Charles Dickens features heavily in Thanet, but this walk between Margate and Broadstairs is a tale not just of two towns – rather than cities – but of two installations. Margate has certainly been lifted, not just by the Turner Contemporary gallery but by the reopening last year of Dreamland, the retro-theme park.
In their very different ways both are well worth visiting, but standing on Margate sands I can’t help feeling that there has been a magical seascape here all along, and it just needed some bold building – or rebuilding – to enable the wider public to take that on board.
The sands stretch out invitingly from the front door of the Turner Contemporary, Margate’s stately lampposts are ornately entwined with dolphins and sturgeon in an echo of the Victoria Embankment in London. At the end of the harbour arm stands the Shell Lady, a quirky, doll-like sculpture of Sophia Booth, Turner’s long-standing mistress.
Unlike many coastal paths, this route is almost entirely flat, with none of the ups and downs you can find elsewhere, so it’s pretty easy going. This is partly thanks to squat bridges that traverse the chines; the man-made gaps dug out by farmers to access seaweed but which were quickly exploited by smugglers.
The Kent coast is not short of stirring walks, but this trail, starting amid the seaside paraphernalia of Margate and striking east along the banks of the Thames Estuary, skims along less travelled clifftops before winding south to Broadstairs. The coastal scenery is often strikingly beautiful and is a reminder that while the White Cliffs of Dover hog the headlines and the wartime melodies, the same stirring geology runs unbroken along this coastline.
The coastal path runs across the top of Walpole Bay offering the first clear views of Kent’s striking chalk cliffs. The chalk runs along the sea bed too, and can give the shallow waters a milky, translucent appearance.
The chalk soil and beaches are fantastic for many plants and birds, and all year round you can expect to see the black-and-white flash of an oystercatcher with its luminous orange bill and plaintively mewing call. In places, the sea spray has splattered the path, attracting lichens that turn the soil a fetching shade of pea-green. Down in the sands, as the tide retreats you can still spot over-wintering and passing birds, such as the curlew. And towards the end of this month you may even see the vanguard of spring returnees, such as the stiff-winged fulmar, smaller and more acrobatic than your standard seaside gull.
The path loops out around a large expanse of grassland past a pumping station at Foreness Point, and the first uninterrupted views of the sea stacks of Botany Bay. Huge lumps of chalk pockmark the beaches and are proof that nature can create sculptures as impressive as anything on display in the Turner Contemporary. The sea stacks here, shaped like giant oil drums, reach 40m in height.
Ahead, jutting its flint turrets and defences out into the estuary is the imposing Kingsgate Castle, built in 1760. Looking towards the castle across Kingsgate Bay you realise just how vulnerable the chalk coastline is: cracks and crevasses – some of them quite dizzying – rupture the cliffs while a zig-zag staircase wobbles its way unevenly down to the beach.
Kingsgate Bay is a hauntingly scenic beach, bookended by cliffs that act magically like a whispering wall, bouncing the echoes of waves from end to end. The northern end of the beach is marked by a delectable arch that has been whittled away by the tides.
Beyond Joss Bay, the path dog-legs across North Foreland Hill to pass North Foreland lighthouse. The hexagonal building looks as though it was painted yesterday in the trademark Trinity House sparkling white and green colour scheme. There’s been a warning light here since 1499, though the foundations of the current building were laid in 1791.
The path edges slowly through the genteel suburbs of Broadstairs, with its gated mansions and manor houses. The path slips between houses and the coast, past Bleak House, both the former home of Charles Dickens (and where he wrote David Copperfield) and a smuggling museum, before depositing me in Viking Bay, where the grand façades of Broadstairs seafront glower down at the coastal hiker.
I return to Margate late in the day. The sun, unexpectedly, is setting over a beach that I thought faced east but actually looks west. The honeyed glow is almost warm: the terrace of the Sands Hotel conveniently overlooks this spectacle. Of all the sundowners in all the world, Margate, surprisingly, punches above its weight.
Southeastern trains (southeasternrailway.co.uk) run between London St Pancras/ London Victoria and Margate.
Mark Rowe stayed at the Sands Hotel, Margate (01843 228228; sandshotelmargate.co.uk). Doubles from £130, B&B.
Distance: 9km/ 5.5miles
Time: Three hours
OS Map: Explorer 150, Canterbury & The Isle of Thanet
Directions: Initially follow the Viking coastal trail signs from the Turner Contemporary and then the coastal trail, which sometimes dips inland but rarely strays far from the sea.
To return from Broadstairs to Margate, either take the five-minute train journey (nationalrail.co.uk) or bus No 56 (Traveline; 0871 2002233). Sunday and Bank Holiday service routes are operated by the Thanet Loop, route 32 and 8/8A8X.
More information: visitthanet.co.uk
- More about:
- Kingsgate Bay
- Turner Contemporary gallery
- Kingsgate Castle
- Isle of Thanet
- Walpole Bay
- Thanet Loop
- North Foreland lighthouse