LAST week, after getting home from my walk to Westgate-on-Sea, I sat down and kicked off my walking boots. Or so I thought.
As I looked at the sole I had kicked across the room and waggled my toes in the boot upper still on my foot, I thought to myself ‘time to buy some new boots’. I was impressed with my boots’ longevity though—they were old, battered, had missing eyelets and in some places were held together with two-part epoxy resin but they had lasted an amazing fifteen or so years.
The Helpful Mammal
So, during the week I went and purchased some nice new walking boots.
Sadly, I didn’t have time to break them in, which promised to be a bit of a problem as only a blithering idiot would put on a pair of completely virgin walking boots and attempt to walk sixteen and a half miles. I mean, that’s just asking for the boots to eat one’s feet. Right?
I am an idiot, witness me blither. And possibly hobble and limp…
I was joined in my stubborn refusal to allow common sense and comfort to get in the way of a perfectly good walk by a good friend of mine: a man who is known amongst his friends for, amongst other things, falling off cliffs on more than one occasion. What better walking companion could one have when perambulating a coastline of nice chalk cliff edges?
If nothing else it promises entertainment.
In line with the general principles of blog anonymity, I shall henceforth refer to him as the Lemming. No doubt he will appreciate the care and effort that has gone into selecting this epithet; I am a Helpful Mammal, after all.
I met the Lemming at a station en route and was delighted to discover that fools instinctively flock together for safety in numbers—the Lemming’s opening gambit after ‘hello’ was to show off his shiny new walking boots, being used for the first time on a sixteen-and-a-half-mile walk. I knew he and I were friends for a reason. Oh yes.
We jumped aboard the next train and made our way through the Kentish countryside (or presumably, across the Medway, the countryside of Kent) to Westgate-on-Sea, where my last walk terminated. Westgate is a lovely seaside town and I thought, as we walked along the seafront in what felt at first like a force nine gale, that it was a perfectly nice place to start a walk. Albeit bracing.
Okay, in the interests of accuracy it was actually only force four on the Beaufort Scale—a ‘moderate breeze’ with frequent wind-blown white horses on the waves. I like my hyperbole.
Up until the 1860s Westgate comprised little more than a farm, a few cottages for its farm labourers and a coastguard station (built in 1791 and still extant). Then, in the late 1860s, businessmen redeveloped the area as a seaside resort for the burgeoning middle classes. One can only image what the inhabitants of the original farm must have thought.
The Lemming and I made our way eastwards, noting that as we were heading in that direction all morning, before swinging south around the curving coastline in the early afternoon and then turning west in the evening we would in fact be walking into the sun all day.
I was thankful that my glasses are photoreactive. The Lemming squinted a lot.
As we walked, Westgate-on-Sea shaded into Westbrook, a suburb of Margate about which I could discern no interesting facts. There was however a noticeable difference as we moved from Westgate to Margate for the former was clean and shiny and well-maintained while the latter evoked all my childhood memories of the English seaside—closed shops, boarded up businesses, peeling paint and a general air of disrepair.
It felt like the sort of place where holidays go to die.
As we neared the centre of Margate we passed Nayland Rock, which wasn’t very obvious on account of the tide being already high and well on its way to getting higher. I knew that somewhere nearby was the Nayland Rock Promenade Shelter, a Grade II listed building, so we kept an eye out for it but completely failed to believe, when we found it, that what we were looking it could possibly be a listed building. So much so in fact that I failed even to take a picture on a ‘just in case’ basis. Oh well.
Shortly thereafter we reached the centre of Margate, which has been a seaside resort for 250 years and, sadly, looks like it. Historically, Margate was a limb of the Cinque Port of Dover and dates back to at least 1264, when it was recorded as ‘Meregate’.
Margate struck us both as a town of grim and faded glory. It used to have a Victorian pier but that was destroyed by a storm in 1978 and the spot where Margate Pier had been was easily winning the ‘most peeling paint’ award.
Margate also used to have an amusement park—a really old amusement park, dating back to 1870—but Dreamlands closed in 2003 and was almost entirely dismantled. I say ‘almost’ because its wooden rollercoaster, which was built in 1920 and is the UK’s oldest, is a Grade II listed building and so can’t be demolished.
Naturally then, it has since been damaged by arson.
Even one of Margate’s less salubrious aspects—repeated gang violence between Mods and Rockers in the 1960s, and Skinheads in the 1980s—is a thing of the past, although we weren’t unhappy about that.
I could be being unfair to Margate, which apparently does have an underground shell grotto and a windmill, but we didn’t get to see those to judge what condition they are in. Its clock tower is quite nice.
Also quite nice is Margate Railway Station, built by Edwin Maxwell Fry for the Southern Railway in 1926. This too is a Grade II listed building and does indeed look every inch like an archetypical 1920s station. Because it is. But personally, I think if your railway station is your highlight, then you’re probably in trouble as a resort.
We paused near Margate’s harbour, fascinated by a veritable blizzard of sea foam drifting over the harbour wall. The wall was cordoned off on account of some repair work, so we naturally ignored the barriers and went to stand on it anyway. The sea was crashing into the shore beyond it and generating an impressive quantity of froth, which looked to me like the turbulent bubble bath from hell. We watched this for a bit and then, keen to leave Margate behind us, we pressed on.
One thing that did impress me about yesterday’s whole stretch of Kent coast was the number of coastal lidos set up on the beaches to facilitate gentle paddling unperturbed by the crashing waves. Okay, they weren’t magnificent structures, being mostly just a rectangle with a low concrete wall— although we may be spoiled in that respect by knowing Plymouth’s marvellous art deco Tinside Pool—but the fact that they were there at all, and actually not crumbling to bits, was good enough for me.
A Convenient Café
Before long, the Lemming and I came to a cafe, where we initially failed at the theoretically simple task of even finding the door. We then proceeded to show how self-absorbed we are by not realising that the other has also been drinking their tea black for years. Having thus accidentally and erroneously convinced the pretty girl behind the counter that we were a bickering gay couple (not helped by my paying for us both, the Lemming having left his wallet behind), we repaired outside to drink our tea while I tried to stop the moderate breeze from blowing a slice of chocolate cake away.
To be honest, sitting in the sun (and wind), watching the sea and randomly discussing stuff and things—improbable artistic combinations, such as the Mona Lisa in the style of Picasso was one subject—was a pretty good way to kill half an hour of Saturday morning. When the tea had been consumed we, still talking utter nonsense, headed off at shore level along a concrete promenade. This proved a little more exciting than anticipated…
Initially, the promenade was largely unremarkable, once we’d noted the grey-brown sea on one side and the white cliffs on the other. And then we noticed that the sea was striking the side of the promenade and shooting straight upwards, showering the walkway with spray. It was less than an hour to high tide and pretty clear that the promenade would soon be underwater. Keeping back from the spray from the waves we quickened our pace, sure that we would encounter some steps to the cliff top fairly soonish.
Mere moments later we were not entirely so sure. And the sea was steadily getting higher.
‘What kind of muppets, having lived by the sea, would let themselves get cut off by the tide?’ we asked ourselves. ‘Surely not us?’ We reflected for a moment on our respective credentials.
‘Oh dear,’ we said, or words like it.
An Unfenced Cliff
A short distance ahead we saw the promenade end in a cove, with a bit of fencing marking its termination. This didn’t look great as retracing our steps was going to mean getting spray-drenched at the very least and paddling if we were unlucky. Fortunately, just as we reached the very end, a path to the cliff top became visible and we took it with gratitude, emerging near a pumping station on a gloriously unfenced cliff, whose only contribution to visitor safety was a sign warning that the cliff was indeed unfenced.
Now, I’m a huge fan of not going overboard with ridiculous safety measures borne out of litigation culture. As far as I’m concerned, if there is a sign telling you it’s an unfenced cliff and you decide to stand on the edge and fall off, well that’s pretty much what you deserve. On the other hand, I was now standing on an unfenced cliff with the Lemming, while we looked down at the crashing waves below.
‘Don’t fall off the cliff,’ I cautioned him and to my surprise and relief, he immediately didn’t.
The cliff edge was separated from Margate—or more specifically, the Cliftonville suburb of Margate—by a swathe of grass on which several people were taking their dogs for a bracing walk. Cliftonville was apparently mostly built in the 1930s although some of it must have been there in the 1920s because TS Eliot stayed there in 1921.
We decided that that was all very nice for the late Mr Eliot but we were quite happy to keep he swathe of grass between us and Cliftonville and quickly continued our sunward journey, soon reaching Foreness Point and Long Nose Spit, where periwinkles can be collected at low tide.
Of course, by now the tide was almost at its highest so the periwinkles were quite safe from human predation. Less safe was any passing shipping – Foreness Point has claimed a number of vessels down the years on account Long Nose Spit comprising a large mass of chalkstone and sand jutting out into the sea, which is submerged at high tide. Its victims include the transatlantic passenger ship Northern Belle in 1857, the Norwegian ship Coronel in 1907 and Orchis in 1934. The latter two were fortunately later refloated.
From Foreness Point, the cliff-top path led past Botany Bay – a beautiful, high-quality, blue flag beach – to White Ness and Neptune’s Tower, the latter being a bizarre, 18th century folly built by Lord Holland for no discernible purpose.
What makes Neptune’s Tower particularly odd is that it lies almost within spitting distance of Lord Holland’s residence, Kingsgate Castle, built at the other end of Kingsgate Bay in the 1760s. Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland, was a leading 18th century politician who held various posts including Secretary of War and Southern Secretary (which was essentially a post of Secretary of State for England and Wales). Lord Holland’s castle, while purely an affectation, is quite magnificent. These days it is divided into a number of flats, which are no doubt supremely expensive.
The Lemming and I chose to pause our walk within sight of Kingsgate Castle for a refreshing pint in the Captain Digby, a pub built in 1768 as ‘Bede House’ by Lord Holland. This pleasant little stop managed to send us from ‘way ahead of schedule’ to ‘some way behind’ but, as our schedule was largely nominal anyway, we didn’t care one jot.
Some considerable time later, we left the Captain Digby and continued on our way, passing both Kingsgate Castle and the North Foreland Lighthouse, which is automated and unmanned. Now heading directly south (and into the blinding sun) we passed a number of very lovely looking homes that led to our musing who these people are that can possibly afford them. I mean, I’m not earning badly at all but I still can hardly afford to buy a flat much bigger than a shoe box.
North Foreland was the scene of two naval battles of the 17th century Anglo-Dutch Wars. The first, in 1653, saw General-at-Sea George Monck defeat Admiral Maarten Tromp in an engagement featuring about a hundred ships each; Admiral Sir William Penn, the father of the founder of Pennsylvania, was one of Monck’s subordinates. The second battle, in 1666, saw Prince Rupert defeat Michiel de Ruyter in a similarly sized battle. It may well have helped that the Prince, though overall commander of the English fleet, had the highly capable George Monck as his second in command. Defeating the Dutch was practically General Monck’s hobby.
North Foreland shaded into East Cliff which shaded into Broadstairs proper, which was, when we reached it, a really pleasant surprise. The Lemming and I had both been concerned that the east Kent seaside resorts might turn out to be like Margate all the way around but we couldn’t have been more wrong. Broadstairs is lovely, being very picturesque.
Unfortunately, it was also mostly closed but we were visiting somewhat out of season.
There was something of a festival air as we descended from the cliffs into Broadstairs harbour. The full moon had brought a particularly large spring tide and people were thronging the harbour wall watching at what they hoped was a safe distance as waves crashed against it, shooting spray high into the air and generally inundating a car park in which one unfortunate vehicle had been left to enjoy the salt water.
Within the harbour, the water level had risen to an abnormally height and was in moderate danger of coming out of the harbour to play with people in the streets. Munching on shellfish from a stall in the harbour, we watched the waves crash while I failed to get my phone to take any decent pictures thereof…
A Leisurely Lunch
Rather than filling a gap, the shellfish just reminded us how hungry we actually were so we spent ten minutes or so searching central Broadstairs for a restaurant that was open. Eventually, we found a little Mediterranean place at which lunch was delicious, washed down with a nice bottle of red. My walk was certainly proving more civilised with company than when solitary and I in no way reckoned this to be a bad thing.
Broadstairs likes to be considered ‘the jewel in Thanet’s crown’ and it is a claim that certainly merits consideration. It arose as a 14th century fishing and farming settlement near the 11th century Shrine of Our Lady atop the cliffs at what was then known as Bradstowe, meaning ‘broad place’. The shrine gained towers in the 1350, which were used as navigational landmarks and a flight of steps was cut from the bay below to the cliff top. It was most likely the conflation of Bradstowe and ‘stairs’ that gives us the modern town’s name.
The tide had receded a bit by the time we emerged from the restaurant and we marvelled at the people swimming in the cold North Sea waters and in particular at the number of surfers all along this section of coast. We knew that Newquay in Cornwall was a surfing hotspot, with its large Atlantic waves, but hadn’t expected the eastern Kent coast to attract quite so many too. The sheer number of surfers with considerable kit suggested that this was a recurrent thing and at least some of the waves were clearly actually surfable; I guess one underestimates the North Sea at one’s peril
One person not swimming, but who amused us greatly, was a single and solitary Goth sat on Broadstairs beach.
‘Is that a Goth sat in the sunshine?’ asked the Lemming incredulously. I nodded my aging ex-Goth head.
‘Yes, but they’re miserable about it’.
We Arrive, Rain Does Not
We turned our backs on the Sunshine Goth and, as we headed south, the sky clouded over behind us. Looking back, we could see rain advancing and fully expected to get wet. The rain never arrived, however, and sunshine continued to dazzle our eyes as our route took us down into Ramsgate, which is also a very lovely town.
Ramsgate is one of the ancient Cinque Ports, which were historically afforded numerous privileges as Norman England’s five main ports. The Saxon fishing village of Hraefn’s Gate—a ‘gate’ in these Kentish place names signifying a gap in the cliffs allowing access to a bay—thus grew into a seriously wealthy town.
While its economic power is largely over, Ramsgate boasts nine hundred listed buildings, with two hundred surrounding the harbours and marina alone. I say ‘harbours’ because it has two—the Port of Ramsgate, a working port from which the Ostend ferry departs, and the Royal Harbour—mostly a marina—which is the only harbour to bear the prefix ‘Royal’ in the UK. This unique distinction was granted by George IV, largely because he liked the place. I can see why.
The Lemming and I were pleased to discover an old dry dock in the Royal Harbour that had been designed by John Smeaton, the engineer who built the third Eddystone Lighthouse.
Smack and Coke
We were even more delighted to follow our way around the harbour, past some really cool arches, to discover a building that made us stop in our tracks and say ‘what?’
A moment’s consideration reminded us that a smack is a type of fishing vessel. But then, when we looked into the tiny Sailor’s Church next door and read a reference to some historical ‘German Coke Riots’ we were forced to retire for fear of inappropriate giggling.
The German Coke Riots were, in fact, violent objections in 1920 to the loading of coke (the fuel not cocaine or its derivative soft drink) onto two German ships. The objections spiralled into full scale riots and were one of the most serious public order situations faced by Kent Police in the entire twentieth century.
Once our sniggering at narcotic innuendo was done with, we climbed Jacob’s Ladder – a lengthy flight of steps up to the road level. The steps are stone but were originally wood, having been built by a carpenter named Jacob Steed who would no doubt be appalled to discover that some ignorant lout had recently used his staircase as a urinal.
Our noses suitably affronted, we reached the road atop the arches and headed south, which soon turned into west with the curvature of the coast.
St Augustine’s Church
In Ramsgate’s suburb of West Cliff, we espied a church that demanded a closer look.
The Lemming, who studied geology, was most impressed with the church’s walls, which are entirely faced with knapped black flint, which must have cost a fortune in both materials and manpower to sort and shape it. I was already keen to see this church, knowing that it was a Grade I listed building designed by Augustus Pugin, most famous for his work on the Palace of Westminster.
Amazingly, Pugin built St Augustine’s as his private church, since he was living in Ramsgate at the time. Even more amazingly, not being one to stint on materials, he had stone brought all the way from Whitby in North Yorkshire. Unfortunately for Mr Pugin, he died in 1852 before work on the church was complete.
I would very much have liked to have seen the interior, which being designed by Pugin promised to be special—but the church was closed (and there were signs of someone homeless sleeping in the doorway) so we mooched about its small but crowded graveyard for a bit before continuing our journey.
A short distance down the road we encountered the entrance to the Pegwell Tunnel, which allows the A299 to cut straight through the cliff on its way to (or in our direction of travel, from) the ferry terminal.
Signs outside the tunnel prohibited pedestrians, cycles, invalid carriages, vehicles under 50 cc and horse-drawn carriages while, amusingly, right next to it was an access road for the coast with a sign reading ‘Authorised vehicles only’, which at first glance it made it look like some sort of secret tunnel into which no vehicles are allowed at all (the slow but steady trickle of cars and lorries soon belied that impression).
It was at this point, turning away from the tunnel to look out over Pegwell Bay, that we first spotted the forlorn and disused bulk of Richborough Power Station.
Mere yards later we left Ramsgate, following the path down a small road whose inhabitants had optimistically labelled as ‘private’ as if to deter the likes of us. Unfortunately for them, we not only had a map but a helpful local confirmed that our route lay down that road.
The road became a path and then, unexpectedly, a massive disused car park, with a locked-off disused bridge over a disused road. All around, the vegetation was reclaiming the tarmac and concrete in a most impressive manner. At this point all indication of the path had vanished and we wondered where the hell we were—it later transpired that it was a long-disused hovercraft terminal—but we espied some steps leading up to the road where we thought we could see the sort of overly artistic fishtail signpost that one finds on a national cycle network route. As joining the nearby cycle route fitted well with our plan, we immediately headed for this signpost. Except it was nothing of the sort.
Imagine, if you can, our surprise to be greeted at the top of the steps by Hugin—a full scale replica of a Viking longboat, her stern being what we had initially thought was a cycle network signpost!
The Lemming was annoyed to find that the ship’s badly designed information sign had weathered to illegibility but we managed to find another while I remembered that ‘Viking ship’ was actually written on my OS map.
The Hugin was built in Denmark in 1949 and sailed to Pegwell Bay, where we now were, to mark the 1500th anniversary of the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in Kent.
Hengist and Horsa
Hengist and Horsa were of course the two semi-legendary Saxon mercenaries (and brothers) invited to Britain by Vortigern, the High King. This accidentally kicked off the Saxon takeover of England as, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, after serving Vortigern in his war against the Picts, the two brothers decided to stay. So did their armies which were growing with more and more immigrants from Saxony, Jutland and Angeln. Hengist later became the first Saxon king of Kent.
About a hundred and fifty years later St Augustine landed at much the same spot on his mission to convert Hengist’s descendant King Æthelberht to Christianity, becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury in the process.
Pegwell Bay Country Park
Now following a cycle path beside the A256, we headed south-west before turning off into the Pegwell Bay Country Park. This was comprised largely of salt marsh, stretching out into the mud and sand of Pegwell Bay, while in the distance we could see waves breaking against the distant edge of the mud bank.
I was just remarking that I was surprised there weren’t any bird hides when what looked to be an incongruously dumped cargo container turned out to be in fact, a whacking great bird hide. We sat in it for a bit, resting our feet and in doing so proved that the bird hide worked as two egrets trotted up and down right in front of us.
When we were suitably rested, we continued through the salt marsh, which has the River Stour running through it.
This reminded us that when Hengist and Horsa were in the area much of it was underwater, forming the Wantsum Channel between the Isle of Thanet and the mainland.
Richborough Power Station
After a while, our path disgorged us onto the A256 near Richborough Power Station, which distracted the Lemming from wondering why the swallows were still out to musing about the power station instead.
Richborough Power Station is a perfect example of the brevity of modern construction and technology. It was built in 1962 as a shiny new coal-burning station, converted to oil in 1971, converted again to using a bitumen emulsion in 1989 and then finally closed in 1996. These days its power lines are fed by the Thanet Wind Farm.
Immediately south of the empty and mouldering power station lies Port Richborough, an industrial port built in WW1 to service operations on the Western Front and which thus developed the world’s first RO-RO ferry service. In the early 1990s, the port was used to offload the emulsified bitumen consumed by the power station but these days the port has ceased to function and is used for industrial storage.
Richborough itself—once a major Roman fort (named Rutupiae) guarding the southern end of the Wantsum Channel and the beachhead of the Roman invasion in 43—lies a mile or so to the south west and we didn’t pass through it. Instead, we headed south through Great Stonar, also once an important port but now inland, landlocked and mostly covered by a massive industrial complex belonging to Pfizer.
Beyond Great Stonar we finally entered Sandwich just as the sun had set. We admired its Barbican (a fortified entrance) before setting off to find the station, which turned out to be right out on the edge of Sandwich in what appeared to be a housing estate.
Sandwich was one of the rich and powerful Cinque Ports, in the days when it was located on the sea at the southern end of the Wantsum Channel. It dates back to a 1028 charter from King Canute for the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury to operate a ferry and collect tolls there.
Its harbour has long since silted up and vanished and the town is now inland but its former prestige is reflected in its Cinque Port status and the bizarre fact that the first captive elephant in England, a present from France, was landed at Sandwich and taken on foot to London.
The town’s greatest fame is of course derived from John Montagu, its fourth earl, who popularised meat between two bits of bread, allegedly so that he didn’t have to leave the gaming table in order to dine.
After sixteen and a half miles we wanted a drink and were duly dismayed to find that Sandwich Station was nowhere near Sandwich’s town centre pubs, presumably because they built the station (in 1846) at a point convenient to the railway on the road into Sandwich and the town has just grown out to meet it.
We duly jumped on a train back to Ramsgate and spent fifteen minutes killing time there. Ramsgate Station, like Margate’s was built in 1926 by Edwin Maxwell Fry. Architecturally it’s very nice in an art deco sort of way. Operationally, it’s not so hot—the toilets were closed and the information system was broken. Even so, we found our way onto a train to Medway, where we had that final pint and parted company, agreeing that it had been a good walk and fifteen-ish miles is just about right.
Unbelievably, the new boots were comfortable all of the way and gave me no blisters at all. I’m deeply impressed.
The day’s wildlife tally included lots of birds such as seagulls, a curlew, two egrets, two swallows and, unexpectedly, several rose-ringed parakeets.
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 91½ miles