Peter Morrell and his wife enjoy a wealth of surprises on a short break in this relatively unknown part of Kent
In their headlong dash to the cross-channel train or ferries, people pass through one of the most interesting parts of the UK without stopping, White Cliffs Country. The area encompasses Sandwich in the north to Dover and beyond in the south, with Deal in between. What these speeding visitors miss is a rich history, abundant culture, interesting architecture, a wealth of natural assets, and delicious local food.
We started our journey of discovery in Sandwich, reckoned to be the best-preserved Medieval town in England. We approached from the north, crossing the river Stour via the old toll bridge, and through the Barbican town gate. Look to your left and you will see a conveniently located long term car park, a stroll from the centre.
We were given a comprehensive tour of the centre by the Chairman of the Sandwich Local History Society, the Society offers bookable tours, and can be contacted via their website, below.
After lunch at the George and Dragon pub, built in 1446, where we literally had a sandwich in Sandwich, our tour started outside the Guildhall. This is a magnificent beam clad building constructed in 1579, with later additions. Every Thursday the square in front of the building plays host to a lively market. The town is a warren of streets and alleys with private houses, many converted pubs, boutique shops, and buildings with upper floor overhangs, some supported by mythical carved figures from the Elizabethan period. High, stout garden walls were defences against marauding French forces.
The town is divided into three parishes, each with a church. Probably the most interesting is the 13th century St Peter’s because of its history. In 1560 Elizabeth 1st gave 25 Flemish families sanctuary in Sandwich. They brought weaving and market gardening skills which bolstered Sandwich’s economy, in decline because the once busy port was silting up. In 1564 during a plague, they were given St Peter’s as a place to worship to limit the spread of infection. An ornate Flemish Gable on the church is part of their legacy. The church rings its bell at 8:00pm every evening, to mark the start of the now defunct curfew.
After two hours of history, we arrived back at the Guildhall to look at the museum. It contains a myriad of artefacts from the Roman period to present day. Two priceless exhibits are copies of the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. The most spectacular part of the building is the perfectly preserved Tudor Courtroom. It is a wealth of wood – the panelling, the dock, and the jury box.
Before lunch we had taken a boat trip on the River Runner from Sandwich Quay down the River Stour to the point where it joins the sea. The crew of two were expert mariners who were volunteers on the Ramsgate RNLI lifeboat and had a wealth of knowledge about the area. We set off, passing the now disused Pfizer Pharmaceutical plant. The river is now quite narrow but in the far distance you can see the original riverbank. This would have made a large estuary which supported a thriving port, and would see up to 3000 sailors in the town, incidentally, well provided for by 60 pubs.
This part of the English coast has always been the front line in times of war, and the infrastructure for this is still in place. At the start of WWI, a long quay was built by the Royal Engineers complete with railway line. This allowed trains to be loaded onto barges, creating the world’s first roll on, roll off ferry. Men and equipment were destined for the Ypres Salient in Flanders. In WWII the quay was a secret construction site, and parts of the Mulberry Harbour for the D Day landings were made here and towed to Normandy.
Just before entering the sea, we arrived to what was a great surprise, a large and thriving seal colony. Around 40 of these mottled mammals, shaped like a banana, were basking on the mud flats. A few were popping their heads above water before disappearing with barely a ripple, it was a charming sight, and kids would love it. On the journey back we kept our eyes peeled for rare sea birds and were amply rewarded.
In the evening we checked in to the Bell Hotel which dates back to Tudor times. Our well-appointed room had a balcony offering a grandstand view of the river, quay, and toll bridge. Steps away from the hotel on the quay is the Drill Hall, home to the Pizza Giovanni restaurant. An early dinner of superior pizza, and glass of good Italian wine was the prelude to a night at the cinema, but this was no ordinary cinema. The Empire was opened in 1937 and has retained all of its Art Deco architectural glory. Its exterior neon lighting makes it stand out like a beacon. Inside the seating has been restored, and digital video with Dolby sound installed to support the latest films, but it has not lost its classic charm.
This area of the UK is amongst the sunniest, with circa 1600 hours of sun per annum, however we awoke on day two to heavy rain, but it was in March. We had planned to go beach foraging with Lucia Stuart, who runs The Wild Kitchen, Lucia is an expert in find edible food both on land and along the shoreline. We chose an indoor attraction, Walmer Castle, in nearby Deal. The castle was originally an artillery fort built by Henry VIII. It is the official home of The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. The Cinque Ports, Five Ports in English, was created by a Royal Charter that allowed five coastal towns, Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, New Romney, and Hastings, to collect local taxes in return for a commitment to provide ships for use by the Crown to defend the English coastline.
The Lord Warden role is now honorific, and has been held by Winston Churchill, Pitt the Younger, and the Queen Mother and many others. A self-guided tour revealed that the Duke of Wellington, a past Lord Warden, passed away at the Castle. He died in his military campaign field bed, which is still on display. On the outside terraces are a fine display of cannons, confirming the castle’s original purpose. Extensive and very attractive gardens surround the castle, most notable the serene Queen Mother’s Garden laid out by designer Penelope Hobhouse.
It was time for lunch, and we set off for The Coastguard, a beachside pub at St Margaret’s Bay between Deal and Dover. The service was friendly, and the food delicious, with a big emphasis on locally caught fish. My wife and I shared a fish platter with squid, whitebait, smoked salmon pate and a lot more.
The pub manager pointed out a large white house at the other end of the bay, once owned by James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, who loved this area. He wrote Moonraker at the house, and parts of the book are based on St Margaret’s cliffs and nearby Kingsdown. Although in the film Goldfinger James Bond’s golf round with the villain was filmed at Stoke Park, the fictional Royal St Mark’s in the book is the British Open hosting Royal St George’s at Sandwich, where Fleming was a member for years
Fleming regularly travelled between London and St Margaret’s Bay on the regular coach that runs between London and Dover, it was, and still is, Route 007, now operated by National Express.
Our final stop was to visit the cleverly created nature reserve, Samphire Hoe, just off the A20. When the Channel Tunnel was being excavated a 1.7 kilometre sea wall was built below the cliffs just west of Dover enclosing an old coal mine. The spoil from the tunnel was backfilled to create an extensive wilderness reserve, but with paved paths to give everyone access. There is ample parking, and a Visitor Centre with educational facilities.
There are now more than 200 plant species in the park, many self-seeded, including the rare Early Spider orchid. We walked parallel to the sea with the imposing 100-metre-high White Cliffs to our right. Ascending a mound and were afforded an unparallel view of the coastline, from Dover Harbour to Folkestone. Samphire Hoe is a very tranquil place and was a fitting end to our packed adventure in White Cliffs Country.
Rejoining the A20 we were back home in south London, without speeding, in an hour and twenty minutes. White Cliffs Country is an ideal destination for people of all ages and interest, a hidden gem that is so easy to get to.
White Cliffs Country – https://www.whitecliffscountry.org.uk/
Sandwich Local History Society – http://www.sandwichlocalhistorysociety.org.uk/
River Runner Boat Trips – https://river-runner.co.uk/
The George and Dragon – https://georgeanddragonsandwich.com/
The Bell Hotel – https://www.bellhotelsandwich.co.uk/
Pizza Giovanni – https://www.thedrillhallsandwich.co.uk/
The Wild Kitchen – https://www.thewildkitchen.net/
Walmer Castle – https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/walmer-castle-and-gardens/
Samphire Hoe – https://www.samphirehoe.com/
The Coastguard – https://thecoastguard.co.uk/