I love the sea. I love rivers. The point where the two come together, an estuary, makes me inexplicably excited. Between the ebb and flow of the tides, estuaries hold secrets – some a bit murky but all the more fascinating – and some of Britain’s most powerful history.
The Wash, the vast stretch of bucket-shaped water between Lincolnshire and Norfolk, is Britain’s largest estuary and is terrifyingly powerful. Tides can come in at terrifying speed and the beaches can be eerily bleak, but it’s also wonderfully rich in nature, as its salt marshes provide wading birds a home and breeding ground for seals in winter.
Legend has it that Bad King John and his army tried to cross the Wash in 1216 when their wagons, including one with an invaluable treasure chest, sank in the Wadden Sea. It was never found.
Defending the Empire: Kingswear Castle at the top of the Dart Estuary looked out for enemy ships in the 16th century
But not all estuaries are created equal. Visit the West Country and its estuaries are some of the greenest and gentlest in Britain.
The camel between Padstow and Rock in Cornwall combines coastal paths and laid-back sailing charm, but above all beautiful beaches like Tregirls on the west side.
Smugglers loved estuaries as much as I did, though the attraction was more nefarious to them – they used them to drive inland with barrels of rum, brandy, tea, and tobacco in the middle of the night. The best known is Frenchman’s Creek. The creek is part of the Helford River in Cornwall and still has the same magic that Daphne du Maurier brought about in the novel that bears his name.
The ferry between Teignmouth and Shaldon on the River Teign dates back to the 13th century and is believed to be the oldest in Great Britain
The Landmark Trust has a four-person cottage here that is only accessible on foot or by boat. Four night stays start at £ 304 (landmarktrust.org.uk).
Crime writers have found a rich source of inspiration in these magical corners of the not quite coastal coast. Agatha Christie’s former home, Greenway, is inland from Dartmouth on its own little peninsula on the River Dart. Now part of the National Trust, there is a cottage on the premises for up to eight people. Three nights from £ 806 (nationaltrust.org.uk/holidays/greenway-apartment-devon).
Also in Devon, the Exe Estuary extends from Exeter to the open sea at Dawlish Warren. A breathtaking walk of about six miles, there is foreshore, lowland, salt marshes, mud flats and a rare and unusual double spit at low tide over the mouth of the estuary.
At the Exe, Lympstone Manor wins the noblest award for estuary experiences as the winery is currently harvesting its first vintage from its vineyards. B&B from £ 416 a night (lympstonemanor.co.uk).
A stay at the nearby Kingswear Castle will likely win out of pure romance. Built in 1502 and owned by the Landmark Trust and built in 1502 to prevent enemy ships from entering, this two bedroom krenulation overlooks the Dart Estuary as you walk up steps to the rocks and sea. Three nights cost from £ 1,355.
Nowadays smugglers’ boats have been replaced by tiny, often very idiosyncratic ferries that bring locals and visitors from one side of an estuary to the other. They’re a blessing for coastal walkers, but also a reminder of the past.
Between the ebb and flow of the tides, estuaries hold secrets – some a bit murky but all the more fascinating – and some of Britain’s most powerful history.
The one between Teignmouth and Shaldon on the River Teign in Devon dates back to the 13th century and is believed to be the oldest in Britain (teignmouthshaldonferry.co.uk). In Suffolk, the Ferry between Walberswick and Southwold (walberswickferry.com) across the River Blyth has been operated by the Church family for five generations – and is still a rowboat.
In East Anglia, estuaries feel more capricious and swampy, but are just as great. Many contain nature reserves, including the RSPB Stour Estuary in Essex and the Trimley Marshes in Suffolk, which are home to wintering wigeons and waders. In Norfolk, when you book the Blakeney Hotel on the quayside, you get panoramic views from the harbor to the marshland and beaches. B&B costs from £ 131 per night (blakeney-hotel.co.uk).
A Dickensian experience, but with added design, is available at Elmley Reserve on Kent’s Isle of Sheppey, where the Thames extends into the canal. An hour from London, it is both an off-grid family farm and a nature reserve surrounded by salt marshes that are home to lapwing, barn owls, hares and harriers. Here you can retreat to the beautifully restored Elmley Cottage or the Kingshill Farmhouse. B&B costs from £ 180 per night (elmleynaturereserve.co.uk).
The ferryman’s hut is now where the ferryman used to watch over Elmley Crossing. Take binoculars to spot rabbits, owls, and bats fluttering at dusk. It costs from £ 115 a night and sleeps two adults with space for two children.
Frenchman’s Creek Cottage in Cornwall is owned by The Landmark Trust and can only be reached on foot or by boat
With lochs stretching to the sea, Scotland is spoiled for choice, and on the west coast near Mallaig, the Silver Sands of Morar are a stunning array of white beaches on the banks of the River Moidart when they take in the sounds of Arisaig flow out. The white sand is used in the filming of Local Hero and belongs in the Caribbean, although temperatures may not. The three star Morar has five star views. Double rooms only for rooms from £ 72 per night (morarhotel.co.uk).
In Wales, the Bala estuary impresses with its beauty and vastness.
It begins in Snowdonia as the River Dee and sways through Wales and England before expanding into the Towy Estuary with golden sandy beaches. The Llansteffan mansion offers a wonderful view. B&B costs from £ 178 a night (mansionhousellansteffan.co.uk). From the beach, the river winds around a corner on one side and under a ruined castle high on a hill on the other – the perfect estuary experience.