19 September 2013 by Eugene Suggett
Mid-September, 0830; breakfast al fresco in scorching sun overlooking from a high terrace a harbour full of boats, some moored, some moving, and an ancient lighthouse. La Rochelle? A fishing-port in the eastern Algarve? Dubrovnik, Byron’s ‘pearl of the Adriatic’? No: Ramsgate, and The Galley restaurant on Westcliffe Arcade, is where this blogger, more usually a frequenter of remote downland or high Lakeland fells, sat in prospect of the nine-mile amble northwards to Margate via Broadstairs.
Unpromising from the map looks this stretch of the Thanet Coastal Path. Sea to the right, fine; scarcely-relieved development to the left, less than fine: the pessimist envisages an unbroken chain of amusement arcades, the worst type of pubs, the most run-down of fairgrounds, and parlours purveying ices, sticks of rock, candy-floss and other delicacies for which the British sea-side resort is so justly notorious.
But if those things are there, they are well above you and out of sight and out of mind for most of the way, because the thing to do is stick to the beach. Play it by ear sometimes and get up on the sea-wall or even the cliff-path where there is one; but the beach is the way to go if conditions allow it. There are geological features to astound, including, where they are not shored-up by man-made sea-defences, spectacular chalk cliffs.
At one point, beneath Broadstairs and behind a locked grille, are the Steps, numbered by him at 39, which inspired John Buchan’s novel (because from them in the Great War a spy signalled out to sea to some unidentified vessel, so I was told). In fact, an ascent into Broadstairs (by some other route than these exclusive steps) repays a visit.
Here you find yourself in Dickens-territory: you might go to the Charles Dickens, a noted pub; or you might visit the Dickens museum, housed as it is in the cottage he used as the model for Betsey Trotwood’s house in David Copperfield (though Dickens of course relocated it fictionally nearer Dover, to avoid being sued by its owner Miss Mary Pearson Strong, on whom he based Miss Trotwood herself). There is also the house in which Dickens wrote David Copperfield and Bleak House.
To resume, return to sea-level and continue northwards to North Foreland, and note the lighthouse. Records show that as an aid to navigation they have burned a light on North Foreland since 1499; the present handsome pharos has maintained its vigil since its construction in 1699. Proceed to Joss Bay and past Hackemdown Point; across Kingsgate Bay you will spot an impressive arch in the white cliffs. If the tide is safely low enough (check the times) you can go through it and continue on from there to Botany Bay.
The sandy beaches and inlets and caves make Botany Bay an attraction for some. And the awesome sea-stacks, fashioned over time from the chalk cliffs by the waves, give it the type of desolate eeriness not normally expected virtually within the sound of the bingo-caller’s call. (I was told they have filmed an M.R. James ghost-story here, and Doctor Who and suchlike: no wonder.) Yet another example, this, of what sets the coast apart, and why there should be legislation to make its off-limits sections available for access as well.
At least so this blogger mused as he went on by Walpole Bay (where there is a museum-piece of a decaying outdoor lido) and on to Margate. Some in our party reported excellent cake at the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery; others went without meander to the characterful Lifeboat Inn in Market Street, where there are well-kept real ales and ciders stillaged round about (and friendly staff serving them up), and wished the government would crack on with its legislated-for programme for a path round all of England’s shoreline.
Eugene Suggett is the Ramblers' senior policy officer. Find out more about his work and read his previous blog posts.