Sunday, 25 January 2009

Saxon Shore Way Day 5 Herne Bay - Sandwich

Herne Bay Front
After following the present day coastline for the last three sections of the walk, it comes as a bit of a shock to spend most of the day away from the coast altogether. The first few miles are familiar enough, following the promenade out of Herne Bay and then out on to the low cliffs to Reculver, but then the path takes a right-angled turn and follows the old shoreline of the Wantsum Channel. This separated the Isle of Thanet from the rest of Kent but has now all but disappeared due to silting up.

Sandwich is a good place to park the car as there is free parking by the station. From here there is a half hourly service to Ramsgate, where you need to change for the train to Herne Bay. However, not all the trains connect and it took me well over an hour to make the relatively short journey around the Isle of Thanet.

Approaching Reculver Towers
Herne Bay is the last of the north Kent Coast resorts that you visit and is quite a sedate place, with the usual mix of flowery parks, amusement arcades and pensioners on their holidays. It did seem a little down on its luck, with remarkably few people about even on a sunny June morning. From the 1930’s station I walked down through the park to the seafront, stocking up on provisions on the way. Today is another lonely section, with few shops en route so it is wise to ensure you are fully prepared.

Reculver Towers
From Herne Bay, the path follows the sea wall for over a mile. Today it was still being repaired in time for the main holiday season in a few weeks time, but the work looked to be mostly finished. It meant that I had to negotiate the grassy path that acted as a diversion a little way up the slope. Out at sea I could see the gas rigs that drill for natural gas in this part of the North Sea. Every so often there were huge explosions, which presumably were part of the exploration for new gas fields. These were so loud they almost made the ground shake.
Chislet Windmill

A little further on and I passed a large group of students who were studying the ecology of the cliff edges and were most probably from the University of Kent only 10 miles away. Just past them and it was up on to the cliff for the next couple of miles into Reculver. As I passed Bishopstone Glen, the towers of the ruined church at Reculver came into view. This seemed a very attainable goal, but almost depressingly I could see the towers of Richborough power station in the distance. I knew I would have to pass this facility by the end of the day and it did seem an awfully long way away.

Flax Field
Reculver Towers are all that remains of a Saxon church (although rebuilt by the Normans) that was built on a peninsula. The sea has now claimed the peninsula and the church has almost succumbed as well, although the remaining part is now protected by a sea wall. The towers were spared demolition by Trinity House, the organisation that looks after lighthouses, since they make for a good navigational tool for shipping. They are quite eerie structures although the mystery of the place is somewhat spoiled by the presence of a large caravan site adjacent to the car park. There are refreshment facilities here, the last for some time although when I passed they were filled with school kids so I didn’t hang around.
Boyden Gate Chapel

From the Towers I headed away from the coast and along the side of a few fields, all reclaimed from the sea over the last few hundred years. The next few miles are rather bleak, with long stretches away from settlement and only broken up by the major communication routes serving the Isle of Thanet. Just after crossing the railway line the path passes by a house with a former windmill in the back garden, now being used as a shed. Apparently this was destroyed by a storm way back in 1916, yet still functions as a rather unusual storage facility!

Boyden Gate
Once across Thanet Way, the path zigzags between drainage ditches and fields and at various place the old shoreline can clearly be seen. To imagine the sea lapping at the sides of these cliffs seems a little far fetched now that the flat land is covered with fields of wheat, corn, flax seed and rape seed. The next main road to be reached is the old Canterbury Road, now the A28. In mediaeval times this was the main road to the Island, with a causeway across what was by now swamp and marshland. This replaced the much earlier ferry across the channel. Buses pass this part of the walk if you wish to break your journey and head back into Canterbury or Margate.

Plucks Gutter
The descent to the River Stour at Grove Ferry marks a change of scenery. There is a very attractive pub at the bottom of the hill adjacent to another rail line. From here there are steam boat rides along the river and I could hear the vessel pootling along, although strangely I never actually saw it! The next six miles or so follow the watercourses of the Little Stour and Great Stour rivers. Although very flat, it wasn’t easy going as by June much of the riverbank was by now very overgrown and I had a lot of trouble with thistles and stinging nettles. It was a very lonely stretch and one which I didn’t think would ever end. Plucks Gutter marks the confluence of the rivers and just by the bridge across the river is the last of the pubs for the day before you reach Sandwich.

Environment Agency Crew
Just after Plucks Gutter, the cooling towers of Richborough power station once again came into view. They were mercifully much closer than the last time I saw them a couple of hours previously at Reculver, but what I hadn’t bargained for was that it would take me another hour before I reached them. By then I was swearing and cursing, for what promised to be one of the easier stretches of the day was really tough going through undergrowth and across ploughed fields. Just to add to the equation was the weather, which had threatened to turn out nice suddenly turned into rain instead. Just to add insult to injury, the power station never seemed to get any closer.

Military Vehicles
By the time I did finally reach the power station I could see that it was in fact derelict and was in the throes of being demolished. Even the large wind turbine was redundant, although it didn’t look that old. I was extremely tired by now and was very tempted by catching a bus for the last three miles into Sandwich. However, the River Stour prevented that as there were no bridging points that would allow me to get to the main road and so I had to walk. After a couple more turns around the bank of the river, Richborough Roman Fort came into view. Although this apparently was a very impressive fort in its day, there was now very little left as much of it had been destroyed by the sea over the years. Now a mile or so inland it was hard to believe that it was built on an island in the Wantsum Channel.

Approaching Richborough
From the fort it was a short hop into Sandwich, the historic port that was once part of the Cinque Ports network. This confederation was set up in the 1100’s to supply ships to the navy in case of attack in exchange for various rights and privileges from the crown. The Saxon Shore Way passes through or close to all the original ports of Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Hastings. Sandwich is a delightful town and would be a good place to base yourself if you wanted to cover the walk over consecutive days in this area. The walk itself does not pass through the middle of the town but follows the old town wall, which gives a fascinating perspective. About half way round the station is reached and this marked the end of a long and wearying day for me.

Richborough Power Station
This is a long and exhausting section of the walk if tackled during the height of summer due to the lack of shade, the length of the walk and the overgrown vegetation. It should be fairly dry and may be a better stretch to tackle during the winter months, when overgrown vegetation does not cause problems. It is also a good idea to make sure that you are well stocked with provisions as, apart from a few pubs on the way there are no settlements to speak of on the way. Allow at least seven hours to complete the walk (it took me a little over six hours).

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