Have you ever ventured down a set of steps onto one of London's beaches?
It feels a little bit naughty, doesn't it? Like you're not really supposed to be there. In truth, there's nothing to stop you enjoying the many little beaches in central London. It can be a joyous experience. But these semi-wild spaces come with a bucket load of caveats... including that you shouldn't bring a bucket.
Here's a full guide to accessing and enjoying the Thames beaches.
Can I access any Thames beach?
Yes... within reason. There are few restrictions preventing basic access to the Thames foreshore. If there's a clear and safe way down, then you may use it.
However, some parts of the foreshore are off-limits. Sometimes this is for safety reasons; sometimes for privacy reasons; sometimes for heritage reasons. One example of the latter is the foreshore in front of the Tower of London. In days gone by, this was a popular urban beach, but it's now off-limits as part of the Tower's World Heritage Site protection. Similarly, Queenhithe Dock in the Square Mile is a scheduled ancient monument and is effectively off-limits.
In general, if you don't see a warning sign, then the foreshore can be visited. This map shows which sections of Thames are accessible and which are forbidden.
Why would I want to go onto a Thames beach?
It's quite simply one of the best free experiences you can get in central London. You'll see the city from a whole new perspective, feel closer to nature, and get away from the traffic and the crowds. You'll also see London's history spread out before you. You'll encounter the remains of old jetties and piers from London's industrial age. The rounded stones of the foreshore are often tide-worn bricks from long-gone buildings. It's not uncommon to see fragments of pottery or clay pipes from centuries past. The foreshore is a magical, historical place that all Londoners should appreciate.
Where are some good beaches?
The best spots tend to be along the South Bank and Bankside. The area known as Ernie's Beach is particularly sandy, and you'll occasionally see sand sculptures on this stretch (although, strictly speaking, this is against the rules; see below). The area immediately in front of Tate Modern is also a popular spot. This stretch is pebbly and lacks sand, but has excellent views of the City and also has some safe, wide steps suitable for family groups.
The north bank is trickier to access, but you'll be rewarded with a richer experience. These beaches get far less footfall, and so are replete with interesting objects. One example can be found immediately east of Millennium Bridge, accessed via a steep ladder.
Can I take my dog? My children?
There is no rule forbidding dogs on the Thames beaches. Indeed, The South Bank even highlights dog walking as a popular thing to do on one of its beaches. Obviously, clear up any poopage. Children are also allowed — just keep a careful eye on them as the central Thames beaches hold various dangers and regulations that you wouldn't find at, say, Southend (see below). I take mine down there all the time — they love it.
Are the Thames beaches dangerous?
Thousands of people enjoy the Thames foreshore every day without incident. But it does hold certain risks. First, steps and stairs leading down to the beaches can be slippery, steep or poorly maintained. Exercise caution, especially with little ones in tow. Once on the beach, watch out for sharp objects and other hazards. This was once an industrial river, and still sees a fair bit of shipping, so twisted metal, rusty nails and other nasties are not unknown.
Perhaps the most dangerous hazard is the river itself. The Thames varies in height by up to seven metres between high and low tide. Be sure to keep a constant eye on the water level — you can get cut off from the steps if you wander too far. Never enter the water. It can be polluted, fast-moving and conceal dangerous patches of mud. Finally, there's the risk of Weil's disease, which is transmitted when rat urine comes into contact with open wounds.
Who owns the Thames foreshore?
Ultimately, the foreshore belongs to the birds, insects, crustaceans and marine life who inhabit it. But for human purposes, most of the littoral zone is owned by the Port of London Authority or the Crown Estate. A few sections have other private owners.
Can I mudlark on the Thames foreshore?
Not really. The practice of mudlarking — searching the foreshore for unusual objects — is tightly regulated. Only those who have a valid Foreshore Permit may scrape, dig or metal-detect on the shore, and only in certain places. The Port of London Authority (PLA) and Crown Estates jointly issue the permits, but put a hold on granting new permits in 2022 after a deluge of applications. So if you don't already hold a permit, you ain't getting one any time soon.
This PLA page gives the full set of dos and don'ts for foreshore visitors.
But it's still OK to look, right?
Well... that is the question. The PLA's official wording says: "You may not search the tidal Thames foreshore from Teddington to the Thames Barrier - in any way for any reason." (Their italics.) The PLA is quite rightly trying to protect the foreshore's rich historical environment from the random attentions of souvenir seekers. But the wording is frustratingly vague.
What does "You may not search" actually mean? It seems to imply that a person casually scanning the foreshore for interesting stones or bits of clay pipe would be breaking the rules, even if they don't touch the items. Technically, this photograph is forbidden as I had to search the foreshore to take it:
What if you accidentally drop and lose a piece of litter while on the foreshore? Searching is forbidden, but so is littering. You're in a legal black hole where both action and inaction are forbidden.
In practice, it's unlikely anyone will slap your wrist if you're just mooching around, so long as you don't take anything away with you. Picking things up is more of a grey area. The wording doesn't seem to forbid it, but this could be viewed as "disturbing" the foreshore. Best avoid.
Could you be fined?
The PLA's guidance has the weight of a bylaw so, in theory, you could be prosecuted and fined for breaching the rules. In practice, minor transgressions would probably be dealt with verbally. For some reason, the PLA do not put up notices pointing out the bylaws around the key beach sites, so it seems a bit unfair to expect the public to fully appreciate the rules.
Can I build a sandcastle?
The rules apply to the whole foreshore, including the temptingly sandy bits like Ernie's Beach, so you'd be risking an admonishment. That said, sandcastles and sand sculptures are a common sight along this stretch, so it's clearly not rigorously enforced.
Can I draw Boris Johnson in the sand and then watch in delight as the encroaching tide erodes his big foolish face?
Again, not according to the regulations. But you probably won't find too many objectors, in this case.
How about a group gathering or party?
This guerrilla plaque recently appeared on the South Bank. It asserts that the beaches are free to for ever, as decreed by George V. "You can organise a party here," says Reclaim the Beach. It's a lovely sentiment, but one with which the PLA would beg to differ. "Anyone wishing to organise a group activity such as a walk or guided tour which does not involve any disturbance of the Thames foreshore must first apply for written permission from the Port of London Authority’s Estates Department," says their site, not even countenancing the idea of a party.
But sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty. Numerous parties have taken place over the years, all organised sub rosa. The most recent, an expression of communal joy during the Covid years, is even marked by its own guerrilla plaque at Bankside.
I can't get a mudlarking licence. I'm totally confused about what "searching" means. And it sounds like partying is frowned upon. So is there some other way to experience the majesty of the foreshore without feeling like a criminal?
Why, yes there is. The Thames Explorer Trust puts on regular foreshore tours, which are family friendly. These allow people without Foreshore Permits to learn about this unique environment, and engage in some sanctioned "searching" for curious objects. The Thames Discovery Programme also puts on occasional walks. We learned a ton about the river during one of their tours a few years ago.
Find out more
To find out more about London's beaches and the joys of mudlarking, there's no better place to start than the books and online commentary of Lara Maiklem. And be sure to read the PLA's guide to visiting the foreshore.
All images by Matt Brown, who visits the foreshore whenever he can.