A Windy Walk to Margate

Having been incarcerated for the majority of last weekend I decided on Friday night that rather than catch a train over to Margate the following morning, I would walk. The forecast was for a bright, breezy day and it was not far wrong. I woke up late, almost three hours after I would normally rise on a weekday. After downing a large mug of tea, I set off for the seafront wearing a quantity of layers sufficient for Artic exploration.

Most visitors would consider Viking Bay to be the one and only beach in Broadstairs. It is just two minutes from my front door. The bay is both deep and sheltered, one of the first places in the UK to witness the sun rising each morning. In fact there are seven beaches in Broadstairs and we’ll be visiting five of them on this walk. All have their merits and each is endowed with a copious amount of soft sand. A bund is scraped up annually across Viking Bay to prevent the sea from inundating beach huts and other leisure facilities. A few years ago we had some tremendously high spring tides which caused a lot of damage. The bund is hugely popular with children (and some adults), who love to scramble up one side and roll down the other. By Easter it has been worn down to a low ridge. The sand is then bulldozed to make the beach smooth again.

In these days of tightening budgets we are fortunate that the local council keep the beach so immaculately clean and safe. We are less fortunate in that some visitors treat Viking Bay like an open-air dustbin in the summer. Only the seagulls are impressed by this careless behaviour. It makes me sad to see all the litter left behind when there’s ample provision made for rubbish on the beach and elsewhere in town. In winter the bay is the preserve of dog walkers and hardy families looking to blow away the cobwebs. We very rarely experience rough seas and more often than not the sea is calm. The RNLI provide state-of-the-art lifeguarding facilities here and at Stone Bay, Joss Bay and Botany Bay.

Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor to Broadstairs between 1837 and 1859. He referred to the town as ‘Our English Watering Place’, remarking ‘You cannot think how delightful and fresh the place is and how good the walks’. I can only agree. A reincarnated Dickens would find the older parts of Broadstairs little changed since he left. He certainly wouldn’t have much difficultly recalling his old haunts since most residents take great pride in advertising the fact that he once took lodgings in their homes. A few are less concerned about boasting. My own home, The Watch House, would have been very new during Dickens’ time, and would have stood on the very edge of town in a plot that was once an orchard.

It was at Bleak House, then known as Fort House, that Dickens completed David Copperfield. The bay window behind his writing desk can been seen on the far right of the building. He referred to the house as his ‘airy nest’. In those days fields of waving corn lay beyond Fort House, but now the urban sprawl continues almost unabated until Margate begins. Bleak House has been for sale almost permanently for the last ten years and is still available to anyone with £2.5M burning a hole in their pocket. Sadly the gardens are not well maintained and a big chunk of land was sold off some years ago for a failed building project. I’d love to get my hands on this historic pile. It reeks of needing some TLC and the gardens could be remarkable if taken in hand.

I am still but a mere ten minutes from home, so I need to crack on if I am to reach Margate by lunchtime. Walking north from Bleak House, one very quickly reaches Stone Bay, which is vastly preferable to Viking Bay on a busy day in August. Beneath the cliffs, in front of the green fence, hundreds of beach huts will have appeared by Easter, many of them gaily adored with stripes or meticulously painted murals. It’s to Stone Bay and Dumpton Gap further south that locals flock in summer. The atmosphere is always friendly and there’s plenty of room to spread out for ball games.

The Eastern Esplanade offers lovely views of Stone Bay and free parking for those who don’t wish to pay the high prices in town. There are steps down to the beach in the middle of the sandy beach and at the far end. Deep crevasses were cut through the chalk cliffs hundreds of years ago, not to ease the passage of tourists to and from the beach, but so that farmers could gather seaweed to fertilise their fields. The flints that built my house probably came from Stone Bay.

Fulmars nest just beneath the top of the cliff at the end of Stone Bay, where shallow soil meets solid chalk. This is where Sir Edmund Vesty, food producer, founder of the Blue Star shipping line and great-great-grandfather of Tom Hiddleston built his home. The Italianate Thanet Place is now divided into flats and the terraced gardens built over. Many of the houses on the private North Foreland Estate had their own access to the beach via private staircases cut through the chalk cliff. These are mostly disused, apart from one, very famous example.

Before I explain further, here’s one of my favourite houses in Broadstairs. A little bit of arts and crafts magic sandwiched between properties of limited architectural merit. It’s completely charming and stylistically something of a rarity in these parts. There are lots of interesting plants and trees in the garden too.

Alas the current fashion in the more upmarket areas of Broadstairs is either to ‘remodel’ properties such as this, or to pull them down and replace them with structures such as the one below. I am sorry if this happens to be your home, but you are welcome to it. I daresay the owners feel they are the living embodiment of the Grand Designs era, but quite what anyone finds appealing about living in soulless steel and render box with huge lifeless windows I cannot comprehend.

To make matters worse, the requirement to display between 5 and 7 expensive German cars in front of these houses leaves precious little room for gardens. Thank heavens for phormiums, the only plant that seems to have made it into the austere architects’ repertoire. I’ve no doubt that residents of the North Foreland Estate feel they have made it, but with a choice between mutilated Edwardian and grotesque modern, I think I’ll stay in town, thank you very much.

One benefit the owners of these lavish homes have is private access to the beach via a staircase cut through the cliffs. It’s said that these are the 39 steps that inspired the title of John Buchan’s famous thriller. True enough, Buchan did spend time convalescing in Broadstairs and his son recalls that his sister found a wooden staircase in the grounds of his private nursing home, which led down to the beach. Whether or not these are exactly the same stairs I don’t know, but the story is a good one and part of Broadstairs’ fascinating history.

After North Foreland comes Joss Bay, one of the few beaches in Thanet where one might surf if one was so inclined. There is a surf school and little cafe. Strong easterly winds over the last two winters have pushed the golden sand high up against the cliffs. From here one can enjoy a great view of activity in the world’s busiest shipping lane.

Lichen is not something one sees a great deal of in Thanet. The air is clean enough, but the climate is quite dry and there are very few woods or trees. However, along a stretch of cycle path leading up to Kingsgate the hawthorns and privets are smothered in both yellow and silver-grey lichen.

So we come to Kingsgate Bay, home of an extraordinary collection of buildings commissioned by Lord Holland, the Right Hon. Henry Fox, a highly successful Whig politician with a reputation for cunning and unscrupulousness. Lord Holland was immensely wealthy and went to town with building both his own house (below) and a series follies in the grounds, one of which was Kingsgate Castle. At the time it was unusual to build a stately home, which this surely was, facing directly out to sea. Holland House was originally approached through a stone arch originally known as Barthelmas Gate and renamed King’s Gate after the forced landing of King Charles II on the beach due to a storm on 30th June 1683.

Although Holland House is now much altered and divided into smaller properties, the enormous 12-pillared portico removed, it’s still possible to appreciate what a handsome property it once was. The park which sat before the house has been eroded away leaving only room for parking spaces and a road before the cliff edge.

Time has treated Kingsgate Castle rather better, although it now teeters above the bay on cliffs heavily reinforced by concrete. The ‘castle’, which has never defended anything, was conceived as a stable block. When Lord Holland’s estates were sold following his death, John Lubbock, an English banker, Liberal politician, philanthropist, scientist and polymath, rebuilt the castle as a comfortable home befitting a freshly minted Baron. Lubbock made significant contributions to archaeology, ethnography, and several branches of biology. He was a friend of Charles Darwin and coined the terms “Palaeolithic” and “Neolithic” to differentiate the Old and New Stone Ages.

Even on a warm summer’s day you’ll find almost no-one on Kingsgate beach owing to its relative inaccessibility and lack of facilities. However, it’s very well worth the walk from either Joss Bay to the south or Botany Bay to the north. The sand is pristine and the sea is calm and shallow.

The real wonder of Kingsgate bay is the natural arch which sits on a promontory to the left as one looks out to sea. The blocky structure of the gleaming white chalk is absolutely fascinating to observe, and the wave-cut plateau is home to an abundance of whelks, mussels and other sea-life.

From the other side of the arch one may look back towards Holland House and appreciate something of how impressive it once was.

Passing through the arch I am now in Botany Bay. There’s another cutting through the cliff which ends in a series of elongated chalk steps. It’s a flight like this that might have given Broadstairs its name, although it might also have been the whiteness of the rock – Bright Stone, leading to Bradstowe, leading to Broadstairs.

Botany Bay is so named because if smugglers were caught with contraband on the beach they were transported to Australia to reflect on the error of their ways. In 1769 smuggler Joss Snelling, after whom Joss Bay is named, was caught on the beach by the Revenue Patrol. After a fight, dubbed ‘The Battle of Botany Bay’ he escaped and survived to become an old man. So thorough was his rehabilitation that he was later introduced to a young Princess Victoria on a visit to the area. Joss Snelling died in 1837.

If you have not visited Botany Bay, you will almost certainly have seen it on film or TV. The pristine sands and white cliffs are almost constantly used as a location by brands as diverse as McDonalds and Burberry. It’s a long time since I’ve done this walk and I had forgotten how splendid the beach is. The sand is fine, clean and soft and the sea is perfect for paddling in. Thanks to repeated inclusion in ‘best beach’ line ups, Botany Bay is much more popular than any of its neighbours. Don’t let that put you off visiting, as it’s worth the drive through ‘bunglow hell’ (as Him Indoors used to call it) to get there.

At the end of Botany Bay is a low headland named Foreness Point. This unassuming feature marks the entrance to the Thames estuary. Beyond here lies Palm Bay and the beaches of Margate. This is where I generally start to tire, so I’m never sure if it’s my lack of energy, the fact that I prefer Broadstairs, or that the beaches are actually not as pleasant from now on that makes me anxious to reach my destination. Like Broadstairs, Margate has expanded to fill what was probably a nondescript void of open farmland. I read the other day that only 1% of Thanet is considered ‘wild’, and I suspect that’s an abandoned chalk quarry or some such. The whole Isle is now urbanised, and there’s more building to come if the government have anything to say about it.

I suppose in its heyday Palm Bay must have been known for its palms. If you look carefully you’ll spot a few date palms (Phoenix canariensis) planted in private gardens, and they seem to do respectably well on this windswept, north facing plateau. What grandeur and excitement this area might have offered during its heyday has long been grassed over, so there’s not a lot to see apart from a few restored Art Deco houses painted in jolly colours.

By this stage a strong westerly wind is roaring in my face and I am struggling to maintain a straight line as I walk. I cross numerous bridges constructed to navigate the deep chalk ravines cut by the farmers of yesteryear and arrive at what remains of Margate’s once magnificent lido. There is much talk of Thanet’s regeneration, but as yet it is restricted to a few favoured areas of Ramsgate and Margate. Both towns have yet to find investors willing to breathe life back into complex structures such as the Lido, although the rebirth of Dreamland has given us all hope for the future.

I make a short detour across the road to a small parade of shops which includes cult skincare and fragrance brand Haeckels and Simply Danish, a shop selling beautifully revitalised Scandinavian furniture and homewares. I leave with a very pleasing mahogany and brass lamp stand and a small blue vase, but I resist the temptation to indulge in pampering products, on this occasion at least.

The Old Town of Margate is one of the favoured areas I was referring to. It’s packed with genuinely interesting and original little shops selling everything from art to light fittings. Many of them change hands with a regularity which suggests the owners don’t find trading in the town plain sailing, but a few, such as Paraphernalia, have remained in business for a long time. My favourite haunts are the Pilgrims Hospice second hand bookshop in an old branch of the Midland Bank, and Hooked on Books in the High Street.

If one keeps going up the High Street one soon gets to experience the grittier side of Margate, although Ruskin endures with it’s beautifully curated range of mens and womenswear.

After a glimpse of the less salubrious side of Margate it’s hard to imagine that the town was once the place for the aristocracy to enjoy life by the seaside. Anyone who was anyone had a property in the town or in the smart enclave of Cliftonville. The Grand Old Duke of York and Albany, Price Frederick, who by all accounts was a bit of a ‘one’, maintained a huge property on the seafront, now converted into flats.

Feeling a little windswept and in need of sustenance I peered over the harbour wall by the Turner Contemporary and spied a huddle of little birds massed on a seaweed-strewn beach. The darker ones are turnstones, I am not sure about the others. The large bird, top right, is an omnipresent herring gull.

Artist Tracy Emin hails from Margate. One of her pieces reading ‘I Never Stopped Loving You’ adorns the front of Droit House at the entrance to the harbour arm.

With the wind driving the tide hard into the harbour it was time to seek shelter in the Old Kent Market, an old cinema building now hosting a variety of eateries and shops. After a delicious prawn sambal from The Malaccan, a kitchen selling Malaysian and Singaporean street food, I felt ready to return home. Just fifteen minutes later I was back in Broadstairs, my aching legs only just starting to protest at the three hour walk. TFG.

Have you done this walk yourself? If so, what fascinating tidbits of information can you add? Do you have a favourite Broadstairs beach? I’d love to know.