It was the Hamptons of the 1800s, when everyone from Queen Victoria to Karl Marx frolicked in the surf. Today, the Kent coast is at turns incandescently beautiful and desolately down at heel, as full of historic smugglers’ coves and wild swimming as it is faded Georgian glories. Geographically significant as the UK’s closest land to Europe, this coast is also peppered with historical sites, from Roman Forts to Second World War bomb shelters.
With fewer people travelling abroad this summer, the Kent coast, an easy under-two-hours trip from London, has seen some front-page-worthy crowds on sunny days. However, some of the coast’s greatest joys can be found if you swerve its best-known places.
Herne Bay, the next town along the coast from Whitstable, has not been yet colonised by the DFLs (down-from-Londons). Its fine Georgian houses are the colour of a box of chalks, and its beach is famous for its wealth of fossilised sharks’ teeth. On a calm day, the powder-blue sea ripples like silk.
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At the other end of the beach is the Herne Bay suburb of Beltinge. Hillocks back the beach, ideal for sliding down (even if unintentionally). For walking or cycling, the Oyster Bay Trail hugs this part of the coast for six miles from Swalecliffe to Reculver. The area also hosts Kent’s best boot fair, the Whitstable Bends.
Another lesser-known cycle route is the Crab & Winkle Way, between Canterbury and Whitstable. This follows what was a six-mile railway line, and from outside Canterbury is mostly traffic-free. It crosses Blean Woods, 90 hectares of ancient woodland that glows with bluebells in the spring.
You can escape the coastal hubbub on a sunny day to dive off wooden pontoons at Westbere Marshes Lake, just to the east of Canterbury.
Back on the coast, the twin towers of Reculver are visible for miles, dramatic medieval ruins on a promontory. This was once the site of a Roman fort built to defend against Saxon pirates, and the fort’s ridges are still visible; the pebble beach, too, yields up more fossils, and sometimes even Roman fragments. From here the shore-hugging Viking Coastal Trail takes in Turner-worthy views all the way to Ramsgate.
Even in Kent’s town-of-the-moment Margate there are secret places to escape the crowds. To the east of town is Walpole Bay, with its grade II listed, four-acre tidal pool in front, built in 1937 to allow safe bathing and fed by natural fresh springs.
Between Margate and Broadstairs, Botany Bay is Kent’s favourite wild beach, backed by chalk cliffs and with a lone kiosk on its golden sands. On warm days, however, it gets mobbed, so instead walk to the next beach eastwards, Kingsgate, beyond Botany Bay’s chalky outcrops. The golden-sanded crescent is famous for its smugglers’ caves carved into the cliffs.
North of Ramsgate, as far as Dumpton Gap, the beaches are usually empty. Ramsgate rivals Broadstairs and Margate in looks, yet doesn’t receive the same attention. The town was a favourite of Jane Austen, Coleridge and Engels (who complained about the local petit bourgeoisie). With its hoop of boat-bobbing marina and Harbour Arm, it’s fronted by golden beaches and lined by fine Georgian houses, and its warren of Second World War tunnels reopens to visitors on 1 August.
For unspoilt coastline where social distancing is the natural option, there’s the 615-hectare natural park of Sandwich and Pegwell Bay, five miles south of Ramsgate, with sandy coast, saltmarsh and ancient dunes, favoured by nightingales, teals, and warblers, and shaggy highland cattle in the long grass. Hundreds of seals flop ashore during winter.
Another great tip is Sandwich Bay, a little farther south, which is backed by a toll road: the £7 charge puts visitors off, so you’re more likely to find a lonely spot on this beach than not, and it’s Kent’s best place for kitesurfers.
Deal, with its broad beach and warren of fishermen’s cottages, is hugely popular, but take the path along the coast (with plenty of climbing trees en route) to the gleaming pebble beach at Kingsdown, with its pastel-painted fishing village almost on the shingle. There’s a lone, lovely pub, the Zetland Arms, for sunset views with a drink and a pint of prawns, and at nearby Oldstairs Bay you can fish and rock-pool under the cliffs.
The treacherously shifting Goodwin Sands lie offshore, stretching from Ramsgate to Dover. This sometimes lethal sandbank was mentioned in The Merchant of Venice and Moby Dick. Take a speedboat tour with Dover Sea Safari, spotting seals and ghostly shipwrecks. Close to Dover, St Margaret’s Bay is worth a visit, backed by white cliffs and a millionaires’ row of grand villas: both Noel Coward and Ian Fleming once lived here.
Finally, to take in art without a crowd, stop at Folkestone, whose many artists and artisans populate and decorate its Creative Quarter. In a Covid-nervous world, it is the perfect gallery: Folkestone has the UK’s largest exhibition of outdoor urban art, with works such as Richard Woods’s Holiday Home, six colourful bungalows dotted in unexpected locations around the town.
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