7 beautiful beaches among the most polluted in England

Amidst some of the most beautiful stretches of England's coastline, an urgent issue hides beneath the surface.

With the growing concern of pollution come communities and organisations rallying to address the problem. We took a closer look at 7 of the most polluted beaches in the UK and asked some of the locals to hear what is being done to turn the tide on the pollution on their shores.


Bognor Regis, West Sussex

Data has shown pollution levels to be extremely high at this popular sandy beach, higher than almost every other place in the country. Nearby Aldwick bathing site was rated  ‘poor’ by the Environment Agency in last year’s census after inspectors found high levels of E. Coli and in the water.

We spoke to Sussex Seabed Restoration and asked about the effect of pollution and the work they are doing to help restore the seabed along the Sussex coast. 

“Years and decades of pollution have blocked out sunlight and nothing can grow. We’ve monitored the change in fish behaviour and witnessed the baseline decline from human impact in the area. We plant kelp in the area which can tell us more about the state of the water quality because kelp and coral both need a clean substrate. We clean the pollution from the rocks and we hope natural kelp recovery will match the healthiest seabeds in Sussex.”


Watcombe, Devon

Even isolated beaches can’t escape the consequences of inaction on sewage pollution. Watcombe is a sandy beach located in Babbacombe Bay on the south coast of Devon. 700m wide and backed by cliffs, it is a secluded spot that is very appealing for a swim. Even though there are no sewer overflows at Watcombe, a stream flowing across the beach and other discharges from the surrounding area lead to poor bathing water quality.


St Mary’s Bay, Kent

St Mary’s bay in Kent often tops the list of the most polluted beach in England. At the start of 2023, there were concerns the beach may have to shut for the whole year, due to high levels of faecal matter.

Communities around polluted beaches are coming together to call for action on sewage pollution. Grassroots campaign groups in these areas often start with people who have a daily connection with the sea.

We spoke to SOS Whitstable, a group of swimmers that came together to take action on poor water quality in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex. 

“In 2021, Southern Water was fined £90 million by the Environmental Agency after pleading guilty to thousands of illegal sewage discharges. As open water swimmers we were horrified that a monopolised company could do this.

We formed SOS Whitstable after becoming disillusioned at Southern Waters woefully inadequate response on curbing sewage discharges into the sea.”


Ilfracombe, Devon

Ilfracombe is a place very familiar with sewage pollution alerts. There is a sewage overflow that discharges to the sea 280m from bathing water affecting bathing water quality. The North Devon coastline is one of the most rugged and beautiful coastlines in the country, yet it often ranks in the top 10 for most polluted.


Wolvercote Mill Stream, Oxfordshire

Photograph: AstacopsisGouldi / Wikimedia Commons

This popular swimming site's bathing water quality has been rated as “poor” and swimming is not advised here despite being  given designated bathing water status in April 2022. It was only the second site to be granted the status.

Bathing water status designations aim to improve water quality, yet a survey undertaken in the following months showed bacteria at higher levels than is safe for swimming. If ranked "poor" for five consecutive years it could lose its special status.


Scarborough South Bay, Yorkshire

Fifty million pounds of improvements made in 2013 have shown little impact on the bathing water quality at south bay in Scarborough.

We spoke to local surfer and campaigner John Phillips to ask about his experiences with pollution on the Yorkshire coast. 

“I've grown up around the Yorkshire coast and surfed here since the mid 90s, but I can't remember ever getting ill from being in the sea until the past couple of years. It's even more of a worry now my kids are coming out with me. We shouldn't have to check sewage alerts before going to the beach.”

In our community, we share any alerts on local social media groups. Hopefully more public awareness will put extra pressure on the water companies to clean things up.” 


Tynemouth Cullercoats, Tyneside

Cullercoats is a picturesque sandy bay enclosed by small piers with blue waters that are very appealing for a swim. Yet this beach has suffered pollution that four years of investigations have put down poorly maintained sewage infrastructure and it ranks among the most polluted beaches in the north east.

Actions you can take

Download the Safer Seas & Rivers app by Surfers Against Sewage, that shows real-time sewage events. Putting pollution in sight and in mind keeps people safe and hold water companies to account.

Explore the Clean Seas collection, a printwear collection that rallies around the message of ending ocean waste, designed in collaboration with the Marine Conservation Society. Proceeds of each sale go to MCS to support the work they do in calling for action on sewage pollution.

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