At this season, The Gentle Author always enjoys an annual late summer holiday beyond Spitalfields in the form of a day trip to the sea and this year’s excursion was a walk from Deal to Dover
The White Cliffs are a popular source of inspiration for artists
In common with thousands of other travellers, the point of departure for my journey was Dover yet, unlike everyone else, I turned left at the ferry terminal to follow the coastal path eastward towards Deal.
Before I even began the climb uphill to the Cliffs, I was confronted with a poignant reminder of the strategic importance of this small town situated at the narrowest point of the English Channel. A statue was being unveiling commemorating the seamen of the Merchant Navy who lost their lives in the Second World War, a third of whom never returned. Just a few frail veterans with medals gathered in sadness, as sailors lined up with flags and local dignitaries made speeches, while a vintage airplane puttered overheard in gathering clouds.
As the ceremony concluded and umbrellas unfurled, I walked on past narrow terraces tucked in at the foot of the tall cliffs towering aloft. The epic spectacle of the ferry port only becomes apparent as you ascend the narrow path crossing beneath the motorway suspended above, feeding the terminal with a ceaseless flow of traffic.
At this point, it seemed that my excursion might be over when a thunderstorm broke over my head, sending arrows of forked lightening into the sea. Impatient with standing under the concrete bridge waiting for the rain to stop, I set out again and was forced to take shelter again in a thicket, contemplating an abandoned shopping trolley and an old lawnmower. Once the storm relented, I struggled uphill to the cafeteria for visitors to the White Cliffs Experience, joining the melancholy throng eating all-day breakfasts and gazing jealously across the channel at the sunlit French coast.
How grateful I was when the rain stopped and I set out in earnest through the puddles and muddy paths. After a mile or so, I left the visitors behind and the grassy footpath became less worn, bordered with wild thyme and fennel. The undulating nature of the cliff exposed impressive deep chasms, faced with sheer walls of chalk, descending hundred of feet to the water below, inducing a sense of giddy exhilaration tinged with vertigo. The dark clouds were behind me and a warm wind was in my face, and the French coast gleamed in the sunlight twenty-three miles across the sparkling sea. When I descended to the bay at St Margaret’s At Cliffe, barely a soul disturbed the peace underscored by the gentle rise and fall of the waves.
Autumn declared itself in the red hips, hawthorn and slow berries along the path and in the sight of a tractor ploughing up the stubble, trailed by a flock of seagulls. Yet, after the opening the squall, the weather was benign, the walking was good and within a few hours the cliffs declined, delivering me to the long shingle beach at Kingsdown. On the last stretch, a hawk hovered overhead, drifting and swooping on the currents of warm air before folding his wings and dropping like a dart towards his prey.
For places so close to London, both Kingsdown and Walmer were unexpectedly quiet and unspoilt seaside towns. A magnificent long line of Edwardian villas borders the beach, which has a sparse forest of dwarf evergreen oaks shielding the land from the sea. This was where Julius Caesar landed two thousand years ago and it is not difficult to imagine the Roman galleys pulled onto the beach here. Castles at Walmer and Deal, and eighteenth century barracks in Deal, serve as a reminder of the threat of invasion that persisted into the last century. At Walmer, a handsome stone gothic boathouse on the seafront reveals the importance of the lifeboat to these small communities that relied upon the sea for their livelihood. Today just a handful of fishing boats remain, surrounded by their paraphernalia of plastic fish trays, lobster pots and nets.
A portion of cod and chips provided necessary sustenance to make it along this seemingly-endless seafront to Deal, where a cup of tea outside the ramshackle shed known as the Sea Cafe offered welcome refreshment upon arrival. The last of the afternoon sun was fading and the shops had all shut, which meant that an exploration of the manifold delights of Deal would have to wait for another day.
You may like to read about my previous trips beyond Spitalfields at this time of year
At Gravesend, 2016
At Sandwich, 2015
At Herne Bay, 2014
A Walk from Shoeburyness to Chalkwell, 2013
A Walk Along the Ridgeway, 2012
At Walton on the Naze, 2011
At Canvey Island, 2010
At Broadstairs, 2009
This post first appeared on Spitalfields Life | In The Midst Of Life I Woke To, please read the originial post: here