Seaside postcard: Margate → Broadstairs
Why take the bus or train from Margate to Broadstairs when you could walk? It's only five miles along the Thanet coast, perfect for a stroll on a sunny winter's afternoon. This is part of the longest stretch of coastal chalk in the country, and there's a choice of cliff-top or cliff-bottom for most of the way. I ventured this way on Saturday afternoon, trying to maintain a decent speed in my race against sunset. And there really was plenty of interest along the way, including several delightful beaches and one gobsmacking surprise.
» Margate Winter Gardens: You could easily miss the the entertainment hub that is Margate's Winter Gardens. It was built in an artificial seafront hollow, almost 100 years ago, with only a covered staircase to lead the way down to the main entrance from the road above. The three mayors of Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate each have their own reserved parking space on the beachfront, from which aspect the building's municipal design now looks somewhat salt-encrusted and weatherbeaten. But big name acts still occasionally pack in the crowds - this month, for example, Boy George and Dionne Warwick.
» Cliftonville: Margate spreads eastward for a couple of miles along the clifftop, past increasingly upmarket avenues of retired folk. Their faceless non-bungalows keep an almost-respectable distance from the sea, providing a grassy edge ideal for winter strolls and dogwalking. The beach may be a little concrete-y in places, but at low tide there's plenty of sand for a four-legged runaround. And is that, ooh yes, a chalk stack at the end of Percy Avenue[photo]. What retired geologist could ask for more?
» Kingsgate Bay: You want more? How about a chalk arch too? A proper hole in the cliff [photo] has been carved through White Ness, as seen in all the best geography textbooks. This bay is a proper exclusive residential location, as exemplified by the unexpected castle on the opposite clifftop [photo]. Kingsgate Castle dates back only 250 years, which explains the ostentatious brickiness of it, but has since been divided up into rather ordinary flats.
» North Foreland: If you want an under-visited sandy beach, head for the former smuggler's haunt of Joss Bay (toilets and ice creams summer only). Up the gently-sloping hill, between fields of winter cauliflowers, looms the tall white tower of the North Foreland lighthouse[photo]. A beacon was first lit here in 1499 to warn off ships entering the English Channel, and 500 years later this became the very last UK lighthouse to be fully automated.
» Cliff Promenade: On the 'private' North Foreland Estate, on a strip of grass hugging the cliff edge, I stumbled across an unlocked iron gateway half hidden amongst a clump of bushes [photo]. "THIS TUNNEL IS DANGEROUS" screamed a notice beside the entrance, along with some disclaimer about using it at your own risk. I was through the gate like a shot. In front of me stretched a long uneven staircase, cut deep into the rock, whose function wasn't immediately apparent. A few steps down a gaping rectangular chasm opened up to my left, with a grille at the bottom to stop supermarket trolleys and human bodies being hurled to their doom. On the far side a red metal door had been wrenched from its hinges, allowing unrestricted access down several more steps to an enclosed graffitied landing below [photo]. I half-expected to find local youths wielding blades or sniffing lighter fuel, but reassured myself that this was a respectable Neighbourhood Watch area and therefore such behaviour would be frowned upon. The next flight of stairs doubled back into darkness, at which point I decided that this was no place to stumble unaccompanied and returned regretfully to the surface. I got the sense that this was somewhere special, but it was only when I got home that Google provided the reason why...
Blimey, who'd have thought?! These were The Thirty-nine Steps, as described in the famous adventure novel by John Buchan. He'd been recuperating in a villa called St Cuby at the top of the cliff, immediately opposite this private staircase in the bushes, and decided to immortalise them in prose. Had I ventured three flights down to the bottom I'd have emerged onto the beach below (or been murdered by a passing German spy, one or the other). Oh, and I'd also have descended rather more than 39 steps. There were 78 in Buchan's time, which he conveniently halved to make a better title, but the old oak treads have long since been removed to make way for 108 concrete replacements. The 108 Steps - it's not quite so catchy is it? But, believe me, just as atmospheric.
» Broadstairs: And finally, just before sundown, to a seaside resort best lit at dawn. Not that the bride and groom posing for photos on the beach appeared to mind [photo]. The old town nestles above a chalk-edged bay, from the bandstand round to a castellated homestead now called "Bleak House" [photo]. It was here, in the study overlooking the sea, that Charles Dickens wrote the majority of David Copperfield. In lodgings elsewhere around the town he also penned chapters of the Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, so it's not surprising to find a special museum devoted to him on the seafront [photo]. Don't expect a lot for your £2.30, there's only one room of proper Dickens memorabilia and the remainder is local paraphernalia and contemporary Victoriana. From here for 20p you can pick up a Town Trail leaflet to help guide you round the other historic sites and buildings that this pretty town has to offer. But it's hard to sightsee in the dark, so I headed instead to the station (and my four hour journey home).