BETWEEN one thing and the other (one being some writing and the other being a vomiting bug of the most spectacular awfulness), it’s been about a fortnight since I last went traipsing round the coast. This is, of course, a scurrilous state of affairs.
I rectified it by the simple expedient of getting up at some unfeasible hour before dawn and jumping on a train back to Sandling, in the parish of Saltwood, where my last perambulatory episode finished up.
I returned to this strange little station in the middle of nowhere, spotted its disused extra platform (a relic of a branch line that closed in 1951) and set off retracing the last mile and a half of walk VIII in order to get back to Hythe.
On my way I passed through Saltwood, an outlying village/suburb, which is where the plot to assassinate Thomas à Beckett was hatched.
Saltwood has a rather lovely pre-Worboys fingerpost sign on its green — the Worboys Committee instigated the road signage system we’ve used since 1964 — which must date from 1951 or earlier as it points to Sandling Junction, as Sandling’s station was known when the Hythe branch was in situ.
I tried to take a picture of the sign but failed spectacularly for reasons of general incompetence. Undaunted, I continued on to Hythe.
Upon my return to Hythe I found the sea to be in a blustery, white horses kind of mood. I made my way back to the exact same spot where I had left the coast last time.
Now, to continue onwards along the coast I had to traverse Hythe’s West Foreshore, which falls within Hythe Ranges, where the army practices shooting straight. Fortunately, I had already checked on their handy website and found that the range was closed (to practice) and hence open to the public. Unfortunately, that information turned out to be bollocks.
I wasn’t too delighted to find the red flags flying and red lights lit, as it meant a considerable detour around the outside of the army base. But it was either that or getting shot and the latter didn’t appeal.
So, I skirted the perimeter fence in what soon became pouring rain and kept my spirits up by reading the warning signs, which said things like, ‘Do Not Touch Any Army Debris, It May Explode And Kill You’. Succinct, I thought.
I would have snapped a picture of one but the sign immediately next to it warned that taking photos was prohibited. Again, I declined the opportunity to get shot, exploded or generally arrested on suspicion of terrorism. Discretion, as they say, is the better part of valour..
Eventually, after what seemed like forever, I came to the end of the army base, which is marked by Dymchurch Redoubt, a major Napoleonic era fortification which served as a command post to the umpty billion Martello Towers that seem to throng this coast. Also, it stopped raining.
After the redoubt, the road along which I was walking was suddenly accompanied by a massive sea wall, which meant that, having had my view of the sea blocked by Hythe Ranges for the last couple of miles, I was still unable to see the sea.
I remedied this by climbing to the top of the Great Redoubt and Dymchurch Sea Defences as soon as a handy access point presented itself.
I was most pleased to be able to see the sea, which was still being quite forceful and almost at high tide. Looking ahead however, it was not what you’d call a varied and unpredictable terrain.
South Kent Marshes
While I was up there I noticed that the sea was, if anything, now slightly higher than the land on the other side, which neatly illustrated what this whacking great edifice is there for. If one looks inland from atop the sea defences then the view that presents itself is a swathe of the South Kent Marshes, which wasn’t considered dry land not so long ago.
The Saxon Shore Way, which I was no longer following, had stuck to the edge of those distant hills. Everything between them and me was basically drained marshland and anyone in it was just one good sea wall away from wading to work.
Undismayed by the relentless uniformity of the sea defences, I tripped merrily along them until I reached the outskirts of Dymchurch, a town with more Napoleonic-era Martello Towers than it knows what to do with.
Diversion through Dymchurch
I got to wander through the middle of Dymchurch because the sea defences decided at that point to illustrate the dictum ‘be careful what you wish for’. I had foolishly wished for a bit more variation in the path that I was walking and Dymchurch helpfully obliged by the very special effort of not having finished its bit.
Dymchurch sported some horrid ‘Welcome to Dymchurch’ signs that seemed to be relics of the 50s (sadly made uglier by up-to-date graffiti) and its centre featured a host of tacky amusement arcades, closed takeaways and one shop gamely displaying buckets and spades outside in the intermittent drizzle.
Somewhere in the town — and for this I kept out a hopeful but ultimately thwarted eye — is the fifteenth century Ship Inn, where Russell Thorndike wrote his works of Kentish smuggling and derring-do, the Dr Syn novels.
St Mary’s Bay
Eventually, on the other side of Dymchurch, the diversion let me back onto the very much completed and intact Dymchurch and Littlestone Sea Defences, while Dymchurch shaded imperceptibly into St Mary’s Bay, which was home to the famous children’s writer Edith Nesbit between the wars. And suddenly it made a kind of sense – no wonder the sea wall dealt with my wish for more variety in such a perverse manner, it’s clearly taking its cue from The Phoenix and the Carpet or Five Children and It.
It was at this point that the visibility cleared somewhat, allowing me to see more than drizzle ahead. The sun came out, clouds went white and fluffy and Dungeness Nuclear Power Station lurked on the horizon ahead.
The Dymchurch and Littlestone sea defences came to an end at Littlestone-on-Sea, which was developed in the 1880s by a chap named Sir Robert Perks, who wanted to create a resort for the gentry where there had only been a lifeboat station. Although much, much earlier (before 1287) it had also been where the River Rother met the sea until a storm redirected the river to Rye.
After Littlestone-on-sea there wasn’t really a sea wall, promenade or path any more — the choice was to walk along the main road and not really see past the dunes or walk on the dunes and/or beach. On the plus side, there were suddenly dunes and a beach!
Initially these were shingle but the shingle soon gave way to Romney Sands and I chose to trot along at the water’s edge for a while. But only a while.
I abandoned the beach somewhere near Greatstone-on-Sea, about which I have little more to say than that really.
From here on in the geology changed too, from marsh with shingle beaches to shingle with some sand. By which I mean that the whole promontory that forms Dungeness is composed of shingle. Lots of it mind, but it’s all shingle nonetheless. This may raise an important point later.
Greatstone-on-Sea shaded imperceptibly into Lydd-on-Sea, which mostly meant lots of bungalows facing the beach. I have no doubt that many of them are expensive holiday or retirement homes, just as I have no doubt that their inhabitants are only one good storm surge away from getting an unexpected indoor swimming pool. But that’s the least of inadvisable building around Dungeness…
I stopped for a drink at the Pilot Inn — famous for its fish, apparently, although I didn’t stay for food — and inadvertently gave the weather time to stop glorying in sunshine and sneak up some seriously heavy rainclouds to drop their contents on my head as I emerged. The road after the Pilot Inn was little more than a metalled track with almost no traffic, although that didn’t seem to stop the only two cars on it from somehow contriving to hit each other. Honestly, it must have taken effort
Shingle All The Way
Dungeness headland itself was a bit odd. It is, as I’ve said, made of shingle. The surface is shingle, bound together in many places with vegetation but in others there are just bare shingle patches. And if you take a digger to it, then its shingle all the way down.
It is, in fact, one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world and is famous for its diversity of wildlife (none of which glows in the dark and has two heads, honest guv’nor).
The growth of the headland through shingle deposition has both necessitated lighthouses to stop ships ploughing into it and made those same lighthouses redundant as they become increasingly inland. To date there have been five and both the current (fifth) and previous lighthouses still stand.
Nuclear Power Station
Quite close to the old lighthouse is the huge, blocky bulk of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station, looking for all the world like something a Dalek would build out of Lego.
The big square blocks of Ultimate Atomic Squareness on the left are Dungeness A. Built in the 1960s as the power solution for a brighter, better future, the future has now passed it by and Dungeness A ceased power production in 2006. The plan is to demolish the turbine hall and build a nuclear waste store instead as nuclear power generation does have its little problems. Apparently, the site will be fully cleared and closed by 2111, presumably by shifting the waste to another country with a greater need for cash than caution.
The building on the right is Dungeness B, a gas-cooled reactor that is very much active except for when it isn’t (both of its reactors were temporarily shut down in 2009, one of them after a fire — all fixed now though, apparently). It will run until 2018.
Note that these are nuclear power stations built on a promontory made out of shingle. And Dungeness A will become an Intermediate-level nuclear waste store built on shingle. I’m sure they sunk some nice big foundations into the shingle though — nice big foundations that are sitting on shingle.
Not only is this in no way a stable landmass and potentially subject to shifting and subsidence, it is of course also subject to having a moving coastline. While one part is growing, necessitating the March of Replacement Lighthouses, other parts are fuelling that growth through erosion; the whole headland is slowly moving northeast at 6m a year — or would be, if lorries didn’t carefully move it all back again.
Then, as if that’s enough, remember that it’s all pretty much at sea level and prone to periodic flooding.
A proposed Dungeness C is not being built for a whole host of reasons, some economic, some political, but even the government has cited concerns about coastal erosion and flood risk as an excellent reason why not to go doing it again.
I fear I may be ranting here but I can’t help but feel that building nuclear power stations on an unstable and migratory headland of shingle is either insane or a kind of brilliance I simply can’t fathom.
We can only be thankful that Kent isn’t subject to seismic activity — apart from when it is (such as the 2007 earthquake that affected Folkestone — although that was only 4.3 on the Richter Scale) — as a granular substance (such as shingle) can be made to act like a liquid given enough agitation.
This is what destroyed Port Royal, Jamaica — then the largest English city in the Americas — in 1692; it was built on a sand spit and when an earthquake struck the city more-or-less sank. It would take quite a bit more energy to make shingle, rather than sand, behave as a liquid and Dungeness isn’t sitting on a fault line but still, it makes you think…
Having contemplated the virtues of building nuclear power stations on what amounts to a sticky out bit of beach, I availed myself of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway — a company that operates a light railway passenger service using one third scale steam engines — to carry me back to Hythe.
Once back in Hythe I had to muster the energy for a final mile and a half, retracing my steps through Saltwood to Sandling again in order to pick up a full-sized railway service home. As it turned out, I appeared to have caught the Stepford Express as both the guy with the refreshments trolley and the guard were ridiculously cheery to the point where several passengers wondered aloud what they’d been dosed with. Whatever it was, it sadly wasn’t in the coffee…
This time: 17½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 139 miles