Sandling to Folkestone via the Sea walk
A swimming walk. Starts with a disused railway line, Saltwood Castle, and downland. Finishes along the coast to Folkestone.
Main walk: 11.2km (7 miles)
a) With extension to Folkestone harbour: 13.4km (8.3 miles)
b) Folkestone figure of nine walk: 21.7km (13.5 miles) or 22.7km (14.1 miles)
5 out of 10: two steep hill climbs: otherwise flat or gentle gradients
OS Landranger 179, OS Explorer 138
This walk was designed as a swimming walk – that is, to give you a pleasant morning walk of 7.8km (4.8 miles), and then get you to the beach for an afternoon sea swim (the sea is warm enough from July to September). However, it also makes a pleasant short outing at any time of the year - for example as a brisk winter walk. There are one or two bluebell woods near the start of the walk in late April or early May.
The walk starts along the track of an old branch line. There is then is a pleasant section of orchards and fields which brings you to the village of Saltwood, with its church and castle (the home of Alan Clarke MP, a minister in Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s who published famously racy diaries), before you suddenly find yourself on a fine section of open downland. The first steep (but not very long) hill climb is here, which takes you up to a ridge with fine views of the sea.
After an awkward (but also very short) road section (see paragraphs 23-24 in the walk directions pdf for details), you pass by Sene Farm and over more downland territory, before descending into the Seabrook Valley and on up the second steep hill, which brings you out by a military cemetery with even better sea views. Finally, there is an unexpected descent down through luxury houses to the coast at Sandgate for a pub lunch and a swim. The walk ends with a pleasant 1.7km (1.1 mile) stroll along the traffic-free seafront promenade into Folkestone, and then it is another 1.7km up through the Leas cliff gardens to Folkestone station.
a) Extension to Folkestone harbour: This 2.2km (1.4 mile) extension takes you to Folkestone's refurbished harbour area, with more refreshment options, and then back through the old streets of the town and along its attractive clifftop esplanade.
b) Folkestone figure of nine walk: This links this walk with option c) Folkestone Circular of the Folkestone to Dover walk on this website to give you a grand tour of the coast on either side of Folkestone. Depending on which of the two versions of the Folkestone Circular you choose to do, this gives a total walk (from Sandling) of 21.7km (13.5 miles) or 22.7km (14.1 miles). To do this option follow the main walk and then option a) above as far as Folkestone harbour and you will be told when and how to switch to the Folkestone to Dover walk directions.
The walk starts at Sandling station, which is a minor stop between Ashford and Folkestone. Journey times are 1.5 hours from Charing Cross, but just one hour if you take the high speed train from St Pancras and change at Ashford. Buy a day return to Folkestone. Aim to start the walk at around 11.00 to get to lunch in Sandgate in time.
The beach from Sandgate to Folkestone is a excellent place for swimming in summer. It is a shingle beach, so some form of plastic sandals, diving shoes or flip flops are useful. There is some sand at very low tide. Most places along this stretch of coast can be swum at all states of the tide, but at very low tide there are some rocky sections. As always on the south coast there is usually a noticeable current either up Channel or down Channel running parallel to the shore: even confident swimmers should ascertain its direction and strength before swimming too far out.
Another very nice beach is just opposite the Mermaids Cafe Bar, the point on the walk when you start to climb the cliff to Folkestone station. The beaches here were reconstructed a decade or so ago and have boulder breakwaters which shelter them from the lateral coastal current described in the previous paragraph. They all have a fairly gentle shingle slope and a sandy(ish) bottom at low tide.
Finally, just beyond the harbour, there is "Sunny Sands", a flat sandy beach that is well sheltered from westerly winds and which has in the past received top marks from the Marine Conservation Society for cleanliness. It is inevitably very popular with families with children.
The Earl of Clarendon (01303 248 684) in Sandgate, 7km (4.3 miles) into the walk, is a pub situated up a steep side alley tantalisingly close to the sea, and in summer puts some tables in the alley giving it the air of a Greek taverna. It serves basic meals all afternoon daily and walkers have good reports of the food. It has difficulty coping with groups, however.
The Ship Inn (01303 248 525) in Sandgate High Street (essentially on the seafront promenade), 7.8km (4.9 miles) into the walk, has an upstairs open air deck with a fine view of the sea, as well as a table service restaurant downstairs, also with sea views. There is also a traditional bar area. The food quality is good, with a good range of seafood dishes. Check for food serving times.
Just before the Ship on the seafront is the Boat House, a (possibly seasonal) cafe kiosk. Other options in Sandgate High Street near the Ship Inn include the Loaf on the same side of the road as it, a modern cafe open to 5pm daily. In another 50 metres the Providence Inne (sic) serves food 12-2.30pm Tuesday to Saturday and to 4pm Sunday. In another 80 metres, on the landward side of the road (though set back a bit from it) is a a fish and chip shop, which has a sit-down restaurant as well as a takeaway open 12-2.30 and from 5pm Monday to Saturday and all afternoon on Sunday.
Loaf or the Boat House in Sandgate are possible options (see Lunch above) but for a stop nearer the end of the walk, the Mermaids Cafe Bar on the sea front near Folkestone is a beach front cafe run by pub chain Shepheard Neame, which means it also has a small bar, though this is not always open. The cafe part does seem to be open year round, however. Food served includes sandwiches, paninis and jacket potatoes as well as cakes.
The Cafe on The Leas (in the pavillion about 100 metres to the right of the top of the zig-zag path) is open to 5pm, Monday to Saturday.
On option a) Extension to Folkestone Harbour there are a lot more tea options. The Harbour area has various pubs, including the quayside Ship Inn and a smart fish and chip shop, as well as a kiosk cafe with a deck jutting out over the harbour. The newly refurbished Harbour Arm (the former ferry port) has even more bars and restaurants, with good sea views. In the Old High Street on the walk back to the station there is the Steep Street Coffee House, open to 6pm Monday to Saturday and 5pm on Sunday.
The disused branch line on which this walk starts ran from Sandling to Hythe and Sandgate. It opened in 1874 and was intended to provide a more direct route for boat trains to Folkestone Harbour (which had to climb a steep gradient and then reverse onto the mainline at Folkestone). But the planned tunnel beyond Sandgate was never built. The branch was never busy. Even though Sandgate was quite a popular resort in Victorian times it was always easier to get to the town via Shorncliffe Camp station on the mainline (now Folkestone West). Services to Sandgate ceased in 1931 and when the line reopened after a brief wartime closure in 1945 it had just two trains a day to Hythe. It closed completely in 1951.
Saltwood Castle has a long history. The first known structure on this site was in 488, when a fortification was built by Aese, son of the King of Kent. In those days sea tides still flowed to the foot of the hill on which the castle stands. The current structure (which is not open to the public) dates from the Norman Conquest. It is said that the murder of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 was planned here.In modern times the castle was the home of Alan Clark, a Conservative minister in Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s, whose racy diaries caused a great stir. He used to swim in the moat once a year.
Sandgate has only existed since 1773 when navy ships were built on the shingle beach here and a community grew up around the activity. It was further boosted by the establishment of Shorncliffe Camp as an army base in 1794. In the nineteenth century it was quite a fashionable resort - William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner used to holiday here, and the writer HG Wells lived here for 12 years. The one building that predates all this is Sandgate Castle, which you pass on the seafront about 100 metres beyond Folkestone Rowing Club. It was built in 1539 to guard against French invasion and is therefore more than two centuries older than the Martello Tower you saw a bit earlier in the walk. A modern kind of castle is the large glass building on the hill behind the town. This is the headquarters of Saga, the holiday company for older people, which has provided quite an economic boost to the town since it moved here from Folkestone a few years ago.
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Out (not a train station)
Back (not a train station)
National Rail: 03457 48 49 50 • Traveline (bus times): 0871 200 22 33 (12p/min) • TFL (London) : 0343 222 1234
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Full directions for this walk are in a PDF file (link above) which you can print, or download on to a Kindle, tablet, or smartphone.
This is just the introduction. This walk's detailed directions are in a PDF available from wwww.walkingclub.org.uk