This is the best day of walking, ever.
I start off from St Margaret’s Bay, down in the little cove, where the light, coming from the East, lights up the chalky cliff.
Following the road upwards and then along a track, past a beautiful garden, where I walk behind a French family – a mix of adults of various ages and children, including a toddler in a push chair. At first I think they are heading my way – up the cliff, but they stop at a field where a camper van is parked. They are over from France to spend Easter weekend in the UK – and what a fabulous weekend they have chosen.
Now my walk becomes more difficult. The footpath branches off from the track and I scramble up a steep field to the top.
I am forced to walk on the landward side of private property. There are houses up here. I wonder how long they will survive (this cliff must slowly be eroding) and I am envious of their wonderful position and the great views the householders must enjoy. Views, at the moment, denied to me.
I am following a lane lined with trees. Ahead, I see a lighthouse.
Emerging by the Lighthouse, I lose my momentary bad humour. The landscape opens up and there are stunning views across the sea – the morning sunlight bounces off the water, far beneath.
There is a car park by the lighthouse – this is National Trust property – and a car park means people. People are out, walking across the open land or standing, staring out at the sparkling sea. A group of cyclists have stopped on the cliff edge, drinking from their water bottles and enjoying a rest.
I later learn this is the South Foreland Lighthouse, one of two lighthouses designed to help ships avoid the treacherous Goodwin Sands. Unfortunately, with the shifting of the sands, the lighthouses became unreliable and the second lighthouse was decommissioned in 1910 and is now part of a private garden.
I walk across rolling green countryside, keeping as close to the cliff edge as I dare. The path twists and turns. Every turn brings another fantastic view – towering white cliffs above dark rocks, framing the sea of sparkling blue. In the distance, a hazy horizon where the sea joins, seamlessly, with the huge, blue, cloudless sky.
Ahead, growing closer in the haze, I begin to see glimpses of the Port of Dover, stretching out from under the cliffs.
I come to an area where the ground drops down, forming a steep bowl. I believe this is called Fan Bay. It is possible to stick to high ground and walk around the edge of the bowl. This is what everybody else is doing. But I feel the urge to stick closer to the cliff edge, going down into the bowl and up the footpath I can see, climbing steeply, up the other side.
It will be a bit of an effort, but it looks fairly easy. I am encouraged by an older couple, making their way down ahead of me. And further encouraged by the sight of a man with a push chair coming up towards me. If they can do it, so can I.
The walk down is relatively easy. But the climb back up is, to be blunt, hard and exhausting. The other side of the bowl is much steeper than it looks. The ‘path’ turns out to consist of footholds in a grassy bank. There is nowhere to rest. The slope is too steep to sit down. I am scrambling on all fours – looking for footholds and hand holds. The steep drop below, and the glimpses of bright sea even further below, add to a vertiginous sense of anxiety. I am reminded of skiing and that black slope moment of terror when you realise that you don’t want to go on, but you know you can’t stop.
The older couple ahead of me are finding it difficult. The woman stops, clinging to the slope like a limpet. For one moment, I think she is frozen with apprehension and unable to move.
“Come on,” her husband calls. “There is a woman behind you.”
She flattens herself against the slope before looking down, nervously, at me.
“Don’t worry,” I call up. “I’m enjoying a breather.”
I intend this to sound confident. In reality, I am part grateful and part worried that she is above me. Grateful that I can use her as an excuse for stopping every two minutes. But worried because if she loses her grip and starts sliding down the slope, she will surely take me with her.
We are nearly at the top. The man is there already. Then his wife joins him. Encouraged, I scramble madly up the last bit and arrive on the path beside them, trying not to look as hot and flustered as I feel.
“We thought it would be easy,” he explained. “We saw the man with the push chair coming up. But he must have turned back. He couldn’t possibly have come down this way.”
No, he couldn’t. I don’t know how anyone could come down this way, you would need to be as agile and fearless as a mountain goat, or do it backwards – like coming down a ladder. And today the ground is hard and dry. In slippery, muddy conditions, this ascent would be truly dangerous.
As I draw nearer to Dover, the paths along the top of the cliffs become surprisingly crowded with a large number of walkers – enjoying the Easter sunshine. There is an absence of dog walkers. Perhaps the steep cliffs deter people from bringing their pets here.
Listening to people, I hear English accents, along with French, German, Eastern European and Asian languages.
I used to feel ashamed of Dover – such a horrible port with brutal infrastructure and access roads, carved into the white cliffs, with no attempt to showcase the iconic countryside. What a horrible introduction to England for new arrivals! Now this area has been opened up and access to the cliffs encouraged, this is a welcome change and a great way to greet tourists and visitors.
Ahead I see a groups of young Japanese people. They are lining up in front of a view-point, where the path curves and allows for photography against a back drop of the white cliffs. Next to them and, incongruous among this lively crowd, sitting in camouflage gear, is a lone figure. A bird watcher.
She has a huge telephoto lens attached to her camera and is scanning the cliffs opposite. Unfortunately, the tourists (and as I watch, the crowd of Japanese disappear but are quickly replaced by a group of young Russians) must be deterring the birds. She ignores them all, fixing her attention on the cliffs.
The land drops away again, forming another bowl on the cliff top – Langdon Bay. This is National Trust property.
You would think I had learned from my previous experience. Everyone else sticks to the high land around the edge of the bowl. But, no, I feel the urge to go down. This bowl is bigger and has sheep tracks running through it.
On the way down, my mobile phone rings. It is my husband, with his mother, who have arrived at the view-point above Dover and are looking across the cliffs, hoping to see me. Looking up, I spot them.
“Well, I am hard to miss,” I say.
“There are a lot of people out today.”
“Yes, but I am the idiot below you.”
Two distant heads swivel round.
“What are you doing down there?”
“It seemed a good idea at the time.”
The climb back up is more gentle but still leaves me puffing and panting before I reach the top.
We pose for photographs together, then part company. My husband is going back to the car with this mother. I am walking on into Dover.
I start off heading the wrong way. A wide ledge in the cliff (was this a roadway at some stage?) leads me downwards, running alongside the vehicle approach to the Port, but ends in a narrow path that becomes progressively more overgrown. After forcing my way through bushes and crawling under branches, I come to the conclusion that this path is not the official public right-of-way. I emerge dusty, scratched and hot, retrace my steps up the ledge and find the correct route.
I pass under the access road to the Ferry Port.
How many times have we crossed over here – my husband and our family – dashing across and into the Port – on our way to some skiing trip or holiday in Europe?
I linger under the bridge – hearing the thunder of lorries above me and enjoying the surreal experience of being here with the huge concrete structure above my head, standing quiet and still in the midst of all this frenetic, noisy activity.
I walk along the busy road, by the waterfront, through Dover. There are signs for bike routes and footpaths, everywhere. So many, and pointing in such diverse direction, I find it difficult to know which route to take.
I meet a fellow walker, rucksack on his back. He started from Deal and plans to have lunch on the beach at Dover, where he took his grandchildren to play while waiting for the ferry. I can remember waiting for the ferry with our children, but can’t remember a beach.
Sticking to the coast, I reach an area of Dover that appears to be renovated and is an oasis of ‘seaside’ in the heart of the bustling port area. I didn’t realise Dover was so lovely.
There is a promenade, some rather fine terraces of houses, and a wonderful sculpture.
This sculpture, officially called ‘Crest of a Wave’ and unofficially called ‘Channel Swimmers’, features on the front of my OS map of Dover. Unfortunately, it was really hard to find out anything about the sculpture – shame, because its wonderful and I’m glad to see it in real life.
Here, by the sculpture, is where I end my walk today. I meet my husband and mother-in-law. We have lunch in a newly renovated hotel, overlooking the promenade and beach. What do we eat? Fish and chips, of course.
Vital stats: miles walked = 4 (but felt like more!)