Although the tide is out, I doubt if I can make much headway walking on the shore itself. So I set off walking along the top of the cliff and heading southwards. There is an unsigned footpath leading from the far end of the car park, winding along the side of a farmer’s field and joining a road farther along the coast.
From up here I have a great view of the sea, the white cliffs and the rocky shoreline. Hardly daring to get too near the edge, and feeling dizzy as I look down, I manage to spot sea gulls nesting in a hole in the chalky cliff face.
After a while, I am forced to leave the coast and head inland. Yet again, private property has forced a detour. I follow a road and, just as I am beginning to wonder if I will ever regain the coast, find a footpath leading down a flight of steps, towards the beach below.
As I walk down the steps I meet a couple of police officers, in full uniform and sweating heavily, coming up from the beach. I wonder what they have been up to. Continuing down, I reach the shore and find myself on a narrow promenade, lined with beach huts on one side, a drop to the beach on the other. The promenade stretches ahead, winding round the bottom of the cliffs and following the curve of the bay.
Ahead I see two men. They look scruffy and have rucksacks on their back. They are talking in an Eastern European language and look confused at finding themselves on this promenade. They stand and argue. I wonder if they are recent arrivals and I also wonder if they are the reason for the police presence. If so, they are not illegal immigrants – I assume – or they would be accompanying the policemen back up the cliff steps.
This part of the walk is very pleasant. It is warm and people are arriving on the promenade, opening up their beach huts and assembling chairs, tables and barbeques. Short ladders are propped up against the concrete of the promenade, giving access to the beach. People (this is an odd English custom) are erecting windbreaks – despite the fact there is no wind. I realise this is more to do with staking claim to a patch of sand, then it is to do with erecting shelter from the non-existent wind.
I witness a few territorial skirmishes.
“I’ll need more room than that,” a woman says, eyeing her neighbour hammering a striped wind break into the sand, just beneath the promenade. “My whole family is coming.”
“Well, you can spread onto the other side,” replies the woman with the hammer. “That hut is empty today.”
After following the promenade for a couple of miles – sea on one side, cliffs on the other – some sections lined with beach huts, and other sections bare and empty – I arrive at a promontory and find myself in Broadstairs.
Broadstairs is lovely in the sun, with the bay curving round and the town rising up above it. There is an old-fashioned air to the place. The beach huts are old and slightly shabby, the houses are Victorian. But I like Broadstairs. Very much.
There is a mix of boats and people on the beach. A few sailing dinghies are being launched. Excited children, arriving for a day on the beach, run down towards the sea and then stop, shrieking, as cold water splashes against their ankles.
Above the bay, a large house sits perched on an outcrop of high ground. This is ‘Bleak House’ – of Dickens’ fame.
The chalky cliffs provide plenty of material for graffiti writing and this has kept me entertained during my walk. Some of the messages are crude, there are the usual declarations of love and, among the dross, the occasional clever bit of humour. At the entrance to the harbour, somebody has scrawled, “Jesus loves you. But I’m his faveourite.” Another hand has added “No preaching”.
I am impressed by the official sign warning of the dangers of jumping off the harbour jetty: “Don’t jump into the unknown”. This is a great design and a clear message.
An information board gives info about Broadstairs and the connection with Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. As I love Dickens (although I can’t remember ever reading Bleak House), this adds to the attraction of the place for me.
He is right. This is a lovely walk.
For some sections there is no promenade and, I imagine, if the tide was high it might be difficult to walk this way, following the shore. But today the tide is out and the walk is lovely. On this bank holiday Saturday, lots of people are out and, although I enjoy the company, this must be an awe-inspiring walk if you are alone – with rocky shoreline, cliffs above, and no development to spoil the view.
The approach to Ramsgate is not exactly pretty. The cliffs are high and fortified with bricks and concrete. Along the shore, there are some derelict shelters – with murals painted on them – with peeling paint and no sign of the seats they once contained. The beach is covered in shingle, and although some hardy folks are out for the day, it is not a bucket and spade resort.
But, as I draw closer to the port, I notice that the wooden hoarding surrounding a plot of derelict land have been painted. For hundreds of yards, the paintings stretch along the sea front – made by school children, artists, commercial ventures – there are dozens of contributions in all sorts of different styles, but with one constant theme. The theme of all the paintings is ‘Ramsgate’.
I spend some time here, taking photographs and enjoying the colour and the imagination of the paintings.
This is the ‘Great Wall of Ramsgate‘ project. A great idea. And, unknown to me, today was its official opening.
I stop at a cafe and sit outside for lunch, enjoying fish cakes and dry cider.
After lunch, I head for the opposite side of the port and walk up the roadway, to reach a long patch of open green space.
Continuing along by the edge of the cliff, this path takes me above the ferry port, past a large, impressive modern sculpture – Hands and Molecule by David Barnes – commissioned by Pfizer.
(This generosity on the part of Pfizer almost makes up for the detour they force on me – but that comes later.)
I leave the port behind and now walk along the high ground, above a beach. I am tempted to go down to the promenade, but it comes to an end and I turn away from the coast, following a road, past the Pegwell Bay Hotel.
Checking my map, I am looking for a footpath that leads from the road, heading to Cliff End and then Sandwich beyond. This is the official Thanet Coastal Path and you would think it would be well-marked.
I pass a track. Is this the path? A sign tells me this is ‘Private Property’ and is not a bridleway or a cycle route. I continue, looking for the path and eventually realise I have passed the turn off. Heading back, I also realise this track with its forbidding signs is the official coastal path and a public right of way. The signs are, strictly speaking, accurate – this is not a bridle way or a cycle route and is private property -but make no mention of the fact that this is also a public path.
The track narrows and becomes a path. There is a steep drop down to the sea on my left, fields to my right and, through the haze, I see a wide, open bay ahead with, beyond, the ghostly outlines of an industrial power station.
The bay is Pegwell Bay and, to begin with, I see plenty of unmarked brown mud. Later, as the tide comes in, this turns into an expanse of gleaming water.
What really interests me is the power station; a tall chimney and three tall, curvaceous towers. I see no sign of smoke.
As I stop to take photographs, a man out walking pauses and asks me why I am taking photos of the power station. I find this hard to answer. To me, the structures are beautiful and powerful, towering above the natural contours of the bay.
“I know I am a little odd, but I like industrial structures,” I reply. I am about to find the words I need to explain this. I am about to tell him that I love the shapes – the tall, narrow chimney and the thicker, curving elegance of the cooling towers (taller than any I have seen before). I could tell him I am interested in the contrast between the thrusting male and curving female shapes. I could tell him that I love the juxtaposition of these powerful, man-made structures – signifying our technical knowledge and our ability to harness the energy of fossil fuels – and the wide, open sweep of the bay, carved by the equally powerful, but entirely natural, energy of the tides.
But I don’t have time to assemble my words to explain any of this.
“Well, we all have our quirks,” he says, smiles at me, and moves on.
I look back across the bay, to the white cliffs marking the edge of Ramsgate with the Pegwell Bay Hotel perched on top.
At the end of the wasteland is an area of reeds. There appears to be a path through the reeds. I ask a man, sunbathing on a patch of concrete, if I can walk this way. He says you can, but is not sure of the state of the path. I attempt it – but soon find I am splashing through water. This is the first time I have met mud since I was defeated by the stuff in Allhallows-on-Sea back at the beginning of March. As the water becomes deeper, and the ground more treacherous, I abandon the attempt.
I feel oddly embarrassed as I confess to the sunbathing man – I can’t find a way through. He tells me there are steps leading up to the road. I walk back, across the waste land and find, near an old railway footbridge, leading upwards, a flight of steps.
In fact, this is a replica of a Viking ship, The Hugin that landed here from Denmark, in 1949, to mark the 1500 year anniversary of another Viking landing – that led to the establishment of a Saxon kingdom in Kent. So this is replica of a replica.
I walk along a path, following the road, then take a detour through an area of nature reserve, called Pegwell Bay Country Park. This is very pleasant and I stop to sit on the bank, have a snack, and enjoy the view over Pegwell Bay. The tide is now in and the mud is covered. I can see the entrance to Richborough Port, where an estuary joins the bay and through which an occasional motorboat passes.
As I approach the end of the nature reserve, I see some posts in a curving line. They look a bit odd – like bollards you get in a roadway to deter traffic. I wonder what they are doing here. Are they some weird kind of concrete fencepost? But with no fence attached?
Then I find a sign that explains the mystery. They form a line of anti-tank defences, leftover from the second world war. If the Germans landed in this accessible bay (invading like the Vikings before them) their tanks would be obstructed by this concrete line. Armed with this information, the line of posts looks incredibly fragile – a somewhat optimistic display of defiance.
After I leave the nature reserve, the rest of my walk is pretty unpleasant. I follow the A256, heading for Sandwich. This is a busy road. Most of the way I walk next to heavy traffic. It is very hot and very noisy.
I pass Richborough Power Station. The large structure is derelict.
Four asian boys on bikes screech to a halt beside me. They are aged around 12 or 13, sweating and in a state of high excitement.
Do I know the way to Dover?
Do I know how long it will take to get to Dover?
Have I any spare water?
Did I know there was a caterpillar on my hat?
I answer “No, no, no and no.”
Then I get out my map and try to help them. They can’t stand still long enough to pay much attention to the map and cycle off, pedalling madly. A few minutes later they pass me again, coming back. A few minutes more, and here they are again, whizzing past me, heading back in the original direction.
Later, I walk past a garage and see them emerging, drinks in their hands. They get back on their bikes and pass me – yet again – wobbling dangerously as they drink and steer at the same time. A few minutes later, they come heading back down the pavement, towards me, back the way they have come.
Did they ever get to Dover? I don’t know. But a few minutes after my last sighting of them, I began to worry about them. They seemed very young, very excitable and very lost. Did they live in Dover? Or were they running away from home? Were they in difficulties?
I wish I had taken more time and made them stop and found out who they were and where they were from. But by the time I thought all this through, it was too late. I didn’t meet them again.
At the end of a very long, very straight, very hot, very noisy and very boring walk, I reached the outskirts of Sandwich. I was desperate to turn off the main road and hesitated at the first road leading to the left. Was this the turn?
There were big signs saying this was the Pfizer factory and showing a large map of the Pfizer complex.
Foolishly, I believed the signs indicated this was a private industrial complex and a private road. So I continued straight ahead. And walked around three sides of a huge circle, circling around fenced off green spaces belonging to Pfizer – with trees and water and shade – and ‘keep out’ notices of course.
Later, I realised I could have taken the quiet road. It led straight through the complex to Sandwich. My circular detour added another mile to my route and prolonged the unpleasantness of the roadside walking.
Damn Pfizer! I should have trusted my map.
The bridge across the river was raised, to allow a boat through. Then I crossed into the heart of the old town of Sandwich, with narrow winding roads, quaint houses and a pretty riverside area.
Tired and hungry, I saw an ice-cream van.
As I approached the van, an old lady intercepted me and tried to have a chat. She told me she was 90 years old and came out every day to buy an ice-cream as a treat. I was too tired to make conversation and she moved off to accost a couple of Japanese tourists. They were more gracious than I was and I saw a lot of bowing going on.
I bought a large ice-cream and sat in the park, waiting for my husband.
Miles walked = 12
Power stations encountered = 1
Lost boys seen = 4
Lonely old ladies ignored = 1