White Cliffs and All That.

Rest Day, 22nd November: Birchington

It was a rather relaxing day at my new base tucked up at Mike B’s house back in Birchington. A late brunch at a local cafe and an easy afternoon were sorely welcome. I’d got used to running around like a lunatic every Saturday. Dropping off, shopping, washing, blogging, photo processing, tidying Snickers and picking up someone new had all become a rather hectic routine. Saturdays had become more tiring than walking 25 miles. So to have some relaxation, good food, a comfy chair to sit in and conversation about something other than logistics and walking was indeed refreshing.

Stage 235, 23rd November: Kingsgate to Deal

The forecast for the day didn’t add great cheer to the start of my penultimate week. It began dry, but the sky was a heavy lead grey and I knew I was going to get very wet at some point. I managed to see Broadstairs whilst the rain held off. The North Foreland Estate was clearly the realm of millionaires. Predominantly German built cars with extravagant boasting his and hers personalised number plates were lined up in mansion driveways. The display of wealth was more than a little distasteful and I’d forgotten how brash and showy the Southeast had become. Humility seemed to be lost on many and that was a shame.

More Charles Dickens heritage passed by quickly as I rounded Bleak House, which was originally Fort House and only given its current name in the 20th century. Whether it was the house that Dickens referred to in his novel is disputed, but in any event it attracted visitors even on a cold, dank Sunday in November.

As I made my way towards Ramsgate the first rain flicked lightly on my hands and face. I imagined that a summer view across the chimney pots towards the marina and a now largely redundant harbour could be spectacular, but with the light as flat as a pancake it was difficult to capture the compact architecture of town.

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By the time I ducked inland at Cliffs End and Pegwell Bay the rain had become persistent. I returned to the coast via Sandwich and strode straight across the fairways of Royal St George’s where only a few hardy bedraggled souls were still playing in the now heavy rain, rain that could only be described as something that sounds very much like persistent, but a little cruder. I tried to change my now sodden gloves to a dry pair from the depths of my rucksack. However, my hands were too wet and cold. My fingers on my right hand refused to straighten without help and I couldn’t get the gloves on. A small tantrum followed before I gave up and returned to the soaking pair and traipsed down the edge of the Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club atop a shingle beach to thankfully meet up with Mike and his heated car seats in Deal. I think it was fair to say that I was soaked to the skin for a fifth time.

Stage 236, 24th November: Deal to Sandgate

Things were looking up. The sun was out. It was a beautifully crisp morning as Deal soon became Walmer and, as I rounded the corner at Kingsdown, the tall chalk walls of the White Cliffs of Dover magically made their entrance. Their appearance greatly pleased my eyes and gave them something to look at other than the flat featureless landscape they had become accustomed to. With the added bonus of a sun, even if it was a low sun, my spirit was quickly lifted at the prospect of being able to use my camera without having to search hard for subject matter.  The downside was that the path marked beneath the cliffs was impassable and I had to backtrack to go over them and to get around to Dover itself.

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I stopped for lunch on the cliff top above the ferry port at Dover and sat watching the bee hive of activity below me. Ferries were coming and going almost by the minute as they greedily regurgitated one load of trucks and cars and eagerly swallowed another before hurrying off to repeat the deed in Calais. I could even clearly hear the tannoy announcements and I sat there feeling a bit like Big Brother watching over every move.

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I dropped into Dover town and climbed out again for a brief spell on the North Downs Way. A few steep switchbacks were still very gooey from yesterdays rain, but the mud was nothing compared to the marshes and ploughed fields of recent weeks. As I dropped steeply into Folkestone I found myself jogging down the hill trying to keep pace with my feet eager to descend and enjoy what I suspected would be a rather stunning spectacle. Folkestone was about to  deliver a cracking sunset and I knew it. I hurried along to get to the promenade and to get a decent view. I got there just in time as the sun dropped quickly and disappeared at 3:58 pm exactly. But that was only the start of it as the sky above told me that the best colours would come over the next twenty minutes or so. Sure enough the now absent sun began to shine underneath the wispy clouds from somewhere just beneath my horizon and the sky lit up with oranges and reds with a rich back drop of royal blue. It was a fitting way to end a pretty fine day.

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Stage 237, 25th November: Sandgate to Lydd

The drama of yesterday was unlikely to be matched today and that was something I had become very used to. I had been spoilt by Northwest Scotland and had now got used to walking, sometimes for days on end, without a spectacle of real note. So when they came, they were now more valuable than ever and with a flat sea-wall start down to Hythe I wasn’t expecting too much today.

What I did get was a very chilly northwesterly wind on my back and I gave myself a brief respite from it as I headed inland to avoid the crackling gun-fire over on Hythe Ranges. It was then back on to a now new and heavily engineered curving concrete sea-wall edging Dymchurch and St Mary’s Bay and all the way to Littlestone-on-Sea some five miles or so South. It was iPod time again and it stayed on as the sea-wall gave way to shingle banks and the bleak outposts edging Romney Marsh. The desolate Southeast tip of Dungeness was soon upon me with its ramshackle chalets, some permanently inhabited, almost randomly dotted about the vast swathes of gravel beach now extending deeper inland than I had ever seen before.

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Dungeness Nuclear Power Station domineered all around it to such a degree that even the old lighthouse had been replaced so that it could now be seen by shipping. I then crunched across the huge and deep shingle of Denge Beach and Dungeness Nature Reserve, which seemed to be home to plenty of lichen, moss and pebbles but little else. Mike B’s ex-wife Ann picked me up near Lydd, waving out of the gloom. I admit to nodding off in the warmth of the car as we headed back to the civilisation of base.

 

 

 

A Naked Nutter and an Election

Stage 232, 19th November: Hoo St Werburgh to Kemsley

It was a cold, misty but thankfully dry start back on the Saxon Shore Way. For a change I found myself following a shoreline, even if was only the shore of the River Medway. Nonetheless it was better than a sea-wall with no sea in sight or unkempt sticky fields with pylons for a view.  DSCF5903This short stretch of narrow sandy shingle took me through the quaint villages of Lower and Upper Upnor and on towards Strood and Rochester with the peculiar sight of a dilapidated former Soviet Navy submarine moored and gently rotting away in the foreground to the misty cathedral and castle framed background of an ancient town and former city.

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Rochester was purportedly one of Charles Dickens’ favourite haunts and a place where he based some of his novels. Having seen the grim and bleak reality of much of the marshland recently I could certainly vouch for the Dickensian heritage. But today Rochester was famous for something much more pressing. By-election fever was in town and there were clusters of heavy lens clad photographers hanging about trying to get a snap of some political heavyweights due in town to fight their corner. I noted equally numerous clusters of eastern european immigrants hanging about on street corners too and had a passing suspicion that maybe they had been planted there by the UKIP candidate. UKIP were favourites to win and in this neck of the woods the lot sitting in the blue corner would only be fighting an opponent from another blue corner.

Rochester, Chatham, Brompton and Gillingham all merged into one another and though the Saxon Shore Way insisted that I take the tourist route to pass by a castle, a cathedral and the odd museum or two,  I saw through their cynicism and wandered straight into the high streets to try to get a feel for the real Medway towns…. and maybe sneak in a quick pie from Greggs.

As I left the Gillingham suburbs the Saxon Shore Way lost its way a bit and headed inland for me to enjoy the pleasures of a few more muddy fields and paths through to the bleak backwaters of Iwade and Kemsley hiding in the mainland shadows of the huge industrial plants over on the Isle of Sheppey. Ian had somehow found an open campsite with hardstanding, we were the only residents and we kept the doors locked.

Stage 233, 20th November: Kemsley to Whitstable

I barely skirted Sittingbourne and the huge paper mill at Kemsley. Now it was the turn of a grass topped sea-wall alongside the River Swale and a view out to the Isle of Sheppey. It was nearly ten miles of a dreary dull backdrop on a dreary dull day with only the boating haven of Teynham and the Swale Marina to break the monotony and give some respite to my numbing brain. But even the most picturesque villages can look dull on a grey late autumn day and Teynham was no exception.

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The sea-wall ended as I dipped sharply inland at Faversham where Shepherd Neame, the oldest brewery in Britain, lay temptingly in waiting.  I resisted the urge to nip in and opted for the joys of thick brown slippery wet fields back out towards the coast at Seasalter. Yes, it was coast. Not river bank, not marsh, not farmland but coast, proper coast with waves – admittedly small ones –  breaking against the shore. However, Ian had texted to forewarn me of a bizarre and disturbing sight to steer well clear of. In searching for a campsite (so he claimed) he had come across a rather large, greasy man sitting naked in his car in a public car park and watching pornography.  By the time I got there the man in the blue Proton had fortunately dressed himself but was still sitting there idly leering into the distance towards a nearby block of public toilets. I resisted the call of nature and pressed on quickly giving him my hardest “pervert” scowl as I strode passed. It was a subject of much mirth between Ian and I, as we likened his appearance to someone we both knew, but in truth it was a little disturbing and if he had still been naked when I passed by I think a call to the local constabulary would have been required.

Whitstable was my next town and last stop for the day. This small seaside town is renowned for its oysters but had recently become the predominant haunt of trendy Londonites. As a result, house prices had soared and though the quaint old pubs still existed they looked a little expensive for a quick pie and a pint.

Stage 234, 21st November: Whitstable to Kingsgate

Today I had the rare pleasure of keeping my feet dry and giving my boots an opportunity to fully dry out for the first time in, what felt like, weeks – if not months. Not only was the weather dry but so were the esplanades, promenades, paths and concrete topped sea-walls that I kept to all day. It was now more of a gentrified North Kent coast. The cleansed and modernised Herne Bay sea front set the tone and this continued unabated as I dropped out of sight from the town below the low cliffs of Bishopstone.  Cliffs! Yes, Cliffs at last!

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From St Mary’s Church and the roman fort at Reculver I was now on the Thanet Coastal Path and a concrete sea-wall took me along for an hour into Birchington. I now had my first proper sighting of chalk on the Kent coast and though they might not be the spectacular white cliffs of Dover they were still white cliffs and the path stuck firmly to their feet, meandering around the small headlands and hiding the town from view. I briefly emerged at Westgate Bay and Margate only to hide again as Cliftonville sat somewhere above me. The buildings now at the foot of the cliff told me a different story to the comparative wealth I had seen over the day. Cliftonville was rundown, decrepit and in dire need of regeneration. It certainly had an elegant if not grandiose past but it had lost that guilt edge and now sat at the bottom end of Kent’s towns of desire list.

An early start to allow Ian to head back to Berkshire for some rare time at home meant that I finished early and made my last formal crew change of the entire walk. I could have happily spent much more time in Ian’s company. We spent the evenings having devil’s advocate discussions about the world’s problems and by talking complete nonsense about any other trivia that might come to mind. We were always good at talking rubbish together and things hadn’t changed, other than a large reduction in alcohol intake. I was grateful to him for giving up his week to support me and though he managed to remain connected and get some work done, I don’t think it was as much as he had intended. Former work contact and long-standing friend, Mike, now took over and he picked me up and ensconced me back at his house in Birchington for some R&R and a new base camp.

 

Miles to Date:  4,807.2    Ascent to Date: 523,724 ft