FOLLOWING last Saturday’s fun and games, in which I came interestingly close to not so much shuffling off this mortal coil as slipping from it, I decided that I would continue my excursion around the Kentish coast. After all, the weather forecast was ‘sunny intervals with rain later’ and I still had more lovely cliffs to walk, with their slippery-when-wet clay topsoil.
As it happened, the rain didn’t even try to make a showing until after I’d come down from the cliffs and for this I was glad because one or two of them were quite scary enough as it was (I don’t like heights all that much and at a couple of points there was about a foot and half between the edge of the path and a very long way down.
On the plus side, I seem to have (temporarily) reactivated a strange aspect of my brain that allows me to walk mountain-goat-like on the top of cliffs while I compartmentalise things thus:
- I know that’s a long way down but I’m not looking at it.
- I am looking where I’m walking because the path is muddy and slipping over here would be… bad; and:—
- There’s a really cool view and things down there are too small and far away to be real. It’s not real, la-la-la. And I’m still not focussing on anything that bridges the gap between the toy trees and sheep down there and this path up here. No, I’m really not. Please refer to point 1.
What makes this slightly bizarre is that if it were a man-made structure, which one would hope has been engineered to stay in one piece, rather than say a natural cliff, which is potentially liable to catastrophic failure at any moment, then this compartmentalisation trick doesn’t work at all and I’d pretty much be frozen to the spot in stark terror. Funny how the mind works, really
Cliffs are, of course, one of the things that Dover is famous for—big white ones—although they are so covered in vegetation that in some places the ‘Green Cliffs of Dover’ would be more appropriate.
Dover Castle sits atop one of these cliffs, massive and majestic, faintly mocking me for previously spotting what must have been some of its outermost and more recent casements (Napoleonic maybe) and thinking ‘oh that’s the castle’.
I lightly ignored the castle’s mockery and, turning my back upon it, made my way westwards.
In no time at all, my route took me from sea level up onto a cliff, which was just fine. And then I looked ahead and upwards to the cliff that the path was about to lurch over, like some sort of pedestrian-paced roller coaster, only with a lot more coast and no rollers.
For before me was Shakespeare Cliff, named (or renamed) for that bloke what wrote plays on account of his having mentioned it in one of them.
In King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester, having asked Edgar ‘Dost thou know Dover?’ and having been told that he does, goes on to speak of “a cliff whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep,” before basically being asked to be pushed off the top of it.
Well, he had just been blinded.
I paused while I was up there, trying not to look down too much, and instead looked back at Dover, keeping just out of line of sight of the castle (oh how it mocked). What I saw was pretty much this:
Just after Shakespeare Cliff, one crosses the Channel Tunnel, not that it’s possible to tell at first glance.
Some evidence of the tunnel soon comes into view however, in the form of Samphire Hoe, a spur of land at the base of the cliff that consists entirely of chalk marl excavated during the construction of the tunnel. There are a couple of odd buildings at one end, one of which, when you look at it, turns out to be a bank of ventilator fans for the Channel Tunnel, but mostly the hoe is a country park, dotted with sheep and home to a number of relatively rare species such as Early Spider Orchid, which, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t know if I stepped on it.
Echoes of War
The top of the cliffs along this stretch of coast is not short on odd buildings either, since there are the ghostly relics of wartime gun batteries all over the place—part of an array of guns meant to counter equivalent German batteries in France, which led to this part of Kent being nicknamed ‘Hellfire Corner’.
There are any number of empty concrete plinths that once held searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, while other emplacements look out to sea and any enemy shipping foolish enough to run the gauntlet.
Interestingly, while some of them were sealed up, a number were not and the signs of bored kids hanging out there were plain to see. But then, I can hardly blame them. If you are a bored kid what could possibly make a cooler den than an actual WW2 gun emplacement?
I did find one structure that puzzled me though. It was atop Abbot’s Cliff, just past Lydden Spout, which had held a particular concentration of these wartime relics. The mysterious structure just didn’t seem to fit and looked more like a piece of modern art, being a large concave dent in a big concrete block.
I was rescued from my puzzlement by a friendly passer-by — an old guy out walking who said hello, as walkers often do, and was slightly surprised to be immediately asked if he knew what on earth I was looking at? Which he did.
The Measure of a Mammal
The kindly old man asked how far I’d walked and was intending to walk and when I told him he answered ‘well done’, somehow contriving to sound absolutely genuine and not at all condescending (which is how it looks in writing). He commented that it at least keeps you fit; I patted my stomach — these days as convex as a sound mirror is concave — and suggested that sadly it didn’t.
‘Aha,’ said the man, better getting my measure, ‘there’s a café further along the cliff.’
I thanked him and, lured by the spectre of a bacon sarnie, I hurried along towards the splendidly-named village of Capel-le-Ferne.
The café, when I found it, was disappointing, its bacon sandwiches of a quality no doubt nostalgic for the bulk of its patrons, who had lived through post war austerity, but which doesn’t really pass muster in the age of credit consumerism.
Capel-le-Ferne initially seemed to be nothing but hotels but gradually gave way to a bunch of clifftop holiday homes, gazing out to sea at some looming rainclouds that had clearly spotted me atop the cliff and were racing up to have a go.
Actually, if coastal erosion was ever going to be an issue for Capel-le-Ferne, it was going to be a much bigger issue for the railway first, as the line I’d ridden to Dover ran at the base of the cliff. This model train set was set back from the cliffs by a bunch of those toy trees I mentioned earlier and it all looked rather lovely until I noticed the actual cliff and made it all real. I backed away.
Battle of Britain Memorial
Moving on, I happened upon another reminder of the war, this time entirely intentional, in the form of a Battle of Britain Memorial, the design of which was quite brilliant and which was opened in 1993.
I initially spotted a statue, which was of a WW2 RAF pilot sat on a circular plinth with some weird detailing. As I approached, I noticed that in the distance behind was one of those Wall of Names type memorials to the fallen. I crossed an expanse of grass onto a brick path of irregular thickness, part of which was reddish brick and part of which was white. As there was no obvious reason for the white, I thought this odd.
Then, at the centre, I realised that there were three such paths and suddenly it clicked into place — the white was shading (or highlighting) and the path wasn’t simply a path — it was a giant propeller, with the statue sat on the boss. A giant propeller made out on the ground in such a way that the only manner in which you could properly appreciate it was to do so from the air. I thought that was really nice touch
The rain had a brief and abortive attempt at kicking off while I was there so I made a point of not remaining but moving on towards some sort of shelter, such as might be found in Folkestone, where my route was taking me next.
I had once been advised by someone who lived there briefly that Folkestone was the sort of place where you could get knifed for your boots. I don’t know about that — I suspect it may say more about the company they were keeping than anything else — and I didn’t see very much of the town but that’s perhaps just as well.
What I did see makes me feel that I owe an apology to Margate solely on the grounds that Margate isn’t Folkestone.
A Sad Decline
To be fair, Folkestone has had a hard time.
It’s an ancient town and was a limb of Dover in the confederation of the Cinque Ports but didn’t actually get its own harbour until the 19th century. With a harbour and the railway, it became a cross-channel port, with passenger cruisers crossing to Boulogne.
In time, RO-RO ferries did for the passenger cruisers but Folkestone adapted, embracing hovercraft and all sorts until the Channel Tunnel completely trashed its economy by rendering it pointless. It’s now an ex-cross-channel port and it shows.
I entered Folkestone along a fairly grim main road, walked through some quite passable residential streets and made my way to the town’s harbour and marina.
The route to the harbour ran alongside the branch line to Folkestone Harbour Station, now disused. Normal passenger services stopped on the line in 2001, after the cross-channel traffic went elsewhere but the Venice-Simplon Orient Express continued to run down twice a week to Folkestone Harbour Station, where — there no longer being any ships — the passengers got on a coach and drove to the Channel Tunnel terminal on the other side of Folkestone.
The VSOE gave that up in 2009 and now the line, and harbour station, are mouldering. Technically they’re ‘mothballed’ as a local group wants to restore it as a heritage line. Network Rail just wants it shut down and dismantled, while the council wants the line, and the viaduct that carries it demolished so that it can regenerate the harbour.
The harbour does need regeneration too, as it’s a bit grim and the mouldering railway line through the middle really isn’t helping any. I decided to try and get a picture of the harbour looking ok, and I managed it by mostly not getting much of the actual harbour in the shot.
I bought some cockles at the harbour, ate a few, decided I didn’t want them after all and gave a surprised seagull an unexpected bonus lunch. It seemed to enjoy them well enough. I left the seagull to it and found my way to the beach, which was shingle.
The beach is, naturally enough, at the bottom of a cliff. Folkestone is mostly on top of the cliff apart from a few peeling and faded hotels. On the plus side, this means that you can’t see Folkestone’s post-war architecture from the beach. However, it also means the beach looks pretty forlorn. My thoughts in this regard weren’t helped when out of nowhere I heard the sort of noise you should only be able to get by slowly torturing a banshee.
The Leas Lift is a marvel of Victorian engineering and it’s 125 years old. Okay, it seriously wants a drop of oil — salt air was never kind to machinery— and you can see that there used to be two sets of cars but the one on the right is long-gone but even so, its continued existence is a triumph.
Apparently, it was going to be bulldozed but it was saved. It costs 90p to go up or down but neatly resolves the whole issue of the town centre being at the other vertical end of a cliff.
The reason it’s a marvel of engineering is that, once again like all works of genius, it’s so simple:
You have two counterbalanced cars attached by chains to some pulleys and spindles. But you don’t have an engine driving the cars. No, what you have is a water tank on each car and, when it’s time to move them, the brakeman lets just enough water into the top car’s water tank that it is no longer perfectly balanced against the bottom car and so its own weight brings it down.
Because they’re linked, this pulls the other car up, and that in turn stops the first car from accelerating to terminal velocity. That and the brakeman, just in case. When a car reaches the bottom its water tank automatically empties.
The only engine is a pair of (Victorian) piston pumps that lets them recycle the water by pumping it back to the top of the cliff. It’s so simple. But no machine should screech and scrape like the Leas Lift does.
I decided to remain at the bottom of the cliff, largely screened from seeing Folkestone. This was a good plan as, in an attempt to prove me wrong about the town, the beach area developed into a lovely set of gardens and a series of beach huts before turning into the suburb of Sandgate
Sandgate has a castle, a 1539 Henrician Device Fort, and also has Shorncliffe Redoubt, the Napoleonic-era earthwork fort where Sir John Moore revolutionised the British Army by more or less inventing light infantry tactics and creating the 95th Rifles. That’s Sharpe’s regiment.
I didn’t see the redoubt but I did see the castle.
I also wandered down Sandgate’s main street near the seafront in search of something to munch. What I found is that the street was shut. Well, mostly the shops were shut; some of them were for sale. I did pass a pub that was managing to send out both the signals ‘we’re so run down we can’t replace our pub sign so you’ll have to guess what we’re called’ and ‘if you don’t know our name you’re not coming in’ at the same time.
As I started to leave Sandgate and Folkestone and head towards Hythe, I noticed an unusual amount of heavy construction plant on the beach ahead. These ultimately turned out to be involved in the ultimately futile task of digging up the shingle from one end of the beach (near Sandgate), driving it two miles further down and dumping it there (in Hythe), presumably so the sea can have all the fun of moving it back again.
The beach was closed for the duration of this exercise, which a series of ‘beach closed’ notices described as ‘maintenance and regrading’. That wasn’t quite what I thought when I first saw the diggers though.
The news that I couldn’t traipse over the shingle for two miles but had to stay on the concrete promenade was not at all distressing as walking on shingle is about as much fun as eating wasps.
As I continued along the promenade I did start to wonder where Hythe was. In theory, I was already in it, but the Hythe Imperial Hotel in the distance wasn’t getting any closer and all the other buildings seemed to be hidden from view.
After two miles of total monotony, I was desperate for anything interesting to look at, so much so that the vague, mist-concealed blur of Dungeness Power Station on the horizon was like Christmas. Only more nuclear.
I eventually made it past the Imperial and Hythe turned out to have actual buildings in it. It also had an ice cream van, which made everything better and I sat in the not-quite-sun (the rain having never properly materialised) resting my feet and eating an ice cream doused in with unnaturally red strawberry sauce that, to judge from its intensity of colour was more radioactive than Dungeness.
Royal Military Canal
Ice cream over, I turned inland and passed through Hythe, crossing the Royal Military Canal, another Napoleonic era work. The Saxon Shore Way follows the canal from here on, as the South Kent Marshes weren’t really land in Saxon times and the canal more or less follows the edge of the solid land.
I plan to part company with the Saxon Shore Way next time and head south as the coast turns that way, aiming for Dungeness, where I might just develop a warming Ready Brek glow. Today, I crossed the canal and kept going north, through the village of Saltwood to Sandling Station.
Sandling Station is pretty much nowhere, it’s location explained only by its history—it was Sandling Junction once upon a time, a handy interchange station before the branch line to Hythe closed down. It was still pretty handy for me; I boarded my train and raced away through Kent towards the lights of London.
This time: 15 miles
Total since Gravesend: 121½ miles