Twin gateways to the Continent in England’s walls of chalk
Almost 2,000 years ago the Romans chose Dover as the headquarters of their British fleet, and ever since the famous ‘white cliffs’ have been a landmark for ships sailing from the Continent. While Dover is a port which also has holiday facilities, Folkestone is primarily a prosperous resort, which also handles cross-Channel ferries. Between the two towns the cliffs form an unbroken wall of chalk, which continues east of Dover.
One of the original Cinque Ports, Hythe can trace its history back to AD 732, when it was granted a charter by the Saxon King Eth-elred. It was originally right on the sea, but down the centuries the shingle has built up, and the town centre is now half a mile or so inland. Hythe’s chief feature is the Royal Military Canal, which separates’ old Hythe from the seaside resort part of the town. Tree-lined and quiet, it was constructed in the early 19th century as part of the sea defences against invasion from France; nowadays it is an ideal stretch of water in which to splash about in a small boat. At the west end of the town is the eastern terminus of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, a miniature railway using replicas of historic steam locomotives.
From the canal, streets of mainly 18th-century houses run up to the big medieval church of St Leonard, notable for its ambulatory or crypt stacked with some 2,000 skulls and 8,000 thigh-bones of people who lived between about 1200 and 1400. The bones were probably placed in the crypt when the graveyard was periodically cleared to make way for fresh burials. One grave in the churchyard is that of Lionel Lukin, who in 1786 converted a Northumberland fishing boat into the first shore-based lifeboat.
Across the canal is seaside Hythe, which lies between the Hythe military firing ranges at one end and the Imperial Hotel’s golf course at the other. Steps lead down from the long, straight promenade to a shingle-and-sand beach, protected by massive groynes of concrete and timber. There are generally a few fishing boats drawn up on the shingle towards the Martello tower which marks the end of the rifle-ranges.
At Sandgate the low hills of East Kent crowd down to the sea, hardly leaving room for the main road and the rows of attractive old fishermen’s and coastguards’ cottages squeezed between the road and the sea.
The small esplanade is dominated by the battered remains of Sandgate Castle, one of the chain of castles built by Henry VIII in the 1530s against the threat of invasion. Visits to the castle can be arranged at the Sandgate Castle Gallery antique shop near by. A Martello tower stands inside the castle; and beside it is a reminder of more modern warfare-a Boforsgun, still used for training by the local Sea Cadets.
From Sandgate the main road to Folkestone turns inland, but a better alternative is to take the pretty undercliff toll road, which runs through pinewoods and shrubs, with grassy banks that overlook the sea and are a favourite place for picnics. The lodge at the Folkestone end still proclaims the tolls of half a century ago: ‘Id. for horse, mule or ass. Hand trucks, barrows, bicycles, Id.’
Folkestone is unusual among seaside resorts in having no proper seafront. What it has instead are the superb clifftop gardens known as The Leas, which run for more than a mile from central Folkestone almost to Sandgate. With wide lawns, luxuriant shrubs and colourful flowerbeds, they bring a Riviera touch to the Kentish coast.
Folkestone began to develop as a resort with the coming of the railways in the 1840s; before that it was hardly more than a fishing village clustered round the harbour. The old High Street, lined with ancient houses, is now pedestrianised, and runs steeply down to the harbour, where at low tide fishing boats lie at all angles stranded on the mudflats. Cross-Channel ferries to Ostend, Boulogne and Calais load and unload from the stone pier, as the harbour proper is too small for modern vessels.
East of the harbour is Folkestone’s main bathing beach, East Cliff Sands, crammed to bursting on fine summer afternoons. Swimming is safe, and lifeguards patrol throughout the summer. At high tide it is often necessary to leave the sand and take refuge on the concrete terrace above it. The sands are reached from the Stade, the narrow fish-market area by the harbour, which has very limited parking.
Near the centre of The Leas is a statue to Folkestone’s most famous figure – William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood, who was born in Folkestone in 1578, and is shown holding a human heart.
At the opposite end of Folkestone from The Leas a huge stretch of open grassland, above East Cliff Sands, gives magnificent views out to sea. There stand three of the long line of more than 100 Martello towers built along the south-east and east coasts against the threat of French invasion in the early 19th century.
This wilderness of chalk terraces covered with grass and undergrowth took its present shape as recently as 1915, when the latest in a series of landslips cascaded thousands of tons of chalk downhill for 300 yds, burying the railway line and hurling blocks of chalk far into the sea. His now a favourite place for walkers, or for those who want to sun themselves in peace and quiet. The upper region of small combes is known as ‘Little Switzerland’. The easiest access is from the car park above East Cliff Sands.
The beach below The Warren consists of shingle, with sand at low tide, protected by groynes, and can be reached only on foot, either from above or from East Cliff Sands.
At this point the Old Dover Road offers a quiet alternative to the crowded A20, running for 1 mile close to the cliff edge, and giving wide-ranging views of the crowded Channel shipping lanes. A steep footpath leads down from the garden of a cafe, over a footbridge across the railway and on to the beach, where a wide concrete ‘apron’ has been constructed above the shingle. Allow half an hour to get down and 40 minutes to return to the top.
The walk along the clifftop forms part of the North Downs Way, the long-distance footpath running from Farnham in Surrey to Dover.
A rough unmade road leads from the A20 to a clifftop on the edge of the army rifle-range, which occupies part of the heights towards Dover. Visitors are warned to keep out of the range area when red flags are flying. The views out to sea are breathtaking. On returning, beware the turn-out on to the A20, which is very narrow at this point.
The most monumental of all Dover’s ‘white cliffs’, this massive chalk headland, 300 ft high, towers over the western fringes of Dover. It was this cliff that Edgar described to his blind father Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear:
And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles….’
The top of the cliff can be reached from Dover, along Snargate Street, past the foot of the cliff and inland past the Aycliff housing estate. The road soon narrows to a lane, which ends after about a mile at the army’s clifftop firing range,
Alternatively, motorists can park just before reaching the foot of the cliff and walk up it by a footpath, part of the North Downs Way. From the same starting point a path over a railway footbridge leads to the foreshore. The abandoned workings of the Channel Tunnel – a project begun in 1880 and revived at intervals – can be reached along the foreshore. This walk should be attempted only when the tide is ebbing, for when the tide comes in there is a danger of being cut off at the foot of the cliffs.
For nearly 2,000 years Dover has been
England’s main cross-Channel port. The Romans made it the headquarters of their northern fleet, the Classis Britannica; in the Middle Ages it became a Cinque Port, and one of the most powerful castles in the country was built to guard the ‘Gateway to England’; during two world wars it was shelled and bombed from across the Channel; and nowadays hardly 5 minutes goes by without a cross-Channel ferry leaving with its load of passengers and container lorries, or a hovercraft roaring out to sea.
Dover has moved with the times in the way it caters for leisure enjoyment as well as commercial interests. The huge outer harbour, which was built at the beginning of the century to take the battleships and cruisers of the Grand Fleet, is now given over in summer to windsurfers and dinghies, while swimmers splash about in the shallows.
The town runs inland up the valley of the Dour, the river from which Dover gets its name. From whichever direction Dover is approached, the castle looms over the town, foursquare and forbidding. It is full of weapons and historic relics, and beside the steep road that leads up to the castle’s car park is the ornate gun nicknamed ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Pocket Pistol’, which was given to Elizabeth I by the Dutch. On top of the green mound beside the castle, and adjoining the Saxon church of St Mary-in-Castro, is Dover’s most fascinating ruin, the octagonal lower stage of the Roman pharos, or lighthouse, built soon after the Roman conquest in the 1st century AD. Its height of 40 ft makes it the tallest surviving Roman structure in Britain.
Swimming from the harbour’s sand-and-shingle beach is safe close inshore, but lifeguards patrol regularly only on Sundays. On the promenade are statues of Capt.
Matthew Webb, who in 1875 became the first man to swim the Channel, and of Charles Stewart Rolls, of Rolls-Royce fame, who in 1910 flew the Channel both ways in a single flight. Louis Bleriot, who the previous year had been the first man to fly the Channel in any direction, has his own memorial at Dover – a granite outline of an aircraft, in a clearing behind the castle, cut in the turf on the spot where he landed.
The squat white pepper-pot of the South Foreland lighthouse, operated automatically and not open to the public, can be reached from St Margaret’s at Chffe, down Lighthouse Road. The clifftop walk from Dover forms part of the long-distance Saxon Shore Way, the course of which is marked by a depiction of a horned Viking helmet.