrounded by exquisite furniture and art. And visit the picturesque ruins of MacLellan's Castle, built in 1582, and Greyfriars Episcopal Church, which features in the cult 1973 horror movie, The Wicker Man.

Sunday mornings are sleepy in Kirkcudbright, making it a good time to explore the lovely lanes and countryside beyond the town. The road to Little Ross lighthouse is a lovely cycle ride with wonderful views back to the town across the bay. At Dhoon Bay, picnic tables overlook a sandy beach where low water exposes the timbers of the schooner, Monreith, wrecked in 1900.

For speed fiends there's the quirky David Coulthard Museum and Pitstop Diner further afield at Twynholm. And for gardeners like Hornel, who wish to be reminded of their travels, there are three excellent nurseries for souvenirs. Just out of town, Elizabeth MacGregor specialises in violas and cottage garden plants. Cally Gardens at Gatehouse of Fleet offers rare perennials and grasses, and at Buckland Plants in Whinnieliggate you'll find woodland and shade-loving treasures.

Kircudbright is linked by bus to the nearest railway station at Dumfries, which has connections from Carlisle and Glasgow Central.

Newlyn, Cornwall

This fascinating weekend combines a quaint former fishing village with the harsh reality of making a living from the sea along Cornwall's south coast. Newlyn is England's premier fishing port, renowned for the export of salt pilchards since 1555. The tidal observatory on the south pier determines the mean sea level of the whole of the UK. At least 50 species of fish are landed every day. But the fishing industry is in decline and Newlyn's pilchard works closed in 2005.

Marie, from Liverpool, runs the Newlyn Harbour café, a steamy little gem on the Strand. Packed like pilchards, fishermen come here for strong tea, Guinness stew and to catch up with Fishing News, EU quotas and legislation that affects their lives.

Walk into the Fishermen's Arms, the Swordfish Inn, the Dolphin or the Star Inn – complete with a handsome green parrot in the upstairs window – and you'll hear more talk of a sea change in the fishing industry.

The Newlyn Water Trail is a great way to explore the backstreets (buy a guide from the local newsagent). Starting at the Fishermen's Mission, the trail weaves through the village to a string of wells, shoots and pumps where women gathered water in pitchers for domestic use – a scene captured by many artists of the Newlyn School, who painted real people in real surroundings in the 1880s. Follow the Heritage Walk through cobbled "courts" and hillside streets such as La Rue Des Beaux Arts. The Newlyn Art Gallery continues to exhibit the work of contemporary artists.

From Newlyn it's a short bus ride to quaint Mousehole. In high season the village can feel overrun by visitors, but time it right and its charm will be evident. When the weather's kind the harbour is sheltered, but come November it's "baulks down, boats up" as the locals protect themselves from fierce storms.

The harbour entrance is closed with huge timber baulks from Canada. From Mousehole there's a circular walk to Lamorna Cove, which lies at the end of a lush wooded valley two-and-a-half miles away. Head up Raginnis Hill, past the wild bird sanctuary, and follow the signposts.

"Home of the Victorian Internet" boasts Porthcurno, one of the world's most important cable stations. Here a network of underwater cables from America entered England to deliver top-secret wartime messages, which were decoded by teams working in bomb-proof tunnels. The open-air Minack Theatre is also astounding. Theatre and costume designer Rowena Cade created the magnificent amphitheatre, perched on the cliff, digging much of it out of the rockface herself over 50 years.

Plenty of trains run from London, the Midlands, northern England and Scotland to Penzance, from which Newlyn is a three-mile bus or taxi ride.

Stonehaven, north-east Scotland

Abandon the car and spend a weekend in the lovely east coast resort of Stonehaven, on the London-to-Aberdeen railway line. A key attraction is the only heated open-air, salt-water, Olympic-sized, art deco pool in Great Britain. It opened in 1934 with the aim of attracting holidaymakers to the resort. It was a huge success; there were galas, exhibition swimmers, bath-tub races and diving contests for prizes of canned fruit and lemonade.

The success continued until 1994 when the number of swimmers dwindled and the cost of repairs increased. The threat of closure spurred a group of enthusiastic volunteers into action. Thanks to their efforts, the pool has been kept open in partnership with Aberdeenshire Council. The pool's Splash Café is a favourite place for bathers to meet over hot chocolate and chips. Look out for the picture of "pondmaster" Bill Morrison taking swimming lessons in 1953 – fully clothed and wearing waders.

Having worked up an appetite in the art deco pool, dine in art deco style at the Carron Restaurant, opened in 1937 by the Northern Cooperative Society for Stonehaven ladies who lunched. There are two entrances, the grander is on Cameron Street; go under the arch, through the pretty garden, across the original crazy paving and up the Hollywood steps to the sun terrace and dining room.

It's hard to believe this high temple of style fell into ruin before local man Jack Morrison stepped in to restore it in the 1990s. Chef Robert Cleaver now owns the restaurant and regards himself a custodian, with a real responsibility to maintain it. The service is friendly and the food terrific.

Stonehaven's harbour is lovely, with seaside blue benches around the sheltered sandy beach. Look out for whirling model boats tucked away in Threadneedle Street. From the harbour, follow signs for the steep walk uphill to extraordinary Dunnottar Castle, perched on dangerous cliffs above crashing waves. With its lion's den and turbulent history, this dramatic fortress truly has the wow factor.

If you love to swim, take yourself to Stonehaven; if you don't love to swim, take someone who does: they will be eternally grateful.

Stonehaven is served by ScotRail, East Coast and Cross Country Trains

Extracts from 52 Weekends by the Sea by Brigid Benson and Craig Easton, published by Virgin Books on 15 April (£18.99). For more information, see www.52HQ.co.uk. All photography © Craig Easton

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