TODAY I learned a terribly important lesson about the White Cliffs of Dover…
Do not walk them in the rain.
I also learned that while the Met Office is one of the world’s best weather forecasters, and not at all the running joke it was when I was little, they are still not always right. Today’s forecast for Kent was mostly for ‘sunny intervals’ giving way to rain tonight. What we actually got was intermittent showers giving way to rain by about four o’clock.
Today’s walk began with me catching a train about an hour before dawn in order to arrive in Sandwich and set off by nine thirty.
The Lemming, who had planned to accompany me, was prevented by a bit of a work crisis, thus depriving him of what would turn out to be some excellent opportunities to plummet off cliffs with a long, Dopplering scream.
Having arrived in Sandwich I made my way back to the Barbican and went in search of the town’s ancient Fisher Gate, a gate onto the quayside that dates to 1384 and is not just a Grade I listed building but is also scheduled as an Ancient Monument, which is pretty much the highest ‘Do Not Demolish and Replace With a Supermarket Or We Will Find You And Do Bad Things’ rating that the UK can give.
Unsurprisingly, it had not been replaced with a supermarket.
Glancing at my map, I briefly toyed with the idea of taking a massive detour, or a sneaky taxi ride, to the tiny hamlet of West Street a couple of miles south of Sandwich. West Street, which is an outlier of the also tiny village of Finglesham, is home to a T-junction that hosts perhaps the most photographed, and almost certainly the most frequently stolen, signpost in Britain. It is an old-fashioned fingerpost sign, indicating on one finger the distances to two other places—the nearby village of Ham and the nearest significant town, which is Sandwich.
Yes, it really does read:
There were no taxis in sight though and I decided that adding a round detour of about six miles to my walk would be madness, so I resolved to get on with perambulating around the coast.
First, however, I had to reach said coast.
Regaining the Coast
Fortuitously, and I suppose obviously if one considers that a quayside ideally wants to be en route to the sea, finding the Fisher Gate had already sent me in the direction I needed to go, i.e. east. So, pausing only to watch a large number of ducks paddling about on the River Stour, I headed eastwards to find the coast. It was a pretty simple plan; there was only so far east I could possibly go without swimming.
After a while, the road out of Sandwich just kind of stopped. Or rather it turned into a private toll road, complete with a little white toll house. Pedestrians were exempt, however, so I sauntered on down the private road, marvelling at how, despite being private and supported by a toll, it was still as badly maintained and full of potholes as any council-adopted highway
The toll road was long, straight and dull and ran to the Sandwich Bay Estate, which sounded like an industrial park but was actually residential. I got pretty bored of the long, straight toll road so diverted off it along a public footpath at the first opportunity.
Putting Green Blues
To my despair, disgust and general disgruntlement the footpath passed through a golf course. I loathe and abhor golf courses.
It’s not that I loathe golf per se. I meet golf with the same general bewilderment with which I regard most sports and cannot for the life of me see where the fun is. But golf courses I absolutely detest. There is something about the neatly mown greens, the carefully limited ‘rough’ and the dinky little bunkers that make me want to scream. When I see one, I can’t help but look at the unnatural formality of it and think ‘if you want to make a formal landscape, make a park that everyone can enjoy. And if you want to take a walk for some exercise, just go for a bloody walk.’ My brain kind of shut down in protest as I crossed the golf course and the four minutes or so it took felt more like years.
But then, hooray, I reached the sea. At first sight, the beach along Sandwich Bay clearly doesn’t understand Old English (sand + wich = sandy place) as it’s shingle all the way for about five miles. There is sand, forming a massive stretch of sand flats, but these are only partly visible at low tide. They do form an important ecological niche and nature conservation area though. Six miles further out are the Goodwin Sands, a sand bank exposed at low tide that has claimed countless ships, many of which were swallowed by it—at low tide Goodwin Sands dries enough to walk on, if you can get there, but as the tide rises and saturates the bank, it turns to treacherous quicksand. I had hoped to catch sight of Goodwin Sands but the tide was still too high, although it was on its way out.
Allegedly, the northern end of the beach is an ‘unofficial naturist beach’, a brilliant phrase that conjures up notions of ‘unofficial naturists’ as opposed to ‘official naturists from the Ministry of Public Nudity’. I didn’t see any naturists, being too far south along the beach even if some were out. Not that I particularly care; one of the quirks of my upbringing is a familiarity with, and indifference to, the concept of naturism and, as a side effect, no nudity taboo whatsoever. But, moving on…
With the sea on my left and the golf course—ugh—on my right, I headed south and soon came to Sandwich Bay Estate, which I passed briskly by. Beyond it, to my boundless joy, lay about two further miles of my favourite terrain in the form of the Royal Cinque Ports Golf Links. I didn’t look inland very often for those two miles. Blech!
Mercifully, the Royal Cinque Ports Golf Links didn’t last forever and I soon found myself in the outskirts of Deal, heading for its town centre and pier.
The Hated Name of Deal
Deal is a former fishing, mining and garrison town and was apparently the first English soil on which James Cook set foot in 1771, after returning from Australia.
Although Deal has no harbour, it became a bustling port by transferring goods from ship to shore (and vice versa) using small tenders to reach ships anchored in the Downs, as the channel between the Kentish coast and Goodwin sands is known. These tenders didn’t necessarily take any notice of HM Customs and were also key in claiming salvage from ships wrecked on Goodwin Sands, salvage that was perhaps (and allegedly) easier to claim if such wrecks had no survivors. Daniel Defoe wrote of the ‘barbarous, hated name of Deal’ while Samuel Pepys called the place ‘pitiful’. William Pitt the Younger, in his second year as Prime Minister, acted decisively to deal with Deal’s smugglers, sending the army to smash and burn all the boats while a naval cutter prevented any escape to sea.
Deal has what is claimed to be the last remaining fully-intact leisure pier in Kent, which was extensively refurbished and repaired in 1997.
The pier head was designed to have three decks, the top of which has a cafe upon it, but the lower deck is disused, cordoned off and no longer has any decking, mostly because it is underwater except at low tide. I can’t help but think that lacking a deck it used to have casts some doubt on that ‘fully-intact’ claim but it’s certainly more intact than most of the others I’ve seen
The pier was built in 1957 on the site of two previous piers, the first of which was designed by John Rennie but was sadly destroyed by a storm. The second pier was hit by a ship.
From the pier one can see the Deal Timeball. Originally a naval semaphore tower for communicating with ships in the Downs, the tower was converted to a Greenwich Mean Time signal in Victorian times—the ball rises to the top of the mast and falls at exactly 1 pm. This was originally governed by an electrical signal from Greenwich.
My route took me past the Deal Timeball and then past Deal Castle, one of Henry VIII’s Device Forts built in 1540 to defend against French and/or Spanish invasions. The castle is a masterpiece of period military engineering with its curved walls (to deflect cannon shot) and bastions.
Heading south, Deal becomes Walmer, a largely residential village-turned-suburb. Walmer is considered to be the most probable landing site for Julius Caesar in 55 BC and 54 BC, when he came to subdue the Britons and found it a bit trickier than expected.
Walmer was home to the novelist Dornford Yates and a whole parade of Prime Ministers including William Pitt the Younger, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill. The reason these PMs lived in Walmer is because Walmer Castle—another Henrician Device Fort—is the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, an honorific post they all held.
Fish and Chips
Walmer also has a fish and chip shop whose owner I could only place as ‘probably southern Mediterranean’. I got the impression that the pretty girl behind the till was his teenage daughter and that, should I look at her in the wrong way, he might leap across the counter, spatula in hand, and quite literally batter me to death. I smiled and said thank you, he watched me warily and I escaped with a portion of restorative carbohydrates in deep fried tuber form.
Having eaten the chips, I moved further south, bridging the short gap between the southern end of Walmer and the northern end of Kingsdown, an ancient hamlet located at the very northern end of the White Cliffs of Dover.
Ah yes, those.
The White Cliffs
Kingsdown also marks the southern end of Goodwin Sands and hence the Downs and, in 1926, saw the landfall of an exhausted Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. The 19-year-old Miss Ederle made a 35-mile crossing, and so cannot have taken the shortest route as, at the closest point, England and France are just 21 miles apart.
Before climbing the seemingly never-ending steps to the top of the first white cliff, I availed myself of a local hostelry—the Zetland Arms—to enjoy a quick G&T to celebrate my hundredth mile since Gravesend. After all, there’s nothing like a bit of alcoholic fuzziness when you’re about to walk along the top of an unfenced cliff. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
Before we find out, these are the Zetland arms the pub is named for, being those of the Earl of Zetland. The pub has been so-named since 1863 but, for three years prior, it was called the Earl of Zetland after a boat of the same name—a lugger based out of Deal—that foundered here in 1860. Zetland is an archaic spelling of Shetland.
Atop the Cliffs
So, the gin was downed and I went up, high onto the first white cliff. Looking back to the north, I could see Deal Pier and, beyond it, Ramsgate on the horizon. I tried to take a picture but, once again, the Mark I human eyeball proved to have a better power of resolution than my 3G phone.
The path was unfenced and, at times, quite close to the cliff edge, which is always exciting if, like me, you really don’t care much for heights. I stood and peered over the edge just once, at which point I backed quickly away, swearing quietly to myself. At this point, I was almost glad that the Lemming hadn’t made it as he’d have been leaning over to get a better view and just watching that would have freaked me right out.
Dover Patrol Monument
But the Helpful Mammal prevails and so I pressed on, ignoring the fact that it was trying to rain. Ahead, I spied an obelisk, which turned out to be a naval monument to the Dover Patrol, the WW1 naval command that launched the 1918 Zeebrugge Raid—a cunning and insanely daring plan to sink three ships in Zeebrugge harbour and pen the Germans in port while Royal Marines took out the German guns. The raid was an almost perfect illustration of Von Moltke’s adage that ‘no battle plan survives contact with the enemy’; it went badly awry and failed to achieve its objectives.
The obelisk looked pretty much like any other naval obelisk I’d ever seen, right down to it being seen in increasingly heavy rain. Fortunately, right next door to it was a National Trust tea room, situated in what was clearly an old coastguard station and named ‘Bluebirds’ after Dame Vera Lynn’s famous 1942 song.
A nice cup of tea followed and a bacon sandwich while I mentally awarded Dame Vera ten out of ten for symbolism—bluebirds being emblematic of happiness, apparently—and nought out of ten for ornithology (they don’t live in Europe).
By the time I had finished my cup of tea and bacon sarnie, which I reckoned to be about half an hour, the rain had stopped. Also, an hour and a half had passed, which I thought odd, as my time sense is not usually that far out
Closer inspection of my pocket chronometer (for which read ‘my phone’) showed that my time sense was out by a national border and official time zone, for atop the cliff the fairly rubbish Virgin signal (using the duff parts of the T-mobile network) was being swamped by Orange France and my phone was convinced that it was roaming.
Hoping that no one would call me while I was technologically bilocating, I took a quick photo of what I thought was the obelisk but turned out to be my finger and then descended another neverending staircase to reach the village of St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe.
There wasn’t a whole lot in St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe except, thank God, a public convenience— drinking an entire pot of tea might not have been all that sensible in retrospect.
St Margaret’s is a tripartite village, with the other two parts situated just inland. During WW2 most of the population were evacuated and anti-aircraft guns and artillery moved in. It has been (or in some cases still is) home to Sir Peter Ustinov, Miriam Margolyes, Noël Coward and Ian Fleming.
From St Margaret’s, I made my way up to the top of the next cliff and thus onto South Foreland.
There was a lighthouse on South Foreland from at least 1730 to 1988, when South Foreland Lighthouse was decommissioned. It now belongs to the National Trust but no one seems to have told Ordnance Survey as my 2008 OS map still shows it as an active Trinity House lighthouse.
South Foreland Lighthouse was the first lighthouse to use an electric light and also played host to much of Guglielmo Marconi’s pioneering work with radio waves.
Looking out to sea I realised I could see the French coast on the horizon although it was hazy and visibility was poor.
I tried to take a photo of France but all that came out was grey, with no distinction between sea and sky and no sign of the faint ribbon of cliffs between them. I did note that while my phone couldn’t see France it was still merrily connecting me to Orange France at the top of every cliff. I shrugged my shoulders and moved on past South Foreland to the magnificent cliffs over Fan Bay and Langdon Bay, where I got my first sight of Dover.
Another cliff or so later and I got a much clearer view before visibility dropped alarmingly and it really began to rain in earnest.
The Rain of Terror
It was then that I realised that while the cliffs are all chalk, the thin veneer of soil atop them is either clay or something very much like it. This meant that its surface became slick and slippery in the wet and that it clogged up the tread on my walking boots, essentially rendering them treadless.
Suddenly, I was more skating than walking on narrow and often steep, slippery paths atop high and mostly unfenced cliffs. Add to this that the rain covered my glasses, obscuring my vision (but if I took them off the ground went out of focus) and it all became rather more exciting than I had anticipated. I don’t think I have ever concentrated quite so hard on where and how I placed my feet while walking.
Even so, at one point I found myself sliding back down a slope I’d just squelched up and stopped slipping all of two metres from the edge. Now ‘two metres’ might sound like a reasonable safety margin but it doesn’t feel like it when you’re there, that’s for sure. My heartbeat resembled a continuous tone…
Eventually, I successfully navigated the quite dramatic cliffs, by now soaked through everywhere except my feet (the new boots living up to their claim of waterproof-ness even after my walking cagoule had given up and decided to play at being a sponge).
Under the Weather
As I squelched coldly down into Dover I suddenly discovered that while it was indeed raining quite heavily, that wasn’t exactly why I’d been so badly soaked and why visibility was so poor…
I made it down to ground level, passed the port (and to my left too, I noted with amusement) and headed into town to seek out Dover Priory Station. On my right I passed below Dover Castle but was in no mood to stop and look, although I did spot some lower fortifications.
A short while later I was dripping all over the platform, awaiting my railway carriage home.
The hot shower I had when I got home was just bliss.
This time: 15 miles
Total since Gravesend: 106½ miles