I am now in Kent and the start of the Saxon Shore Way – a coastal route that roughly follows the ECP to Hastings, with a few major diversions inland to follow ancient coastlines and estuaries long since silted up. The initial section, which follows the NCN Route 1 cycle path, navigates industrial areas, recycling most of London’s waste and vehicles and is an unpleasant start to the day until the familiar sea wall takes me across marshland and into the Hoo peninsula. The ECP has work to do, preventing a deeper exploration of the Isle of Grain, so I find a sensible path to the River Medway and make my way towards Rochester. The Tudor forts pop through the low mist, as does a Russian submarine (don’t worry it is an old one) as I get my feet wet following the low-tide route at high tide.
I call it a day at the station, having walked from Burnham-on-Crouch, primarily to devise a plan for accommodation for the next week. A strategy of camping at Canterbury, taking daily buses and trains to and from start and endpoints, offers an inexpensive solution. I am up daily to catch the 07:04 into the city centre and the main bus and rail connections, which are very efficient at getting me back to Rochester for a walk into Sittingbourne. I extract myself from Gillingham towards remote and uninspiring paths, interrupted by the occasional apple or pear orchards, ready for harvest. The Isle of Sheppey will have to wait for another day, the circumnavigation path is yet to be completed. I can hear huge booming explosions in the distance, which I assume are coming from Shoeburyness – they continue in sets of 2’s and 3’s for most of the day, but do not bother the brent geese gathering in the mudflats.
My route towards Whitstable will be the last of the sea wall path that has been a friend for almost 2-weeks. Conver, Oare and Faversham creeks thwart a direct coastal route but offer an opportunity to see the remnants of industry. A last long section brings me to the first sight of sand in a while and holidaymakers tucked into the groynes, reading or snoring. The brave are in the sea for a daily swim – it is now a common sight. They wear regulation wet suits and bobble hats, and emerge from the sea to long cosy gowns and flasks of tea.
The path now changes completely in nature, a cycle track and easy walking along the cliff edge with an array of holiday accommodation and the treats of seaside towns. Progress eastwards is rapid as I keep pace with enthusiastic dog walkers through Herne Bay to Reculver and the magical twin towers of St. Mary’s Church. It is at this point that the Saxon Shore Way follows the roman shoreline to Sandwich. A nearby fort the remains of the garrison which guarded the entrance to a channel that kept the Isle of Thanet isolated from the mainland.
I cross the reclaimed land along another seawall into Margate and along remarkable undercliff paths framed by chalk cake-like cliffs. The town is in need of a lick of paint, and some restoration. A good bus connection gets me back to Canterbury and return for the next stage to Sandwich. I curve around North Foreland and Broadstairs vainly attempting to count the wind turbines, which reveal their grid positions in patterns that confuse my counting. Ramsgate has many restored architectural features and is neat and tidy (apart from the dock areas), the views around Pegwell Bay mark the eastern exit of the ancient channel and another roman encampment, with an attendant amphitheatre. This bay marks a spot where the Saxons landed in 449 AD marking a new era in England’s history.
A peaceful marshland walk is interrupted by a dual carriageway diversion (with cycle track) avoiding a stubborn car scrapyard that will not yield to the ambitions of the ECP planners. I am glad of a sandwich in Sandwich, before the bus back and subsequent return the following morning to the glorious dawn around the headland and the Royal St. George’s links golf course. The morning dew is cleared on the putting greens before even the earliest golfer has teed off.
The walk into Dover introduces new coastal cliffs to climb, exercising my calf muscles in new ways, being unaccustomed to hills. The sea is perfectly calm, and I later learn that this was a peak day for refugees to attempt a channel crossing. Volunteer groups sit on the cliffs with binoculars, but military-grade radar and cameras have been set up to detect any vessel in the channel. The white chalk cliffs of South Foreland and into Dover gave tremendous views to France. You can count the ferries as they depart and arrive clearly and any large ship making its passage to the Atlantic or North Sea. Instagrammer tourists are snapping pictures before I descend into Dover, walking briefly along Dame Vera Lynn Lane to the North Downs Way finishing point. I take a bus back to Canterbury and return home. If the weather is good I will return in a few days to walk along the south coast, hoping to reach Portsmouth before my walking season ends.
Read about my other adventures along the National Trails.
Tales from the Big Trails, in print on 2nd September 2021, available now for pre-order from Vertebrate Publishing. Featuring all 15 National Trails in England and Wales, and the 4 designated long-distance Scotland’s Great Trails. This is the story of the people I meet, the landscapes and coastal scenery and the sheer joy of walking these iconic long-distance routes in the UK. Click on a link below for a copy.