Britain's prettiest fishing villages

As the summer crowds depart, escape to the coast for an idyllic off-season break by the sea. Here is our expert guide to the best fishing villages to visit in Britain

2nd October 2017
Porthgain Harbour

The crowds have returned to work and school; the sea, warmed by months of summer heat, is at its most inviting; and the lowering sun casts everything in gold.

With restaurants, boats and hotels still on full steam, early autumn is a perfect time to visit Britain’s historic fishing villages. Living museums, these picturesque ports retain the unique spirit of our coast, and their narrow lanes, tiny harbours and cosy atmosphere are best enjoyed at a more peaceful pace in these quieter months. We’ve rounded up 10 of the best – but where are your favourites? Send your picks to editor@countryfile.com

1. Porthgain, Pembrokeshire (above)

Enviably positioned on the stunning Pembrokeshire Coast, just north of St David’s, Porthgain is an unusual little port set among dramatic scenery. Originally a fishing village, the seafront green is surrounded by lobster pots and crog loft cottages once used by the fishermen. But in the early 19th century, mining transformed the village, as first slate, then bricks and building stones were exported far and wide. Huge hoppers now tower above the over-sized harbour and, on top of the cliff, you can explore the old quarries and discover the famous ‘Blue Lagoon’, a gorgeous aquamarine sea pool loved by wild swimmers and cliff jumpers. Everyone should visit the Sloop Inn, decked with maritime memorabilia, but gourmets should head to The Shed Bistro for award-winning fresh fish and cream teas. Fishing boats offer day trips and Traeth Llyfn beach is one of the best in Wales. theshedporthgain.co.uk

2. Clovelly, North Devon

Clovelly Harbour
Clovelly Harbour ©Getty

Exquisite Clovelly is as ancient as it is quaint. It was first noted in the Domesday book as belonging
to William the Conqueror’s wife, before three great Devon families ruled this sea estate for the next 800 years. Fishing boats were built using trees from the steep forest around and trade was established with Wales, across the Bristol channel. Outgoing boats were stocked with herring and returned laden with Welsh limestone, which was burnt in kilns with ‘culm’ to produce a lime used to fertilise, or ‘sweeten’, the acidic Devon soil. Herring made Clovelly wealthy, but as with so many British coastal fishing ports, their decline brought poverty to the whole coast. Today the village prospers again: there is freshly caught bass and crab at the Red Lion Hotel bar and its bustling harbour is filled with visitors fishing from the quay or wandering its steep, car-less cobbled streets, enjoying its stories and galleries. clovelly.co.uk

3. Crail, Fife

Crail Harbour
Crab and lobster nets on the harbour wall in Crail ©Getty

The history of Crail hails back to medieval times when its market place was the largest in Europe. Tiny cobbled streets called ‘wynds’ snake down to the 16th-century harbour and its long mercantile history is seen in its Dutch-inspired architecture: stepped roof lines and belfries. In 1862, the famous lighthouse-builder Robert Stevenson oversaw the building of the west pier, securing its future as an important fishing port. Today creel boats and seasonal fishing boats still seek shelter within its walls. You can sample Crail crab, lobster and langoustines – cooked right in front of you – from The Lobster Hut, right on the harbour. Six miles off the coast are the puffin and guillemot colonies on the Isle of May (boats leave from nearby Anstruther), and September is the time to look out for the skeins of pink-footed geese arriving to over-winter. aboutcrail.co.uk

4. Brancaster Staithe, Norfolk

Transactor Staithe Harbour
Brancaster Staithe is a popular port with small sailing boats ©Alamy

The old Roman port of Brancaster Staithe on Norfolk’s northern coast bustles with tiny clinker sailing boats docking and unloading at the wooden quays and packing sheds. The boats follow the network of tidal creeks out to the North Sea via the nature reserve of Scolt Head Island, to fish among some of the finest saltmarsh in England. Until October you can sample fresh crab, lobster, home-smoked eel or salmon at The Crab Hut on the harbour. Now is also the time to enjoy the first native oysters of the season – an Act of Parliament states these cannot be eaten from May to August. The White Horse Inn serves Brancaster Staithe oysters with fine Norfolk wine. Head west along the coast path to reach Brancaster beach, with miles of golden sands, and Titchwell Marsh nature reserves, with outstanding birdwatching. burnhamdeepdale.co.uk

5. Beer South, Devon

Beer beach
Fossils can be seen in the cliffs at Beer on the Jurassic Coast ©Alamy

Devon’s Jurassic Coast was named England’s first World Heritage Site due to its natural beauty and rich geology and the little seaside fishing village of Beer is an ideal place to enjoy both. Its shingle beach is backed by stunning sheer chalk cliffs rich in fossils and flint that was prized in the Stone Age. Today this barrier provides a sun trap, warming the pebbles and clear water that laps its shelving shore. Colourful fishing boats decorate the beach and offer visitors a day’s deep-sea adventure fishing for mackerel. The more sedate can rent striped deckchairs by the hour and gaze at fisherman bringing up their haul. For the best food and inspiring views, hike up to Beer Head to enjoy a sunset dinner at the Beer Head Bistro. Or walk 45 minutes west along the coast path to Branscombe beach for a crab sandwich at its lovely Sea Shanty Beach Café. beer-devon.co.uk

6. Craster, Northumberland

Craster
Kippers, a historically important part of the town's economy, can be sampled in the town's eateries ©Alamy

Kippers and castles are the two main draws to Northumberland’s thriving coastal culture, and neither disappoint. Craster, along with Seahouses further up the coast, were once the most important places for kippers in England, smoking more than 25,000 herrings a day. They were gutted by Scottish fishwives who lived in ‘kip houses’ where they also slept (hence the saying ‘having a kip’). Today, Craster kippers are still cured in the original smokehouses, such as Robson’s Smokehouse, which has a restaurant on the harbour. You can also enjoy these pungent delicacies, hot and buttered in a bun, from Andy Grant’s caravan or at the Jolly Fisherman. After a hearty meal, walk north along the grassy headland to the foreboding remains of Dunstanburgh Castle. Until October, fishing trips leave from the harbour on the hunt for cod and ling. kipper.co.uk

7. Plockton, Ross and Cromarty

Plockton
Plockton was originally built to take advantage of rich herring stocks in the area ©Getty

Warmed by the gulf stream, picturesque Plockton combines huge mountain views and seascapes with Gaelic village life. White-washed cottages and palm trees line the shore, illuminated by a unique light so beloved by artists and photographers around the world. If you think this village is almost too perfect to be natural, you are right: Plockton was a planned fishing village, conceived by the local laird at the end of the 18th century in an attempt capitalise on rich herring stocks. Prawns have now replaced the herring and you can sample them at their freshest, straight from the pier, on weekday afternoons, or cured in the smokehouse at the Plockton Inn. Take a one-hour trip out on Sula Mhor, Calum Mackenzie’s boat, to see the seals, or simply wander around Loch Carron’s shore – if you are lucky you will see otters or the rare pine martins that thrive here. plocktoninn.co.uk

8. Mousehole, Cornwall

Mousehole
Mousehole is no longer a major port ©Alamy

It’s hard to imagine this idyllic little fishing port (pronounced mow-zol) being a principle port of the area, but it is for this reason that the Spaniards destroyed it in 1596. Resurrected, it became one of the last strongholds of Cornish language in the 17th century and many unusual traditions live on here – such as eating pilchard and egg ‘stargazy pie’ in December. Today its sandy harbour, warren of little cobbled streets and views of St Michael’s Bay make it perfect for visitors, but it is neighbouring Newlyn that has grown to become one of the largest and most important fishing ports in the UK, with a strong artist community as well. Rise early and you can visit its morning fish market, purchase the freshest catch of the day and then head back to The Old Coastguard Hotel for a long fish lunch in their palm garden overlooking the sea. oldcoastguardhotel.co.uk

9. West Mersea, Essex

West Mersea
West Mersea is famous for its oysters ©Alamy

Washed by the clean river waters of the Colne to the east and the Blackwater to the west, Mersea Island has always provided ideal conditions for shellfish, particularly oysters. Famed since Roman times, the island’s pearly bivalves are as highly regarded today and there’s nothing better than enjoying them at the popular Company Shed – just bring your own cold white wine, maybe from Mersea Island’s own vineyard, and fresh crusty white bread. The waterside sheds are home to several other great places to buy oysters and seafood, as well as a few cafés, galleries and fishing boats. Children love crabbing from the pontoon and the sandy and shell beach is lined with multicoloured beach huts. Mersea Island is famous for its wading birds – take a trip on the Lady Grace to fish and appreciate the island from the sea. essexboattrips.co.uk

10. Portloe, Cornwall

Portloe
Porthole used to be a hotspot for smuggling ©David Carvey

As charming on stormy nights as on still summer days, Portloe is the perfect natural harbour, nestled in one of the Roseland Peninsula’s steep valleys, sheltered from the sea behind a rocky promontory. An important pilchard port in the 17th and 18th century, this isolated cove became a smugglers paradise due to its remote, rugged location. Walk the steep streets today to imagine the secret places where barrels of French brandy and contraband might have been stashed. Rich with history and myth, the Lugger Inn is one such place. It has been transformed into a first-class restaurant with rooms and sits unassumingly on the harbour front. From its window, watch lobsters and crabs being landed from the working boats and follow their short journey up the jetty right to your plate. Alternatively, try a crab sandwich at the lively Ship Inn. theluggerhotel.co.uk

Main image ©Alamy

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