This is a wonderful walk: a scramble uphill behind Dover’s poundingly busy port to reach the top of the wonderful White Cliffs, then a great swooping route along the very edge of England.
It is one of 17 routes described fully in my new guidebook, Walking Charles Dickens’ Kent. You can get the book from any bookshop, or from Amazon here. To download a GPS file of the route, which you can follow on your phone, go here.
Up on the cliffs, you quickly put yourself a world away from the endless string of trucks filing into the bellies of the great channel ferries lined up far beneath you.
For close on 17.4km/10.8 miles you are on top of the world, with just a refreshing dip down into St Margaret’s Bay, before regaining the heights. Then, after another inspiring stretch away from it all, there is the gentle descent to the wide pebble beach on the approach to Deal – the ‘town without a cliff’ as Dickens referred to it.
He knew Deal well. When staying at Broadstairs years, he often paused in Deal on his walks to Dover. Later, when staying at Dover in spring 1856, and struggling to write Little Dorrit, he took the walk we follow here to try to clear his head. He wrote about it in an essay, Out Of The Season, published in Household Words in June that year. And, as he says there, he enjoyed it so much that he retraced his steps the following day.
Dickens walked there and back both days, but I suggest a return to Dover by train from Deal.
He was certainly made of tough stuff. He made his two round trips in pretty grim weather, the wind ‘blowing stiffly from the east’. On the cliff tops he ‘overtook a flock of sheep with the wool about their necks blown into such great ruffs that they looked like fleecy owls. The wind played upon the lighthouse [by which he meansthe South Foreland Lighthouse (A), which we pass] as if it were a great whistle, the spray was driven over the sea in a cloud of haze, the ships rolled and pitched heavily, and at intervals long slants and flaws of light made mountain-steeps of communication between the ocean and the sky.’
Once off the cliffs and approaching Deal he observed how: ‘On the beach, groups of storm-beaten boatmen, like a sort of marine monsters… stood leaning forward against the wind, looking out through battered spy-glasses.’
Dickens used Deal for one of the settings of his 1852-3 novel Bleak House. It is where Esther Summerson comes when visiting Richard Carstone who, like her, is a ward of Mr Tulkinghorn. Tulkinghorn is a lawyer involved in the interminable inheritance case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce which is the central theme in the novel, and in which the central characters’ fates are bound up.
The beach we walk along here is recognisable from Dickens’ description of what Esther finds at Deal: ‘The long flat beach, with its little irregular houses, wooden and brick, and its litter of capstans, and great boats, and sheds, and bare upright poles with tackle and blocks, and loose gravelly waste places overgrown with grass and weeds, wore as dull an appearance as any place I ever saw. The sea was heaving under a thick white fog; and nothing else was moving but a few early ropemakers, who, with the yarn twisted round their bodies, looked as if, tired of their present state of existence, they were spinning themselves into cordage.