This simple walk (it should be impossible to get lost if you keep the sea on your right hand side) is nevertheless one of the finest coastal walks in England, taking you right along the top of the famous White Cliffs of Dover. On a clear day, you get stunning views of the English Channel, and the ferries buzzing in and out of Dover Harbour, and the French coast from Boulogne to Dunkerque.
Surprisingly for a walk that seems to spend much of its time on the airy heights, not much exertion is involved. There are only two significant climbs, one out of Dover and the other out of St Margaret's Bay. Otherwise the terrain is level or gently undulating. The last quarter of the walk, indeed, is totally flat, along a tranquil coastpath behind the pebble beach of Deal. Though less dramatic than the White Cliffs, this section of the walk is full of historical and natural interest, passing Walmer and Deal castle, and – in late May and June – a stunning display of coastal flora on Deal’s shingle beach.
Warning: From the outskirts of Dover to Kingsdown (the Zetland Arms) your mobile phone may switch to a French network on this walk. Under current rules you probably won't incur roaming charges - though do check your contract - but your phone will also switch to French time (one hour ahead of the UK), so be aware of that.
a) Taking a bus St Margaret’s Bay: You can cut the walk short by taking a bus back to Dover from St Margaret’s Bay, creating a walk of 8.2km (5.1 miles). The bus also passes right by Dover Castle, and buses from the same stop go to Deal, should you wish to have more time to explore that fascinating town.
b) Short walk to St Margaret’s at Cliffe: A slightly longer way to end the walk at St Margaret’s is this route, which goes inland from the cliffs just beyond St Margaret's Bay and then loops back to the historic inland village of St Margaret at Cliffe, which has several pubs. It is 3.9km (2.4 miles) from St Margaret’s Bay to St Margaret’s at Cliffe, making a total walk of 11.6km (7.2 miles).
c) Deal to Dover: There is a lot to be said for doing this walk in the reverse direction, including getting the longest train journey over first, and the fact that scenery gets more and more dramatic as the day goes on, ending in the magnificent cliffs just before Dover. You then walk down into town of Dover which admittedly can seem a bit cheerless after such a lovely walk, but most of the walk through the town is on the seafront. In this direction you also have a choice of lunch pubs: you can have stop after just 5.3km/3.3 miles at the Zetland Arms at the bottom of Deal Beach which has some outside tables right on the beach, or carry on for another 4/7km/2.9 miles to the Coastguards pub in St Margarets Bay, with its pleasant terrace overlooking the sea.
Meanwhile there is a positive embarassment of tea options, starting with the seasonal tea kiosk on St Margaret’s beach, tea and cakes served in the Coastguard pub which some report to be very good, the cafe of the St Margaret’s Museum, and Mrs Knotts’s Tea Room in South Foreland lighthouse. If none of those tempt you, the White Cliffs Visitor Centre on the cliffs overlooking the Port of Dover also serves tea, and in the town itself there is a Weatherspoons pub and a Costa Coffee outlet open till 7pm Monday to Saturday but only 5pm on Sunday.
The White Cliffs Visitor Centre on the cliffs above Dover port has a coffee shop with a view of the sea and outside tables. It serves sandwiches and cakes from 10am-5pm daily March to October and 11am-4pm November to February
St Margaret’s Museum tea room serves sandwiches and cakes.
The Coastguard (01304 853176, http://www.thecoastguard.co.uk/) on the beach at St Margaret’s Bay describes itself as Britain’s ‘closest pub to France’ . It serves food 12.30-2.45pm and 6.30-8.45pm daily, but is open for drinks all afternoon. The pub has a pleasant open-air terrace overlooking the beach.
50 metres from the pub, to the rear of St Margaret's Bay's public car park (not the pub car park) is a tea kiosk, which serves sandwiches, pasties, egg and chips and other delicacies. This has no fixed hours, but the owners say it is open most weekends, and daily from April till the end of summer. It closes "about 5pm". All these hours depend on the weather.
Practically anywhere on the walk - either the clifftops or Deal beach - is ideal for a picnic
The Zetland Arms at the start of Deal Beach serves tea and coffee and has some outside tables overlooking the sea. It is open during the afternoon on bank holiday weekends and for the six weeks of the school holidays in the summer: sometimes on other afternoons when the weather is fine. Otherwise, it is shut from 2.30pm to 6pm
The cafe at the end of Deal Pier is the recommended tea stop on this walk: it does not look like much from the shore but has stunning views of the sea and town. It is currently (January 2019) open 9am to 5pm daily, but is hoping to extend its hours into the evening in the summer months.
Dunkerley’s Hotel, opposite the end of Deal pier, serves cream teas till 7pm. The town also has many atmospheric old pubs: see the walk directions for the location of two of them - the Port Arms on the seafront and the Ship Inn in Middle Street, the heart of old Deal.
If you are doing the Short Walk to St Margaret's at Cliffe, the village has a number of pubs and a village shop.
As a port, Dover is not quite as a busy as it used to be in pre-Channel Tunnel days, but it is still fascinating to pause on the cliffs for a while early in this walk and contemplate the complicated workings of its huge Eastern Docks, the main ferry terminal. The town's other star attraction is its large medieval castle, which is well worth a visit, but really needs a day out of its own: this is just one of several disused military forts which are dotted around the town. Just in front of the castle and to the left of the church, is the remains of a Roman Lighthouse, which is clearly visible from the sea front. The cliffs below the castle contain a World War II bunker, later converted to a civilian command centre for us in the case of nuclear war, before prime minister Margaret Thatcher closed all such centres as a waste of money: traces of this can also be seen in the early stages of this walk. Dover was also the English town that suffered most during World War II, being under artillery bombardment from German forces in France for the whole war.
The White Cliffs of Dover were formed 80 to 65 million years ago at the bottom of what was then a tropical ocean. The chalk is made up of the small shells of millions of sea creatures. It is estimated that it took 10,000 years to create 15 milimetres of chalk (that is a million years to make 15 metres). In places the chalk is 250 metres deep. The cliffs are actually the terminus of the North Downs, which run all the way from Farnham, just south west of London to this point. Originally the ridge stretched across to France, but was broken by the ice 26,000 years ago during one of the ice ages, separating the UK from Europe. Incidentally, there are no blue birds over the White Cliffs of Dover: the famous World War II song was written by Nat Burton, an American who had never been to England.
South Foreland Lighthouse (01304 852463) was built in 1843 to protect shipping from the Goodwin Sands, which at low tide can be seen just off shore in the later part of this walk. Guglielmo Marconi, the radio pioneer, made the first ship to shore transmissions to this point in 1898, and it was also home to the world's first international radio transmission, to Wimereux in France. Owned by the National Trust, the lighthouse is open to the public from 11.00am to 5.30pm, Friday to Monday, March to October.
St Margarets had a population of 419 in 1801, when a wall was put up to prevent the bay being used by Napoleon's invasion forces. Its proximity to the Continent (it is the closest place in England to France, at 29km or 18 miles distance) and hidden cove made it a popular landing place for smugglers for much of its history. The St Margaret's Museum, passed on this walk, is open daily from late May to early October.
Deal beach is popularly supposed to have been the landing site for the forces of Roman general Julius Caesar when he came to Britain in 55 BC to see if it was worth invading. He apparently decided that it wasn't, and it was not until 43 AD that the Romans returned, under the emperor Claudius to permanently occupy the island. The Romans later turned Richborough, just up the coast behind Sandwich (both of which places are now inland) into their main port of entry into Britain
Walmer Castle and Deal Castle were built by Henry VIII in 1539-40 as artillery platforms to guard against a threatened French invasion. They were never permanently occupied and saw only minor military action. Walmer Castle (01304 364288) later became the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (the ancient association of port towns in the South East of England, which were given special privileges by the crown). The Duke of Wellington, victor of the Battle of Waterloo fame, died here in 1852, as much later did WH Smith, founder of the newsagents: both men were Lord Wardens. Both castles are owned by English Heritage http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/ and open daily April to October, but at weekends only in winter.
Deal has a rather sleepy air these days, but was a major port in the days of sailing ships. Convoys of ships used to collect in the area just off its beach, which offered a protected anchorage due to the presence of the sand banks of the Goodwin Sands offshore, and cargo would be loaded or offloaded from them using rowing boats. Because of the sandbanks, the area was known among sailors as The Downs (Downs coming from the same Saxon word as the word dune). At times up to 1000 ships could apparently be seen in the bay. The centre of Deal still retains some fine buildings from this era, best seen by taking the short detour at the end of this walk, as well as many cosy nautical pubs. The town has many useful information boards explaining its history