Coastal Walks

Back in April this year, once I had finished with my cat-sitting for Simba, I finally got some time to spend with Peter, one of my oldest friends, at his home in Hythe near Folkstone (which is near Dover on the south coast). The sun shone blindingly every day of my visit. We share a love of combining walking with eating and drinking, and Peter’s home is the perfect place for indulging in both.

Hythe itself is very genteel and slightly twee, though like many coastal areas, is in the process of being transformed by and for incomers re-locating further from their work, now that the pandemic has opened up more flexible working options. Hythe high street has many, many places to drink coffee and browse charity and antique shops, but it also has an increasing number of places to brunch and to dine, to drink cocktails and to buy posh wine. Oh yes, and lots and lots of places to get gourmet fish and chips.

The walk from Hythe to Folkstone along the beach gives excellent people watching, is rich in ozone, and on a good day gives a view across the Channel to France. And it’s just the right size of walk, about 7K, to work up an appetite. There’s a bit of history in Sandgate along the way, where HG Wells once lived, and where there’s a castle and a tribute to Sir John Moore, who was stationed there during the Napoleonic Wars. There are also some wonderful beach huts as you approach Folkstone, perfect people-watching on a sunny Easter day.

Folkstone died a death when the cross-channel ferry stopped running, but in the intervening years, local artists have made huge inroads into turning it into a very different seaside town, and their installations which include the little houses which float in the harbour (renamed the Creative Quarter), are all over the town. The old railway station has a craft fair on the platforms at weekends, and in the summer months, there’s an absolutely fabulous selection of food shacks. We headed first for the champagne bar at the end of the pier by the lighthouse, because the sun was just about over the yardarm, and because – well, just because! After much debate and wandering and sampling, we settled on Shesells Seashells for lunch. We could have eaten inside in an old railway carriage, but the sun was shining, and we northerners (and Peter is originally a northerner too) grab every opportunity to dine al fresco.

The sun continued to shine the next day for our walk from Folkstone Harbour along the white cliffs to Dover (14.5K). For the first time this visit, the mist finally lifted enough for me to see France. I can see France! I announced excitedly at regular intervals to Peter, who after the first twenty times became rather bored. But I could see France! I love France. I had missed France so much. I was going back, definitely going back this year I decided (and I’m still determined).

But there was a lot more to see than France on this walk that Peter had researched for me – and knowing me so well, had printed off all the associated historical guff so that I could bore him with it when I wasn’t boring him with the fact that I could see France.

There was a lot of history. There were some Martello Towers, which were built during the Napoleonic wars. There’s the Battle of Britain War Memorial. There’s the Drop Redoubt at Dover, and a view of Dover Castle. In fact there are some amazing views. Aside from France (did I say that I could see France?) the views back to Folkstone and along the coast, and then down into Dover, from the white cliffs, are quite spectacular. Samphire Hoe Country Park, which was built from the Channel Tunnel excavations, is a very odd, plain space, but there’s some other lovely sections of the cliff which are covered in wild flowers and teeming with wildlife. There’s a perfectly-placed cliff-top café for lunch too.

We had planned to have a pitstop in Dover at the end of the walk, but I found the town very run down and lacking the appeal of Folkstone and Hythe – a prime place for an upgrade, which reminded me of too many similarly run-down seaside resorts who have not yet found a new life (one being very close to home). Besides, Peter being Peter, had a fridge back at his house stocked with champagne, and a lovely comfortable sofa on the deck in his garden. So we got the train back to Hythe.  

On the last day of my visit, the sun retreated behind a sea haar, making for a very atmospheric visit to Dungeness. This is the weirdest of places, a very, very flat wilderness on a long peninsula, where the pebble beach shelves so steeply that the fishing boats (shaped like the ones in Brittany, which always look to me like they will topple over) need to be hauled in and out of the sea with hydraulics. It’s eerie, I said to Peter at the time, it was like being in a Salvador Dali painting, or in some post-apocalyptic film. Derek Jarman’s house and desert-like garden is one of the very few protected (and highly sought-after) residences which are dotted about the peninsula. All of them lie under the huge edifice of Dungeness nuclear power station which is in the process of being decommissioned, and whose lowering presence, so very different from the quaint hut residences, makes the place feel even more surreal. Just for added oddness too, there’s a miniature railway that runs from Hythe to Dungeness, and which is used not only for tourists, but to take the local kids to school – a bit more fun than a bus, though cold in winter, I reckon.

One of the fishing boats was unloading as we crunched past. Huge sacks of whelks, a shellfish that in Scotland we almost never see, except as a minor garnish on a posh seafood platter. In England, in contrast, whelks are incredibly popular as a snack and pub food (pickled), and there was even a whelk bar in Folkstone harbour – heaving! I think it might be a bit like eels, which are never on any menu in Scotland, whether pickled, jellied or flambee!

Back at my sister’s for the last night of my extended trip, Simba went into hiding at the first sight of Peter, who he had for reasons known only to himself, taken agin’. My sister opened another bottle of bubbly, my brother-in-law made excellent pizza on his new barbecue pizza oven, and I thought to myself, I should start thinking about work. Then I had another glass of fizz, and decided to put it off for another day. Or another week. Or maybe more.

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    1. And today while I was plotting I had an idea for setting my current book there – or part of it – and have my hero built the miniature railway. So I may need another visit…

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