The rhythm of winter is by the sea and in Brighton, it starts in November, with the starlings.
According to Countryfile, up to 40,000 birds come from as far away as Scandinavia to winter alongside their native cousins on Brighton pier. In fives, seventies, eights and a dozen they come, over the chimney pots and roofs to the sea, growing the herd before your eyes. In one of nature’s great choreographed spectacles, the formation screams and vibrates over, under and between the belts on the city’s two piers, celebrating sunrise and sunset, between November and February.
In cold weather, when our instinct is to fight, it can be a battle to bond with the elements. And yet for many of us communing with nature, and fulfilling that biological need, is essential in winter. I had no relationship with winter until I moved from a city to live by the sea. I have never seen a winter sunrise. There was something pilchard that I ate. Now, thanks to swimming all year round, I can’t imagine life without them.
The robbery for a minute or two before breakfast feels like the last mercy of winter. The sunrise, however fleeting, can reveal itself on the darkest of days. There may be geese, blizzards flocking over the West Quay, and often, seals. Our WhatsApp group for swimmers is full of “swimming” murmuring clips, tide times, moon phases and – over there Southern Water – sewage warnings.
No two days are the same. Instead of the pounding rollers you’ve come to expect, you might end up with a frothy, silky “champagne sizzle”. In winter, “swimming” is a no-brainer. Rough days are meant for “holecarling” – sitting on the pebbles, holding on, and letting the salty water slide over them or, at low tide, jumping up and down in the waves and coughing like a child would be six years old.
Living by the sea teaches you to read the sky. Pillows of cloud on the horizon, giving the sea an added dimension. The winter sunrise gilds the edges of the low clouds and sets the sky on fire. Up on the cliffs or the Sussex Downs on a cold December afternoon, an unexpected sunset can change everything.
As the starlings gather so do the storms (bring a hood; not a brolly). At the slightest hint of a break in the rain or the cloud – the inhabitants of the coast are out – queuing for ice cream, greeting friends and neighbours, running, walking dogs or wrapped in plates on the pebbles. On this winter seaside paseggiata, the summer battle is a distant memory. The promenade and the beaches are ours, and not a moment is wasted.
If you’ve never seen a murmuration, jump on the train this winter, head down Queen’s Road and position yourself on or near one of Brighton’s two piers, at the go. It may be the best wildlife show you will see this side of the Serengeti.
Five great seaside escapes for winter
Tide views at a Cornish inn
The thatched Pandora Inn’s sublime location on Restronguet Creek draws drinkers and diners year-round. But during the winter months its low-beamed ceilings, snug corners and flickering fires come into their own. The menu includes a fantastic fish and Ploughman’s pie and a Cornish Cream Tea is served from 10am to 5pm. Get there on a short loop walk from Mylor Bridge or take the longer walks from Mylor Harbor Yachting and Flushing.
Where to stay: Chic and comfy rooms with petrol blues, wood and sandy beiges set the tone at Falmouth St Michael’s Resort (doubles from £113). Keep toasty in the barrel sauna, hot tub and heated indoor pool.
Step out on the new Kent Coastal Path
This newly opened 25 mile stretch of the King Charles III Coastal Path between Ramsgate and Whitstable offers something for everyone. Stroll around the chalk sea cliffs of Botany Bay, explore the remains of St Mary’s Church at Reculver, eat fresh seafood at Whitstable oyster shack, ride the carousel on historic Herne Bay pier or check out some art at Turner Contemporary in Margate. At Broadstairs, Charles Dickens’ holiday home, Bleak House, overlooks Viking Bay. Enjoy the same sea view with a pint at The Charles Dickens.
Where to stay: Margate’s Old Barrel Store offers accommodation for dogs in the form of a cottage in a former brewery building.
Drama heating up along the Scottish coast
Enjoying a milder climate than much of Scotland, the Highland Moray Speyside area is full of romantic winter escapes packed with coastal walks, dolphin watching, fishing village visits and whiskey tasting. More than half of Scotland’s malt whiskey distilleries are found here, including the gold-plated working distilleries Glenlivet, Glen Moray and Glenfiddich, the UK’s only working co-op, in Dufford, and the 18th-century Strathisla Distillery. If the skies are clear head to Lossiemouth East Beach or Bow Fiddle Rock at Portcnucha, for a chance to see the northern lights.
Where to stay: Book a sea view room at The Golf View Hotel and Spa (doubles from £120) in Nairn with views of the Moray Pool and Black Isle and access to the Moray Way, the white beaches of Findhorn, Speyside’s Malt Whiskey Trail and two 18-. hole golf courses.
Stargazing in Wales
Located at the tip of Wales, there are eight Dark Skies sites on the Pembrokeshire Coast. In summer Broad Haven South Beach is famous for its windswept beach; in winter the high cliff stacks above are a great place to see meteor showers, comets, constellations and galaxies including our own Milky Way. The National Trust runs special dark sky events at the nearby Stackpole Centre. Nearby are Stackpole and Bosherston within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.
Local produce features heavily on menus at the Stackpole Inn, which boasts award-winning local beers from the likes of Purple Moose and Mumbles breweries and whiskey from Penderyn.
Where to stay: Take a special trip on the Strawberry Gothic stargazing tour at Pine Abbey (doubles from £190), overlooking the sea near Tenby.
Sea vitamin in Yorkshire
Beachside saunas: it’s a thing. Brighton Beach Box Sauna opened its horsebox saunas converted by Banjo Groyne over ten years ago and today you can find wood fired saunas on or near beaches in Norfolk, Suffolk, Dorset, Aberdeen, East Neuk Fyfe, Isle of Wight . , Cork, Kerry and Kent.
Whitby Wellbeing has pop-up tent saunas around the north east coast of Yorkshire, in Whitby, Scarborough, Hornsea, Cayton Bay, Runswick Bay Saltburn and Seaton Carew. Check out the calendar of Festival and full and new moon events.
Where to stay: Scarborough’s dog-friendly Bike & Boot hotel (doubles from £80) is a five-minute walk from the beach. The hotel has a cozy restaurant, bike and surfboard storage and a cinema room with screenings at 3pm, 6pm and 9pm.