Weekend walk: In the footsteps of Caesar

Des Hannigan follows Roman legionnaires, smugglers and Winston Churchill from Deal to the white cliffs of Dover
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Directions

l From Deal Pier walk south along the promenade and then continue along a paved walkway, Wellington Parade, to Walmer Castle. Continue to Kingsdown and the Zetland Arms.

l Go sharply right along a shingle track, and then turn left along Undercliffe Road to reach steps up to the clifftop. Follow the coast path to reach steps down to St Margaret's Bay.

l Just uphill from the beach go left and keep left, along Beach Road. Bear left at a junction of tracks and climb a path through scrub. Turn right along a track and continue to the South Foreland Lighthouse.

l Go down a narrow path to seaward, then turn right and follow the coast path to reach the National Trust car park at Fox Hill Down. Just beyond the car park entrance, bear left from the road and descend steps to go through an underpass below Jubilee Way, and into Dover.

Use OS Landranger map 179. There is an hourly rail service between Dover and Deal, on Connex South Eastern.

This walk features in `Historic Tracks' by Des Hannigan, Pavilion Press, pounds 17.99, to be published on 4 September.

England's famous white cliffs begin a few miles north of Dover, at Kingsdown. North again from here the shoreline is flat and shingly. Across this accessible "Saxon Shore", so named by third-century Romans, there came, from earliest times, a steady stream of invaders and adventurers. Even Caesar gave Dover's menacing cliffs a wide berth on his first visit. The clifftop heaved with furious Britons, original Eurosceptics every one. Caesar came, saw, and then waited for the flood tide to give his hundred galleys a helping hand northwards to where the legionnaries could wade or swim ashore to the shingle beach near modern Deal, from where this walk begins. The route takes you nine miles along the coast to Dover - from where you can catch a train back to your starting point at Deal.

From Deal, where Dutch gables and French-style cobbles are matched by a stern Tudor castle, you walk south along a paved walkway that runs parallel to the shingle shore. Here, beached fishing boats ride high on the pebbly banks as if on a stony sea. Soon, you reach the delightful Walmer Castle, open to the public, and worth visiting for its cool, serene interiors and peaceful gardens.

Like Deal Castle, Walmer was one of many forts which an anxious Henry VIII built at intervals along the English coast in response to post-Reformation fears of a Franco-Spanish invasion. Today, the castle is the official residence of the titular Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a symbolic post now, though dating from the days of the Confederation of Cinque Ports, that pre-Tudor "naval" force created as a defence of the Saxon Shore by Edward the Confessor in 1050. Wellington was a Lord Warden; so was Churchill. The present Lord Warden is the Queen Mother, though she is rarely in.

It is an easy, shingle-crunching stroll from Walmer Castle to Kingsdown Beach and to the seashore pub, the Zetland Arms. Kingsdown was a notorious smuggling base during the 18th and 19th centuries. Its free traders, avid Europeans in their turn, brought in vast quantities of smuggled silk, satin, scent, spices, gin and brandy. The last three are enough to make your mouth water for the Zetland Arms' good food and drink. This is a necessary pit stop. Ahead, at the end of a final stretch of shingle, the first of the great white cliffs, at Old Parker's Cap, rises abruptly from the beach in a way that makes your head spin; so not too much spice and brandy.

From the shoreline a short diversion inland is followed by a left turn into Undercliffe Road. The Rising Sun pub, which also serves food, is just to the right of the road junction. At the end of Undercliffe Road, a flight of stone steps climbs to the clifftop and to a grassy path that leads to the Dover Patrol Memorial, a rather grim cenotaph to British seamen who died in both world wars.

Beyond the memorial, you follow the path through dense thickets of hawthorn and sloes round which the air thrums with the sound of insects. At a patch of open ground, the great bull-necked cliff of Ness Point bursts into view ahead. Then it is a fast descent of tree-shrouded steps to the groyned beach at St Margaret's Bay, where there is a refreshment shack. To reach the high edge of Ness Point, you follow the road inland for a few yards to where a broad opening leads left to Beach Road and to the attractive Pines Garden. On the east side of Beach Road is the Bay Museum whose exhibits relate to St Margaret's Bay and the surrounding area.

Ahead lie the highest of the white cliffs. From the end of Beach Road a steep path climbs through scrubby ground to reach the clifftop. Soon, a broad track takes you to the South Foreland lighthouse, now in the care of the National Trust and open to the public from the end of March to November. A narrow path leads seaward from the Lighthouse and on to the sweeping expanse of the breezy South Foreland Cliff.

The South Foreland is a mere curve in the cliff profile where the line of the coast turns to the southwest. Here, the white cliffs are at their most awesome. Stay well back from the cliff edge. On windy, cloud-scudding days, there is an eerie sense of precariousness. The glossy grass slides towards the uncertain edge and into booming space. The path makes frequent sidesteps inland to sheltered hollows, safe havens where the grass is speckled with the warm yellow and orange of kidney vetch and bird's foot trefoil. On clear days the French coast at Cap Gris- Nez is temptingly close.

Now you keep to the main path as it leads reassuringly inland from the cliff-edge round the steep hollows of Bantam Hole and Langdon Hole to reach the National Trust car park and viewpoint at Fox Hill. Below is the busy Dover harbour; ahead lies the great prow of Shakespeare Cliff; Dover Castle dominates the skyline. Beyond the Fox Hill car park, a steep descent leads into the whirling turmoil of Dover's sea front, below the great cliffs that gave Caesar second thoughts all those centuries ago.

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