The Big Walk: The Conflict coast

Romans, Normans, Tudors… for centuries, invaders and defenders alike have left their mark along England’s south-east coast. The 160-mile Saxon Shore Way provides a picturesque lesson in military history as it traces the ancient coastline of Kent and East Sussex

A woman walking along a white-cliff top

By: Hanna Lindon, photography by Guy Prince

Between South Foreland near Dover and Cap Gris-Nez in France’s Pas-de-Calais département, the English Channel narrows to just 33.3km. You can actually see the hazy outline of the continent from atop the White Cliffs of Dover, so it’s no surprise that this iconic stretch of the Kent coastline has been the site of conflict for millennia.

It was here that Caesar cast anchor on his first attempt to invade Britain (he was routed by our country’s most reliable defence – incessant rain). The Spanish Armada had Kent in its sights before it was seen off by Sir Francis Drake – and more bad weather. Centuries later, on Christmas Eve 1914, Dover became the target of the first ever air raid on British soil. 

It is 100 years since the end of the Great War, the perfect time to explore an area steeped in military history, and there’s a long-distance route that seems to have been designed for the job. 

A waymarker reading 'England Coast Path' and a person behind, on a path

Seeing off the Saxons

The Saxon Shore Way runs for 160 miles between Gravesend in Kent and Hastings in East Sussex, following the ancient south-eastern coastline as it looked around 1,500 years ago. The route was dreamed up in the 1970s with the aim of linking the shore forts built by Roman defenders to see off piratic Saxon skirmishes – you can still see the sites of these defences at Reculver, Richborough, Dover and Lympne. In some places, the modern and ancient coastlines coincide, but in others the route wiggles inland for miles as it skirts the reclaimed levels of Romney Marsh and deviates along the Stour Valley. The diversity in atmosphere and scenery is part of this long-distance walk’s appeal. 

‘The northern sections are very low-lying with lots of nature reserves and marshy areas popular with seabirds,’ says Robert Peel, area secretary of Kent Ramblers. ‘These areas have a unique feel and there are some fine historic towns. But I’d say the cliff-top sections around Dover and Hastings definitely have the most spectacular scenery.’ 

My husband Guy and I decide to tackle the most challenging terrain first by walking the route back to front. We begin in Hastings – and it’s easy to see why this colourful fishing port won the Ramblers’ 2018 award for Britain’s Best Walking Neighbourhood. From the fresh fish hawked out of wooden shacks to the weathered boats pulled up on the beach, it’s the model of a lively seaside town that hasn’t yet lost its soul to gentrification. 

Hastings never had a Saxon Shore fort (it sits between the site of fortifications at Pevensey and Lympne), but it does have an indelible association with the regal descendant of those piratic marauders. Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson fought William the Conqueror a few miles from here, perhaps losing his eye and definitely losing his life in the process. Harold ruled 800 years after the construction of the Saxon Shore forts, when enough time had passed for the invaders to become the defending natives.

A woman and dog walking along a woodland path

Contested coastline 

The close-set contours around Hastings Country Park are hard on the thighs but easy on the eye – an undulating landscape of high grassy downs and densely wooded glens overlooking a tropical blue sea. After some heady cliff-top walking, our path turns inland to begin a long diversion that follows the Royal Military Canal around the sheep-grazed levels of Romney Marsh. It faithfully follows the line where land met sea in Roman times, but the original architects of the Saxon Shore Way may have had more practical motives. 

‘When it was proposed, back in the 1970s, the idea was to create a route around the coast of Kent,’ explains Robert. ‘It quickly became apparent that the modern coastline wouldn’t make an ideal walk, particularly in the north of Kent, where access was an issue in many areas and there were industrial and military sites along the coastline.’ 

The new England Coast Path, he says, is likely to follow the Saxon Shore Way closely between Faversham and Reculver, but in other areas of north Kent will stick to the coast. Around Romney Marsh, the routes diverge again – ours retains the military theme by sticking to the banks of the Napoleonic-era Royal Military Canal. This bleakly beautiful portion of the route is known as the Invasion Coast, thanks to the waves of foreign raiders who have targeted it throughout the centuries. The Romans built the fort of Stutfall Castle at Lympne to see off the marauding Saxons. In the 800s, Vikings in their longships twice invaded Romney Marsh. Walkers can still spot the remains of a series of small forts built to defend Britain against Napoleon, while the First World War saw ‘sound mirrors’ installed along the marsh to listen for enemy aircraft. Folkestone, the next overnight stop on the walk, housed a training camp for thousands of First World War troops. There are symbols of decaying military might on almost every mile we cover. 

Bluebirds and Brexit 

My phone beeps intrusively as we stroll across the pony-grazed pasturelands atop the White Cliffs of Dover. ‘Welcome to France,’ says the message. ‘You can use your plan minutes at no extra cost...’

It’s not the first reminder of how close we are to the continent – or of how our relationship with Europe is about to change. On the walk through Dover, we encounter the Banksy ‘Brexit’ mural, which shows a worker chiselling off a star from the EU flag. Pro- and anti-Brexit signs decorate house windows. Cafés throng with workers whose voices trace their origins to every corner of Europe. It seems that with Brexit, as with so many events that shaped our connections with the continent, the Kent coast will be one of the first places to feel the impact. 

On the cliffs behind us stands another reminder that those connections were forged in blood. Dover Castle is the largest in England – a great, square, medieval hulk surrounded by defensive walls and topped with showy crenellations. It housed a command and control centre during the First World War and was probably the target for the first German bomb attack on Britain. Further back in history, it had closer connections with our current route. The grounds encompass a Roman lighthouse that overlooked one of Kent’s four Saxon Shore forts. Dover, then known as ‘Dubris’, was most likely the seat of an officer in the Saxon Shore force, and its chalk-built fort sprawled across much of the present town centre. 

Above the castle is a chalkland paradise where butterflies flit between wild flowers, and wild Exmoor ponies graze around the grassy cliff-top curves. 

‘Did you know The White Cliffs of Dover was written by a couple of Americans?’ asks Guy, as we pass under the whitewashed walls of South Foreland Lighthouse. ‘Either they didn’t realise that bluebirds weren’t native to the UK or it was a metaphor for the United States Air Force liberating Britain.’ 

The conflict continues 

Beyond Dover, the coast increasingly bristles with fortifications and reminders of invasion. The First World War Dover Patrol Memorial spears the sky above St Margaret’s Bay and there are two squat, Tudor-era castles at Walmer and Deal – Henry VIII’s contributions to the shoreline defences. All that remains of Sandwich’s medieval castle is a gatehouse – but, as the Saxon Shore Way turns inland to follow what was once the strait separating Kent from the Isle of Thanet, we stumble across the extensive remains of Richborough Roman Fort. ‘This is the best preserved of Kent’s Saxon Shore forts,’ says Robert. ‘Far better preserved than Dover or even Reculver, much of which has been washed into the sea.’ 

Now a couple of miles inland, Richborough is thought to be the point at which the Romans first crossed Britain’s coast under Emperor Claudius in AD 43. As well as the fort, they built a 25m triumphal arch here, straddling Watling Street and signifying entry into Britannia. 

These days it’s the natural wonders of the Kent marshes that wow visitors as the Way meanders north towards Gravesend. Almost 300,000 birds use the marshland as a winter haven, with duck and wader species arriving in huge numbers when the weather begins to turn. 

A path running beside a waterway with a person walking along it

Despite a few historic towns scattered along the route, the landscape here is as wild and solitary as anywhere in southern England. It could also be the site of Kent’s next big conflict. Environmentalists are squaring up to politicians over the £6bn Lower Thames Crossing plan, which would see tunnels and motorways cutting across protected wetlands and bisecting the final section of the Saxon Shore Way. 

Perhaps now really is the time to walk this remarkable route – while its bleak beauty lasts.

Walk it

Time/distance: Gravesend to Hastings 260km/161 miles; 13 stages. MAPS OS Landranger 177, 178, 189, 199; Explorer 124, 125, 137, 138, 148, 149, 150, 162, 163.

Accommodation: Swan House B&B, Hastings (swanhousehastings.co.uk); Jeake’s House, Rye (jeakeshouse.com); Shepherd House, Faversham (shepherdhouse-faversham.com); Greystones B&B, Rochester (greystonesbandb.org.uk); Clarendon Royal Hotel, Rochester (clarendonroyalhotel.co.uk).

Further information: kentramblers.org.uk/kentwalks/saxon_shore; ldwa.org.uk