Outdoors: White cliffs and bovver boots

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The Independent Online
Matthew Brace continues his series on great short railway journeys with a trip through the seamy side of Kent

In contrast to the other train journeys in this series, this week's route presents the armchair traveller with the grittier side of life in Britain. No one would argue that this trip is picturesque, though it does open up part of the South-east that is definitely not on the tourist track. To add to your woes, you will have to change trains at Ramsgate in order to complete the trail to our journey's end at Margate.

The trip starts handsomely enough, with the white cliffs of Folkestone and Dover standing proudly in the sunlight. They are so quintessentially English, they almost make homecoming ferry passengers burst into choruses of "Land of Hope and Glory" as they arrive from the Continent. Taking a train journey along this famous coast, however, you realise that the celebrated cliffs are not as high and mighty as they sometimes seem.

Leaving Folkestone en route to Dover, the train bowls along next to the Channel shore, with France visible on a clear day. The cliffs rising to the landward side looked only about 100ft high, a fraction of the height they appear from out at sea. Along the track, big chunks of chalk that have become dislodged are propped up against wire mesh fences where they lie looking bizarrely like blocks of feta cheese.

For a coastal route, this short train journey offers surprisingly few sea views. You can see the waves as you approach the impressive bulk of Dover Castle, but they soon disappear behind the rooftops of the town. Instead, the track winds inland through tunnels cut into the chalk.

Most of Kent is cosy, characterised by oasthouses and small villages, but the landscape on this extreme eastern edge is uncharacteristically flat and deserted. It is more akin to the countryside across the Channel. Anyone who has travelled on the Eurostar to Paris will have noticed the difference between the relatively cluttered appearance of central Kent, with its hedges, fields and settlements, and the vast, unpopulated expanses of Normandy. If the Eurostar followed this route through the east of the county before submerging, passengers would get a much better idea of the sort of scenery to expect in France.

Martin Mill is the first station past Dover, after which the train runs through wide, chalky fields. Earlier this week, spring was waiting in the wings: buds looked almost ready to burst, the smell of early blossom filled the air and seagulls were sunbathing in the warm, coastal light. Children at a small gypsy encampment stopped hanging out the family washing and waved at us as we passed.

From the train you do not see much of the small town of Walmer, other than modern, brutal-looking housing estates. But Walmer is well worth noting, for it has a significant place in history: this was where Julius Caesar is believed to have stepped on British soil for the first time.

After the station here, the train heads for Deal, where sheep graze on rugby pitches in the town centre, and then on to Sandwich, through more fen-like fields. Sandwich has a pretty church and clapperboard houses, common in this part of Britain, and a whitewashed windmill on the outskirts of town. Farther down the line is its modern equivalent, a wind turbine.

The train from Folkestone and Dover ends at Ramsgate where you must change platforms and catch a London train that starts here and heads for Victoria station. It was appropriate that I found myself squeezed in among a group of middle-aged, overweight football fans heading for a London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea. This part of Kent has often been described as being Cockneyfied beyond all recognition. "It was all right before it got full of London scum," I later overheard one native Margate resident say.

The fans talked about how well the "boys" would do, and whether they would get to Wembley this year - and they scolded a younger member of the group for not bringing enough bags of crisps to munch. They were harmless enough, but I was glad I met them as they were cracking open their first cans of beer, and not as they were coming home later that night. They chatted through Broadstairs, once home to Charles Dickens, and into Margate, where I got off and left them to it.

It is a long time since people came to Margate for health reasons. A sea-bathing infirmary was established here in the 18th century, when it was widely thought that salt water was good for the body - both for bathing in and for drinking. Since then Margate has developed a different, and off-putting, reputation. During the Seventies and Eighties it was the battlefield for many a skinhead scrap, and today it still has an air of tension and violence.

After a bag of chips, a stroll through Margate's dirty streets and a swift pint in a run-down pub where former addicts were comparing hard drug substitutes while their children played under the tables, I ran for the next train. This is a part of Kent tourists do not usually see, and now I know why.

On the footplate

When to go: trains run about once an hour and the journey takes half- an-hour

Who to call: National Rail Enquiries 0345 484950

How much: adult day return pounds 6.10, children (under 16) day return pounds 3.05

What to see: hop off at Broadstairs to look at Dickens's house