They have welcomed travellers for thousands of years, but behind the famous white cliffs of Dover lies the beautiful Kent countryside, with a lot more to offer
The famous White Cliffs of Dover are one of the most iconic images of Britain. For thousands of years, they’ve been the first things that travellers crossing the English Channel have seen. For some, coming peacefully to these shores, they’re a welcome sight. For others, they are a formidable defence to overcome. Without doubt, however, they are hugely impressive, and both the cliffs and the surrounding area are amongst my favourite places in England.
Dover has been an important trading port for at least 4,000 years. Take a trip to the town’s well-presented museum, and I’m sure you’ll be as amazed as I was on seeing the preserved Bronze Age boat. It was found comparatively recently, during the widening of a road to the modern port. Apart from the museum, and a few moderately interesting historic buildings, I have never found much to keep me in Dover’s town centre for very long.
However, from just about every street, the skyline is dominated by Dover’s massive Norman castle. It is one of the largest fortifications in England, and its position on top of the cliffs, overlooking both the town and the English Channel, makes it even more impressive. I’ve visited countless times, and am still in awe of it each time I head up the steep incline and through the stone gateway. It was built in the 12th century, and has been increased and added to every century since. It was on the site of a previous Roman defence, which in turn was built on top of an Iron Age hill fort, and the panoramic views from the top of the tower are breathtaking. On a clear day, you can easily see the French cliffs.
Not all the castle complex is above ground, and I find the guided tours of the Secret Wartime Tunnels fascinating. An enormous complex of underground passages, on three different levels, housed a hospital and communications centre during World War Two. It was from these tunnels that Admiral Ramsay masterminded the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.
A small road behind the castle will take you up to Langdon Cliffs, and the National Trust’s White Cliffs Visitor Centre. It’s one of those places I enjoy visiting all year round. It looks down on the busy ferry port, and out across the Channel, so there is always activity to watch. If the weather is reasonable, then the walks along the cliff top provide some stunning views. I have made the walk all the way from here to St Margaret’s Bay, a picturesque small cove about six miles along the coast. It’s an invigorating and rewarding trek, although quite strenuous if you cover the whole distance.
A few miles south of Dover is the far prettier and more gracious town of Folkestone. It’s just a few minutes by the main road over the cliffs, but I usually opt for the more genteel and winding road through the pretty Alkham Valley. Heading out of Dover, past the large parkland that now occupies the grounds of the former Kearsney Abbey, the road quickly becomes very rural as the valley sides steepen. The picturesque village of Alkham itself is a pleasant place to stop, particularly if you choose to eat at the excellent Marquis restaurant. I find the historic building, fine food, and great setting put me in the perfect relaxed mood for elegant Folkestone.
When I’m staying in the area, then Folkestone is my usual choice for the best accommodation. The grand cliff-top promenade called the Leas stretches for almost a mile from the town centre, to the headland overlooking the flat Romney Marsh
beyond. It has beautifully manicured lawns, and well-tended gardens. Along much of its length are a wide variety of hotels and guesthouses. The Southcliff Hotel
and The Clifton Hotel
are both good mid-range establishments, or, if your budget allows, choose the more upmarket Burlington Hotel.
At one end of the Leas, the last remaining of three original 19th-century water-powered cliff lifts will ease you, somewhat shakily, down to sea level. This whole area is due for redevelopment soon, in an ambitious plan to include a hotel, casino, and marina.
Folkestone’s pretty fishing harbour area, with the 12th-century church overlooking it from the cliff top, is a place I love to explore. The old cobbled streets, complete with long disused tram-tracks, surround the still working fish market. The arches under the railway line, where the famous Golden Arrow used to climb from the harbour up the steepest mainland gradient in Britain, are little more than head height. And the whole atmosphere, with the salty breeze, seagulls shrieking overhead, bustling stalls selling fresh seafood, and the fishing boats gently slipping in and out to the narrow harbour entrance, makes it – for me at least – an invigorating place to be.
Further along is a fine sandy beach, and around the headland is a wild, unspoilt area known as the Warren. Here, I discovered a network of paths through the sporadically dense undergrowth, between the base of the cliffs and the sea. I find it a strange but wonderful experience, walking through tall dark woodland, with occasional glimpses through the trees of towering white cliffs above. You can’t drive here, and there are few visitors in what is an immense area, so I’ve always found it to have a real secluded feel, with the only exception being the occasional train passing through between tunnels on the way to Dover.
There are just seven miles between Dover and Folkestone, although there is a world of difference between them. But take them together, and there is more than enough to entice me back, whether for a brief stop before I cross the Channel, or for a longer stay to explore more. Either way, I get the chance to see those enigmatic White Cliffs one more time.