How art and ancient history collide on a hike through Deal, Dover and Folkestone

​Few stretches of the England coast path are as storied as the 20 miles connecting the Kent towns of Deal, Dover and Folkestone. But far from living in the past, each community passed is cultivating a buzzy new reputation in the present day.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Five million pints. That’s roughly the amount of beer Kent landlord Graham Stiles has pulled since he first stepped behind a bar. He’s worked it out. He was already an experienced publican when he moved to the seaside town of Deal, where he’s now spent 42 years in charge of The Kings Head. You know the one: flower boxes in the windows, cricket memorabilia on the walls, fairground lettering on the sign outside. The kind of place where there’s always an excuse for another round. It’s a Deal institution, and so is Graham.
“It was a rough town when I first started,” he tells me. “Lots of miners and marines. If you were stupid enough to mention Maggie Thatcher, you’d be in trouble. Funnily enough, the coal seam actually goes right under the pub.” Graham gestures towards the seafront, where hot June sunshine is pounding down on the Channel. “It’s a different place now,” he adds. As if to illustrate his point, four women wander out of the bar wheeling golf trollies. 

Deal has carved a fresh name for itself, just like many towns on the Kent coastline have — Margate and Whitstable, for instance, have become magnets for food- and art-lovers over recent decades. When I turn onto the high street, a headphone-wearing skateboarder curves past me walking a Boston terrier. The street is half a mile long and as straight as a stick of rock. Indie bookshops and artisan butchers glimmer among the chain stores; the swell of a choir rehearsal emanates from the Astor Community Theatre. I end up at The Rose, a little wood-panelled hotel and restaurant with vintage crockery on the tables, inventive creations on the cocktail list and flame-torched mackerel on the menu.

I’m staying in Deal to begin a hike along the cliffs, first walking the 12 miles to Dover before finishing eight miles further south west in Folkestone. As the closest stretch of coastline to mainland Europe, this has always been England’s front door, but beyond its complex past it’s also a captivating swathe of countryside. When you factor in the three towns that stud the route, the prospect of a coastal walk becomes a ripe one.
When I wake the next morning, France is clearly visible across the Channel. Deal’s stark-looking pier stretches out above the waves, and I wander to the end to look back at the shingle beach. On the seafront stands the restored Deal Timeball Tower, a Victorian maritime Greenwich Mean Time signal that still signals 1pm each day, although now more for the benefit of tradition than passing ships. A few anglers are dangling rods over the side of the pier. I ask one what he’s hoping to catch. He fixes me with a look. “Fish,” he replies.

Deal has always looked seawards. Some six miles offshore is the notorious, shipwreck-laden sandbank of Godwin Sands, the upside of which is the sheltered natural anchorage it creates closer to land. Trade and naval activity flourished here for centuries, although the town’s proximity to Europe also turned it into a notorious smugglers’ haunt — so much so that in 1785 the local fishing fleet was set ablaze by Royal Dragoon Guards, under orders from Westminster. Today you can still wander Deal’s historic smuggling alleys, where the wonky, red-brick doorways are now a short stroll away from ice cream kiosks.

When I shoulder my backpack and start making my way towards Dover (full route directions: keep sea on left), I soon reach the landmark that brought Deal into being. Low-slung Deal Castle is the architectural equivalent of a bulldog: squat, solid and immutable. Completed in 1540, during Henry VIII’s reign, the Tudor rose-shaped fort formed part of a line of fortifications that faced Europe. “The castle was originally surrounded by open country; the town came later,” site manager Ben Parker tells me, as we stand within the thick ramparts. “These walls were probably built using stones from recently abolished monastic houses.” They didn’t dilly-dally, the Tudors. 

A 10-minute stroll later, in the town of Walmer, I pass another historical site. A plaque marks the spot where Julius Caesar landed in 54 BC, almost a century before the Romans conquered Britain. This stretch of coast has always been the most vulnerable part of the mainland, but it presents an imposing sight from the water. As I walk, one minute the seafront is all shell-adorned houses and memorial benches (‘In Memory of Maureen – A Wonderful Wife, Mother, Gran and Scrabble Player’), the next it rears up in a series of colossal headlands, with pale crags above a rippling sea. In a film, this is where the camera pans out and Vera Lynn starts up. Welcome to White Cliffs country. 

Typewriters & taprooms

During the hazy bygones of the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the land and the first cross-Channel ferry was some 100 million years away, the eight-mile-long White Cliffs of Dover were formed from the remains of an unfathomable number of prehistoric marine plants and animals. Today, nature prevails. On the clifftops, buffeted by the sea breeze, I find the chalk grasslands brimming with summery species: grasshoppers and meadow pipits, pyramidal orchids and marbled white butterflies. An obelisk gazes out to sea, commemorating the warship patrol that kept foes at bay during the First World War. 

By lunchtime, the heat of the day is strong and I’ve dipped back down close to sea level. There are rolling waves on one side and skylarks and wheat fields on the other. My phone pings with a misguided ‘Welcome to France’ alert from my provider. At tiny St Margaret’s Bay I stop to refuel at The Coastguard, the nearest pub in England to the Continent; the views are wide and scattered with standup paddleboarders. A minute away stands the whitewashed house where James Bond creator Ian Fleming wrote Moonraker, the only 007 novel set entirely in Britain; having the Channel beyond his typewriter seemingly hemmed him in. 

I pick up the coast trail again, following the cliffs as they pitch and climb. “Too many ups and downs,” remarks a 60-something man walking the other way, his smile undermining his grumble. The path winds on, but before long a shift in mood takes place; the coming and going of ships — only every so often, until now — becomes a constant; the screech of soaring swifts is replaced by the white noise of industry. Soon the rumbling, cargo-thronged presence of the Port of Dover appears below. 

An hour or so later, I’ve slogged up to the hilltop citadel of Dover Castle to be greeted by the strange sight of medieval cannons facing out towards the busiest ferry port in the UK. The castle is a colossus, designed to awe. Dating back to 1180, its position was chosen for its commanding views — not only of the sea but the road to London. A palace, battlements, barracks and even a Roman lighthouse all still stand within its walls. A more recent inclusion, a warren of secret tunnels dug into the castle hillside in 1940, served as the operational headquarters for the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Dover itself — slung along a narrow valley — isn’t an instant charmer, due to the four-lane A20 ploughing between the seafront and the town centre. But an evening’s investigation brings rewards. I pass a strip of shops and bars — lively enough on a weeknight — and a cordoned-off market square undergoing a big-budget revamp. On a local tip, I follow the River Dour to the Breakwater Brewery & Taproom, where pizza and a Dover Pale Ale make the freight queues seem a world away. “There was a brewery right here until 1890,” the server tells me. “So we’re keeping the flame alive.” Heading back to my hotel, I call in at The White Horse, an inn since 1574 and these days coated head to toe in the marker-pen signatures of cross-Channel swimmers.

There are quicker — and drier — ways of passing between France and England. The Channel Tunnel, which burrows unseen nearby, is one of them. As an engineering feat, the digging of the tunnel still feels superhumanly modern despite three decades having passed since its completion. Midway through the next morning’s walk, I reach the nature reserve of Samphire Hoe, which sits at the base of the White Cliffs. As recently as the 1980s there was nothing here but rubbly foreshore and seawater — today, it’s an 11-acre reserve. The reason? It was made from the five million cubic metres of chalk marl excavated to create the Channel Tunnel. 

“All this was just a lunar landscape when it was first laid out,” volunteer Grant Hazlehurst tells me, casting his hand across an expanse of flower-dotted grassland. Thirty-one species of plant were originally sown on the spoil; more than 200 now thrive here in the sea air. “We get some incredible bird and insect life, too. This is often the first place new arrivals from overseas make landfall. Two years ago, I found a wasp that was completely new to the UK.” As he talks, bugs hop in the meadow grass around him.  

I walk on, tracing the shoreline towards Folkestone. The sky is an intense, cloudless blue. I pass no one until I stumble across a stony and remote nudist beach, where like any awkward, middle-aged man, I develop a sudden but concerted fascination with the horizon. Eventually, I zigzag back up to the clifftop through cool, mossy woodland. The town is still an hour away, but a row of affluent homes — hydrangeas in the gardens, cats on the windowsills — leads me to the Battle of Britain Memorial. 

It makes for a humbling stop. The memorial commemorates the young Allied aircrews who spent the summer and early autumn of 1940 wrestling extraordinary odds to turn the tide of the Second World War, busying the skies above the Channel with nip-and-tuck dogfights. Hundreds of them lost their lives. Designed in the shape of a Spitfire wing, the visitor centre opens onto a large outdoor area overlooking the sea. Facing the waves is a huge statue of a cross-legged pilot in a sheepskin flying jacket.  

The figure stares out towards Europe with an expression that’s hard to read. A man praying for the safe passage of his friends, perhaps. It feels poignant in multiple ways, not least when your mind turns — as it does on this coastline — to the men, women and children who now risk everything crossing the Strait of Dover on often ill-fated journeys of their own, in search of better lives.

A change of fortune

It’s 10.30pm. Flavia Couri screams and marches into the crowd brandishing a guitar, filling the low-ceilinged cellar bar with ’60s garage-rock fuzz. “I used to want you like a ci-ga-rette,” she sings, her Brazilian accent discernible above the chords, “but now it’s oh-ver!” Behind her, Danish husband Martin Couri hammers a drum kit into submission. Rock ’n’ roll two-piece The Courettes are in the process of tearing apart Folkestone venue The Chambers at a volume possibly audible in Calais. The locals bellow in approval.  

For the casual visitor, Folkestone holds surprises. It is, for example, the world’s first officially designated Music Town, on the back of connections to everyone from violinist Yehudi Menuhin to bassist Noel Redding. It also once boasted Europe’s first-ever sprung wooden dance floor, a feature of the now-shuttered The Grand hotel. The town flourished as a Victorian tourist destination due to rail links with London, later becoming the favoured bolthole of King Edward VII, who reportedly made trips here with his lover, Alice Keppel. Elegant period buildings still line the clifftop promenade today.

In the 1960s, a familiar cycle of seaside decline took hold — but the rot wasn’t terminal; the town has now located its cultural heartbeat in the south of the city, where the streets snake down to the bars and beaches of the harbour. In the early 2000s, arts charity Creative Folkestone bought up 90 derelict buildings and set about shaping a community of designers, artists, musicians and filmmakers. It took time, but the result — the so-called Creative Quarter — now packs the cobbled Old High Street with a rainbow-splashed jumble of galleries, cafes and independent stores.

“We were one of the first to open, so we were here in the tumbleweed years,” smiles Karen Rennie, who runs art and design store Rennies Seaside Modern with partner Paul. On display all around her are classic prints, clothes, jewellery and ceramics. “At the start, it was just us and the tattoo parlour,” she explains. Things have changed. Outside the window is a steady stream of passers-by, and a queue is building outside the coffeehouse up the way.

On the seafront, where, since 2014, the harbour has been undergoing a stylish restoration, the artistic feel continues, helped in no small way by the Folkestone Triennial. Since 2008, the arts festival has been leaving dozens of permanent art installations in its wake. In the centre of the quay, a bright pink bungalow pokes from the water. Close by, a cast-iron Antony Gormley sculpture stands beneath the boardwalk, facing the waves, while at the end of the pier-like Folkestone Harbour Arm, the Grade II-listed Pier Head Lighthouse is now emblazoned with the maxim ‘Weather is a Third to Place and Time’, a work by artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. Perhaps best of all, at the main station (where the 55-minute connection with London St Pancras has helped Folkestone become a fully fledged commuter town), a giant-lettered slogan reads ‘FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL’.

The lighthouse is now a Champagne bar. Couples sit at outside tables with glasses of Chapel Down sparkling wine, produced a mere 20 miles away. Looking back towards town, the cliffs are radiant in the late sun. Millions of soldiers passed along this same Harbour Arm during the Second World War, on their way to or from the Western Front. The terminal that once served them is today a plant-lined pedestrian walkway, with small-batch coffee and sourdough bread a quick stroll away.

I eat at new shipping-container seafood restaurant Little Rock, where the fish is sourced from local trawlers. The server enthuses about how the town has changed in the nine years since she moved here (“you honestly wouldn’t believe it — in fact, I can’t really believe it”) as the hen do two tables away gets steadily more raucous on rosé. It’s very easy to fall for a place when it’s sunny, but the momentum behind Folkestone as a destination seems as sure as the tide.

Back at The Chambers, the band is off-stage and gig-goers spill into the night. It takes me under a minute to walk from the hubbub of the venue to the calm of the clifftop. I can’t see Deal from here, or even Dover, but I can feel the miles between them in my legs. Next to me is a jumbo seagull sculpture on wheels. Under a streetlight, I read that the artwork is called ‘The Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit’. The likes of Julius Caesar and Henry VIII might not have made much sense of it, but for better or for worse, they’re yesterday’s news. 

Getting there & around

Folkestone, Dover and Deal can all be reached by direct train from London St Pancras, taking 55m, 1 h10 and 1h25 minutes respectively. The same line also connects the three towns to each other — the rail journey between Deal and Folkestone takes 30m. All are on the same line. By road, the M20, the A2 and the A259 all serve the region.

When to go

The best seasons to hike the England Coast Path are spring to autumn.

Places mentioned

The Rose.
Deal Timeball Tower.
Deal Castle.
The Coastguard.
Breakwater Brewery.
Samphire Hoe.
Battle of Britain Memorial.
The Chambers.
Creative Folkestone.
Rennies Seaside Modern.
Harbour Arm.
Little Rock.

Where to stay

The Kings Head, Deal. From £60, B&B.
Dover Marina Hotel & Spa. From £70, B&B. 
The View Hotel, Folkestone. From £89, B&B.

More info

How to do it

Coast & Country offers a four-night walking break along Kent’s Heritage Coast from Folkestone to Deal, from £545 per person, B&B, including luggage transfer.

Published in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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