Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Saxon Shore Way Day 7 Dover - Sandling

Dover Castle
I had decided upon this section as the last I would walk, partly as it promised to be one of the highlights of the whole route. In that respect I was not disappointed, with virtually the whole walk being at high level along the last stretch of the North Downs before it disappears into the sea at Dover. By now the walking season for the year was very much over and this turned out to be an unseasonably nice day for December. Of course being so late in the year and close to the winter solstice the daylight hours were in fairly short supply and the sun never really got high in the sky making light conditions quite strange.
Dover Harbour

I parked at Sandling station and took the train into Dover, a scenic run along the seawall at Shakespeare Cliff. The day wasn’t very promising with pretty gloomy conditions at first, in stark contrast to the completion of the last stage which had been at the height of summer. I climbed up on to Western Heights, yet another fortification to protect the country this time built during the Napoleonic Wars. Walking around the ramparts of the fort was very interesting and afforded some very good views of Dover, the castle on the opposite hill and the surrounding countryside. Down below the port was still very busy, presumably with plenty of day-trippers getting their Christmas shopping and plenty of lorries.

Channel Tunnel Workings
The path negotiated the fortifications and by-passed a young offenders institution before heading down the hill once again to the main Folkestone Road. Fortunately crossing this very busy dual carriageway was a lot easier than expected due to the presence of a subway crossing. From there the path headed for the cliff edge and for the next six miles or so the path hugged the cliffs. By now the weather was brightening up and it promised to be a very pleasant day. In contrast to my last foray along the coast path, the sea was like a millpond, very unusual for this time of year.

Listening Post
At the start of the cliff walk I turned to look back one last time at Dover port. One ferry was coming and another going and the train line below was also busy. The weak and watery sun shone down across the scene, making for a good picture. The next mile or so was a rollercoaster along the chalky cliffs, which made for fairly hard walking on the slippery chalky paths. While the scenery was very nice, the traffic noise from the adjacent A20 rather spoiled this section of the walk for me though. About half a mile along the cliffs I spotted a marker sign telling me how far it was to various points on the North Downs Way, a route that this section of the Saxon Shore Way shares.

Folkestone Warren
The remains of various defence buildings were a feature of this section of the path. They included coastal lookouts, a concrete ‘radar’ dish and a rifle range, confirming that this has been the most heavily defended pieces of coastline in the UK over the past few hundred years. Below the cliffline, the coastline changed somewhat to reflect more recent attitudes towards our continental cousins. The cliffs no longer were the coast, since the coast had been built out with millions of tonnes of spoil from the Channel Tunnel workings to create a feature now known as Samphire Hoe. Further on still was a more natural feature had had a similar effect on the coastline; Folkestone Warren, a landslip that created a small strip of flat land between the cliffs and the sea. The effect of this has been to create a wooded hillside now that the cliffs are no longer eroded directly by the sea. The strip of land was exploited by the railway company and every so often far below me the sound of passing train horns would puncture the silence.

Battle of Britain Memorial
Just before Folkestone, the path passes by the Battle of Britain monument. This is a sobering reminder of the sacrifice of the World War II pilots that kept Britain from succumbing to German forces. On this quiet and sunny December day it was difficult to imagine the raging battles that took place overhead during 1940. Rather cleverly the monument was shaped like an aeroplane propeller, and in attendance were two of the non-living heroes of the hour, the Spitfire and the Hurricane.

Caesar's Camp View
Shortly after the monument, the path then veers away from the coast and continues along the line of the North Downs heading northwest through Kent. There were some very good views across Folkestone, although it was quite difficult to make out some of the details of the town as although by now it was midday, the sun had barely climbed above the horizon. This part of the downs was rather strange, since there wasn’t a ridge as such, but instead were a number of small solitary hills, quite unlike any other downland feature I have seen. The path continued along Crete Road and across a couple of main roads before coming across Caesars Camp, an iron-age hill fort overlooking the more modern features of the M20 and the vast expanse of the Channel Tunnel railhead. The view from the path looked down on the track as it enters the tunnel itself, with the main terminal away in the distance. As I passed a train made its way into the tunnel for the short trip to France, laden with lorries.

Channel Tunnel Terminal
The path resumed a more usual route along the crest of the North Downs ridge for the next couple of miles, during which time there was plenty of opportunity to view the operations of the Channel Tunnel. It was interesting to contrast the rail activity with the sea activity from Dover port, even though both were fulfilling the same purpose of getting people from Britain to France. Just as a reminder to former days, the path passed by another pillbox as I made my way to Etchinghill. The ridge then came to an abrupt halt at Peene Quarry, where supposedly the chalk was quarried to construct Sandown Castle, passed earlier on the route through Deal. By now I was getting tired and my legs heavy as I contemplated the last few miles to Sandling. It wasn’t helped by conditions underfoot, which were quite heavy, thus slowing me down. A couple of the paths along the next stretch were particularly muddy, which required much picking my way through.

Protecting The Nation
I was relieved when the path dropped off the downs and towards the village of Etchinghill. It was on this stretch that I met the first and as it turned out only person of the day, a lone female runner who was heading for the hills. The path itself never reached the village of Etchinghill, but passed under the old Folkestone-Canterbury railway line (formerly known as the Elham Valley line). Once across the road leading into the village the path regains the top of the ridge, passing an attractive beech wood that contained some rather odd looking shelters. There use became clearer when I got to the top of the hill and saw a notice advising walkers to take great care because of military exercises taking place periodically.
Former Elham Line Bridge

The path then rounded a very large antennae, presumably a television transmitter judging by its size, before finally leaving the North Downs for good and dropping down into the clay vale below. By now the light was fading a bit and as I looked along the surface of the grassy fields I could see that it was covered in cobwebs all catching the last of the day’s sunlight.

Etchinghill Antennae
I took the last mile to Sandling station very slowly, partly because I still had plenty of time and partly because my legs felt like lead after dealing with heavy ground all day. The last part of the path took me across both the M20 and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, both taking speeding traffic down to the Channel ports. I was glad to escape to Sandling woods, which was a nice quiet place in comparison. In the woods I passed by another former rail line, this time the old Sandling-Hythe route, long since closed.  By the time I reached my car, I felt pleased to have finished the Saxon Shore Way but despite the day’s walking being very pleasant and among the best of the days on the entire route, the end of the hike did seem to be an anti-climax and I couldn’t help thinking that Hastings really is a much more fitting place to finish.

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