A bright August afternoon, 55BC. Shingle crunches beneath sandals as Julius Caesar’s scouts slip from their boats and head up the beach. This was a reconnaissance mission, to decide if England was worth invading; they concluded it wasn’t. Or at least, not yet – 12 years later they returned, this time with a good deal more conviction and legions.
The Kent coast has been England’s front line for millennia, and as this straightforward 10-mile walk takes you over the cliff tops and beaches between Dover and Deal, its past unfolds, revealing a fear of attack that stretches from the Iron Age to the Second World War.
1. White cliffs of Dover
As you step off the train and head through the once-proud market town of Dover, its vast medieval castle – the largest in England – still dominates the skyline. With its Roman lighthouse, fine Saxon church, apoleonic embellishments and warrens of secret Second World War tunnels, it deserves a whole day’s visit on its own.
But we must press on, up to the chalk grasslands above the White Cliffs, with views across the Channel to France. Blues and purples are in season: viper’s bugloss, blue vetch and sainfoin all flourish amid the wind-combed hawthorn and gorse; there are even a few late early purple orchids clinging to the cliff-face. The sheer 90m (300ft) drop beyond gives a gull’s-eye view of the busy ferry port below. Beside the path are trenches dug by an anxious Home Guard 70 or so years ago, the occasional remnant of a gun emplacement and mysterious tunnels disappearing into the chalk.
2. Protective beacons
At South Foreland stand two lighthouses, once essential for ships hoping to avoid the treacherous Goodwin Sands. The newer of the two (the first in the world to use an electric light) is worth a detour. St Margaret’s was fortified in the Napoleonic era – some of its defensive walls remain.
After a steep climb out of St Margaret’s Bay and steady descent back down to sea level, the home straight is flat, along the beach through Kingsdown to Walmer castle. This was built as one of the ‘Device’ forts, Henry VIII’s manic coastal defence construction plan. Later much gentrified, it was home to the 1st Duke of Wellington – you can even see the saggy cream armchair he died in, although they won’t let you sit in it.
3. Armed fortress
Continuing along the beach, we come to Deal, whose squat, stubborn-looking castle is another of Henry VIII’s ‘keep-the-Catholics-out’ constructions. Shaped like a Tudor rose, it has a moat and six curved bastions, housing over 200 cannon and gun ports.
If you’re feeling strong, you can push further north to the ruins of Sandown Castle. Also built by Henry VIII, it was once every bit as grand as Walmer, but has now been eroded to the sea wall and partially carried off by the waves. All that remains are a few low walls, as the gulls glide above a slate grey sea – a sobering reminder, perhaps, of the folly of man’s endless attempts to conquer and defend.
Click on the map below for an interactive version of the route.
HOW TO GET THERE
Start the walk at Dover Priory Station and finish at Deal station, both on the mainline to London. There are two direct trains an hour from Deal back to Dover, taking around 15 minutes.
FIND OUT MORE
The White Cliffs Countryside Partnership has devised a selection of short circular walks in the area. The National Trust have opened a grass-roofed visitor centre on Langdon Cliffs, offering food, seasonal events and self-guided walks.
St Margaret’s Bay,
Dover CT15 6DY
Popular pub-restaurant with a terrace overlooking the bay.