What’s the closest point on the English coast to France? Wrong! It’s not Dover, but actually St Margaret’s Bay, a spot about three miles north and east of the famous ferry port. The Bay and the nearby pretty little village of St Margaret’s at Cliffe was the starting point for our recent walk along the White Cliffs with Calais shimmering in the haze across the 18 miles of the Channel that separates England from France.
We had intended to start the walk at the White Cliff’s Visitor Centre in Dover but my navigation took us off the A2 early which was fortuitous as not only is St Margaret’s at Cliffe worth a visit in its own right but it also has a free car park. When out for the day, Magdalena’s logic is that any money saved from entrance fees or in this case car parking should be spent on ‘appropriate provisions’ for the journey. And as soon as possible, which is why she made an immediate bee-line for a local shop and boosted its sales with a bottle of water and an raspberry ice lolly. At least she got to taste the lolly which is more that can be said for my purchase of a Soreen malted loaf. But more (or should that be less) of that later.
Magdalena may have been quick but Vodaphone were even quicker in texting to inform me that I was now in France and different charge rates applied. Toute suite indeed but at least stocked up with provisions we were pret a manger!
Various informative display boards told us a little of the village, the Norman church and its previous famous inhabitants. It seemed Ian Fleming sold a house to Noel Coward nearby. Maybe they swopped stories on a summer day’s looking out to sea?
‘Any need for paperwork, Ian?’ –
‘No, Noel, as you know, my Bond is my word!’
Fleming would then call for a Martini shaken not stirred, but Coward would be already heading inside for the shade of the veranda, declaring that he wouldn’t give a mad dog for an Englishman out in the midday sun.
Peter Cushing was also a frequent visitor to St Margaret’s but his house was more likely to have been a Hammer House of Horror and probably perched high on a hill, off the beaten track and in need of some tender loving care – as the local estate agent might have put it.
After looking around the village for a while and noting the Cliffe Tavern as nice place to eat in the evening, we walked down towards the Bay. You can lengthen the walk by following the signs and heading west to take in the Dover Memorial monument.
Halfway down to the coast, nestled into the cliffs is the environmentally friendly Pine Garden area with six acres of gently undulating parkland and garden features and a tea house and museum across the path. Fronted by huge pine trees, it’s an ideal secluded place to stop for a while, but having visited before, we pressed on to the Bay itself which is where Channel swimmers take their first or last dip in the water.
The proximity of the continent gives the coastline and the surrounding cliffs a special feel and retracing our steps back up the hill, we found the chalk of the White Cliffs trail and the tranquil gardens were quickly replaced by coarse grass and windswept trees, braced by the constant buffeting of the Channel cross winds.
There are several walks across the cliffs and a variety of walks and walkers criss- cross the coastline. So soon after VE day, it seemed strangely appropriate to hear both French and German voices carrying across on the currents. The great thing about the cliff top walk is that there is no single cliff but a series of protruding ledges some more precipitous than others but most journeys pass by South Foreland Lighthouse, now owned by National Trust.
On a sunny day, its gleaming white exterior bids a cheerful welcome and Mrs Knott’s tea room inside offers a selection of cakes and bakes as well as an equally welcome comfort break from the wind. Named after the wife of the last lighthouse master, the tea rooms retain much of their original period décor and we weren’t the only couple to take photos of the quaint porcelain cups and china tea pots.
The tea stand had copies of old newspapers and commemorative issues of royal celebrations and I drank my speciality tea reading the Daily Telegraph’s account of the historic landing of the first man on the moon in 1969. Then I found the cricket pages and the report of Hampshire’s not so historic victory over Surrey in the John Player League somehow occupied my attention until Magdalena declared it was time to go.
After walking a little while longer, we ate our sandwiches tucked into a slightly less windy spot and I discovered that my pack of Soreen had somehow fallen out of my bag, perhaps when we were looking at maps earlier on the way. I hope it was picked by animal or human and went to a good home. Either way, both my bag and my stomach were a little lighter for its passing.
Over the next hill, down below we saw Dover harbour and out to sea the steady stream of ferries sedately crossing the channel. We were now walking across Langdon cliffs. Having read up a little bit before the trip, I knew this was the place to see Exmoor ponies and when we fell into conversation with a local woman bemoaning the state of shopping in Dover I asked about the ponies if only to change the subject. She promptly declared that she had been coming to this spot for many years but had never seen any ponies – despite the fact that a nearby display featured equine drawings.
Eventually our longer legs took us ahead of the woman and round the next bay several distinctive black ponies duly appeared on higher hilly ground close to us. I looked round and spotted the woman on the trail below. We decided not to hang around to share this happy moment and perhaps the ponies left before she arrived leaving only enough evidence of their droppings. That and the realisation if you look out to sea for France you aren’t going to sea ponies or even see Exmoor Ponies on land.
There’s a car park just before the White Cliffs Visitor Experience. At the back somewhat out of site, there’s also a display board unhelpfully facing away from the path and towards the terraces. It informs visitors that they are standing on what was once a prison, built in 1884 for convicts to help in the construction of the port. In 1908 the prison was converted into army barracks. On this sober note, Magdalena quickly headed back into the sanctuary of the tea room for more rations of an altogether different kind.
The great thing about turning round and retracing your steps is that you get to see and experience all the things you missed first time round. And so on our return journey, we took a slightly different route and spotted lumps of coal from seams buried deep under the chalk and evidence of rail sleepers still protruding from the soil to transport the coal to the harbour at Dover.
We saw the white windmill behind the lighthouse with a revolving cap that turned towards the wind, built as late as 1929 – the last windmill to be built in Kent. We saw the work that has begun to restore and open to the public Deep Fan Bay Shelter which provided wartime accommodation for hundreds of soldiers of the Fan Bay gun battery.
In short, we began to truly experience the myriad of human endeavours across the cliffs and across the ages to use the natural environment of the White Cliffs for profit, or defence or to just live between the cliff and the coast, between chalk and coal, in peace and in war. We saw lots of things but we never saw my pack of Soreen.