ORIGINALLY, yesterday was not going to involve any walking as I already had plans. But then I got to thinking that my plans mostly involved the evening and, if I got up really early, I could also go for a walk. Which is how I came to be catching a train at the ungodly hour of not quite six in the morning. Even with this early start, the complications of a Saturday service and multiple connections meant that I only arrived at Whitstable at about 8 am. I immediately made my way back to the harbour, which is where I left off last time.
I had definite time limits to which I had to adhere if I wanted to meet my lovely friend ‘A’ for drinks in London at the time agreed but achieving that was almost immediately thrown into theoretical jeopardy by my not allowing for the ten-minute walk from station to harbour. Fortunately, I knew I’d been relatively generous with my allowance for several of the stages so I wasn’t unduly worried.
So, deciding not to stop for breakfast in a handy cafe, I set off along the sea front at a brisk pace.
From Whitstable onwards, the route was largely made up of a concrete or similarly metalled promenade, running alongside a sea wall. This was not perhaps the most exciting of paths but I was quite happy with it—the beaches around Whitstable were composed of shingle held in place by a series of groynes and would have been hard going. I figured that walking along by the sea is usually pleasant and very much more so than walking along a road. Thus, smiling to myself, I headed east.
Far off to my left, about ten miles offshore, lay the tiny dots of the Maunsell fort and an army of huge white Martian war machines masquerading as a wind farm. Apparently, somewhere off to my other side was Whitstable Castle, built in 1789 as an octagonal tower for local businessman Charles Pearson. It wasn’t visible from the promenade however, so I shall just have to believe it exists. I did however pass about a million beach huts and the Tankerton Slopes, one of the few places where hog’s fennel grows and home to its largest population in Britain.
By the time I reached Swalecliff, a couple of miles down the road, I’d made up lost time and, pausing only to down a soft drink, I charged along the coast towards Herne Bay, which soon came into sight.
Herne Bay takes its name from Herne, a village about two miles inland, whose own name derives from Old English hyrne, meaning ‘corner’, which is probably not unconnected with the fact that Herne sits in a sharp bend of an ancient Roman road.
Herne Bay was initially just a tiny village associated with smuggling until the railway and a pier brought expansion into a holiday resort. To their credit, the inhabitants of Herne Bay resisted the efforts of London-based investors to rename the burgeoning resort St Augustine’s.
The aforementioned pier was built in 1832 and replaced by a newer and better one in 1873 and again in 1899. This last was the second longest pier in England after Southend’s and hosted all kind of amusements and even its own tram service.
Its grand pavilion was used as a factory for manufacturing camouflage netting during WW2 but defensive measures (to stop the Germans using it as a landing stage) weakened it. Post-war neglect further contributed to its demise and in 1979 most of the pier was destroyed by storms. All that remains now is the far end, which is derelict, and the shore end, which is home to a sports centre.
There have apparently been a number of moves to rebuild the pier but as yet all have come to nothing.
A short distance further along the sea front stands the world’s first freestanding purpose-built clock tower, erected in 1837.
This is altogether more wholesome than Herne bay’s other first – George Joseph Smith, the ‘Brides in the Bath’ serial killer, murdered his first victim there. Using a series of aliases, Smith married several women and took all their savings, murdering three by drowning then in their baths. He was caught through the similarity of the circumstances arousing suspicion and was hanged in Maidstone prison in 1915.
Treats and Tardiness
Having made good time in getting to Herne Bay I used up some of my lead by stopping to have a nice cup of coffee and some chocolate fudge cake because chocolate fudge cake is never to be lightly ignored.
I then lost another quarter of an hour locating a branch of my bank so that I could withdraw some cash as I’d spent all I had on the coffee and cake. Had I just been able to use an ATM this would not have been necessary but one should never discount the perversity of banks and building societies. Now, call me picky but when my bank sends me a new cash card with instructions to destroy the old one I don’t expect them to then tell me that due to an error they have to send me a new PIN before I can use it. On the plus side the cashier was unusually helpful and I intend to contact their customer service and commend her for it.
I was thus a good fifteen minutes behind the plan as I headed out of Herne Bay, thankful that the promenade meant that I didn’t have to traipse across another two miles of shingle.
Before long, my next destination appeared before me in the form of the two towers of St Mary’s Church in Reculver.
Reculver Country Park
Before I could reach Reculver, however, the path suddenly veered right and upwards, climbing to the top of a cliff. Atop it was the Reculver Country Park and the path quickly ran off into some trees, becoming a sort of leafy tunnel—all dappled sunlight and gnarly branches—before bursting out into open cliff top fields above which a couple of kestrels were hovering while a-hunting.
Reculver is an ancient settlement and may have been one of the Romans’ earliest landing points. Certainly, they built a fort, watchtower and lighthouse there, calling the place Regulbium. Regulbium was part of the chain of Saxon Shore forts, sitting as it did at the northern end of the Wantsum Channel, then a two-mile wide stretch of water separating the Isle of Thanet from the mainland. These days, erosion has dumped most of the fort into the sea, while the silting of the Wantsum Channel has reduced it to a small stream linking up with the River Stour.
Reculver remained a significant settlement only for as long as the Wantsum Channel remained navigable. Sadly, by the eighth century it was down to about 600 yards and the last ship to navigate the channel sailed from London to Sandwich in 1672. The village then dwindled until it was largely abandoned in the eighteenth century, leaving a pub and a couple of houses but not much else.
St Mary’s Church
Reculver’s church, which had been impressive and sat within the grounds of the old Roman fort, was torn down on the orders of its own vicar. Only its front facade and two twelfth century towers remained intact because, unexpectedly, Trinity House intervened to preserve them as a navigational landmark.
History wasn’t quite done with Reculver though—in WW2 its coastline was a test site for the prototypes of Barnes Wallis’s famous bouncing bomb. Four of these were located and salvaged in 1997 and now sit in museums in Herne Bay, Dover and Manston, near Ramsgate.
Isle of Thanet
After Reculver, the Saxon Shore Way and I parted company. I kept going east, walking across what was once the Wantsum Channel, while the path veered south to follow the channel’s ancient bank to East and West Stourmouth (where the Stour once flowed into the Wantsum Channel but which are now two very much landlocked villages) and then Richborough and Sandwich, which were both important ports before becoming landlocked.
I had chosen to stick with the current coastline and so followed the metalled path eastwards, marvelling once again at the flatness of Kent on one side and the great expanse of the sea on the other.
A mile or so later I encountered the River Wantsum, all that remains of a once significant waterway.
A little further on I got distracted by the clouds—a textbook layer of cirrostratus and some fluffy little cumuli beneath—and was almost run over by a couple cycling up behind me who hadn’t expected me to wander aimlessly about.
We paused to chat about the weather, Kent, and how fifteen miles feels like a long way when you walk it. I hadn’t reached fifteen miles yet of course, so off I trotted, heading towards Birchington-on-Sea, which I reached a few miles later and was delighted to find had actual sand instead of shingle.
Today a seaside resort, Birchington-on-Sea dates back to at least 1240; the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti is buried in its 13th century church. There is also a museum but I didn’t get to see any of this for I followed the promenade around the shoreline and found myself beneath a low chalk cliff, while the town was perched atop it, out of sight.
The sandy beaches soon gave way to expanses of chalkstone and the shoreline curved around a series of headlands and bays. I took one last look backwards before turning out of sight and espied Reculver far behind me in the distance.
I kept following the promenade at the base of the white chalk cliffs, passing many a cyclist or dogwalker and quite a lot of temporary graffiti, the loose bits of chalk that fall from the cliffs clearly being a godsend to bored teenagers.
Eventually I came to the end of the promenade and a set of steps took me up to the cliff top and a relatively pleasant roadside amble into Westgate-on-Sea.
Somehow by now I’d gained so much in time that I was fifty minutes earlier than planned. I spent some of this enjoying a cup of tea and quite the best hot bacon baguette I’ve had in ages before I willed my feet along the final stretch from the sea front to Westgate-on-Sea Station and a train into London Victoria for drinks and dinner with A.
All in all, yesterday was a brilliant walk, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Marvellous 🙂
This time: 15½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 75 miles