British seashell guide: how to identify and where to find

Britain’s seashores are littered with the shells of bivalves and gastropods. Enhance your next beach walk with our guide to some of the most common seashell finds in Britain

4th July 2018

Take a closer look next time you're walking along the seashore and you may be surprised about what you find  – a pointy top shell, a colourful periwinkle or a spired whelk.

Each species has specific patterns and markings, and varies in shape and size, offering clues about the animals' evolution and their day-to-day lives.

Auger shell

Auger shell

Tall, spindly cone up to 3cm long. Common anywhere with muddy sediments except for the south-east coast of England.

Baltic tellin 

Baltic sellin

Plump, almost circular shell, 2.5cm in length. Can be pink, yellow, purple and white. Common in estuaries except in the south.

Banded wedge shell

Banded wedge shellWedge-shaped shell up to 4cm long in shiny white, yellow-purple or brown. Common on all coasts.

Blunt gaper

Blunt gapperLarge shell up to 7.5cm long. Colours range from white to dark-brown. Common on sandy, muddy or stony shores.

Common cockle

Common cockle

Fan-shaped shell with radiating ribs up to 5cm across. Widely distributed in estuaries and sandy bays – up to 10,000 per m².

Common limpet

Common limpetFamiliar conical shell in grey or white with radiating ridges up to 6cm high. Found on rocky shores.

Common oyster
Common oyster

Oval or pear-shaped shell up to 11cm across. The two halves of shell are very different – one smooth and flat, the other rough and concave. Widely distributed but less common on east coast.

Common periwinkle

Common periwinkle

Black or grey conical shell up to 5cm in height. Found everywhere, particularly rocky coasts.

Common piddock

Common piddock

Large, brittle shell up to 12cm long with ridges and radiating lines. Dull-white or grey in colour. Largely found on southern shores.

Common Razor clam 

Common razor clam

Unmistakable slender shell up to 25cm long – very common on sandy bays and estuaries. Often washed up in vast numbers after storms.

Common whelk

Common whelk

Yellow-brown spiralling shell up to 10cm high and 6cm wide. Very common. Mobile, the common whelk preys on small bivalves.

Dog whelk

Dog whelk

Spired, up to 6cm long, in cream, yellow or grey. Common on all rocky coasts where it feeds on mussels and barnacles.

Flat periwinkle

Common flat periwinkle

Small, vari-coloured whorled shell up to 1.5cm – from olive-green to brown, red and yellow. Common wherever kelp occurs.

Grey top shell

Grey topshell

Small whorled shell, 1.7cm across. Grey or light-yellow with brown or purple streaks. Common on all coasts.


Common mussel

Purple or blue shell, 5-10cm long when adult. Very common on all coasts on intertidal rocks.

Necklace shell
necklace Shell

A smooth, golden-brown whorled seashell up to 3cm high. Common on sandy shores.

Painted top shell

Painted topshell

Conical violet/pink and brown streaked shell, up to 3cm high. Very common on seaweed-covered rocky shores.

Slipper limpet

Slipper limpet

Oval shell up to 5cm long with a large opening underneath, up to half the length of the body. Mostly found on the coasts of southern Britain.

Thick top shell

Thick topshell

Turban-like spire up to 3cm in height in green, grey or black. Extremely common on the rocky shores of south-west England and Wales. 

Thin tellin 


Thin tellin

Brittle, flattened shell up to 3cm long in shades of pink and yellow. Common on sandy shores.

Variegated scallop
Variegated scallop

Fan-shaped with prominent ridges, up to 6cm in length. Widespread on rockier shores.


Illustrations ©Chris Shields

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