It’s been a couple of busy weeks, with two weekends away. As a result, I’ve not made any more pathways photos recently. So, last Friday I took my camera bag and walking boots and headed back to Dover to extend my Kent coast stroll. It was only to be a short, roughly 12km, walk between Dover and Folkestone, to record another segment of the Saxon Shore Way.
defence of the realm
This part of our coastline is, perhaps, the most heavily defended part of Britain. A couple of thousand years of military and political history in a few kilometers. Since the ice sheet retreated after the last ice age and water once again encircled the British Isles, this coastline, being the closest piece of land to Europe, is where most foreign invaders preferred to kick off their enterprises. There were a few notable exceptions – William landed a bit further down the coast, but by and large, if you wanted to invade the British isles you started here. In response to that threat, an impressive array of earthworks, forts, gun emplacements, castles, sound mirrors, tunnels, Martello towers, military camps and a huge redoubt, have, over the last couple of millennia, been installed along this short stretch of coastline.
life in a liminal zone
Being an island nation, with our unambiguous and natural coastal boundaries, we’re not accustomed to the arbitrary, seemingly random, borders that usually join and separate neighbouring countries on the Continent. These border zones, are often surprising mixes of culture, language, politics and economics. Nowadays in Europe, it’s not uncommon to wander into one country from another and be completely unaware of the fact until you notice a change in the style of the tokens of officialdom – road signs, place names, statuary notices etc – and then the penny drops; you’re in another country. Travelling through Europe, it’s easy to understand why the notion of EU and, in particular, freedom of movement, is welcomed by a large percentage of the the populace. Perhaps, in this part of Kent, where the fear of invasion is so firmly embedded in geography and freedom of movement restricted by it, lie the clues to why the UK appears to be so resolutely eurosceptic.
Nowadays, a hostile invasion of the British Isles is unlikely and attention is focused on economic invaders. Here at Dover we have a busy transit zone, large numbers of people and goods vehicles pass through on their way to other parts of the country or Continent – nobody lingers. Possibly one of the ugliest developments in Britain dominates the harbour an office block and hotel, demand didn’t really materialised and now it looms over the town, grubby and decrepit (2015 update – it’s now been demolished). It’s a symptom of life around here. The locals who are employed, work mostly in the businesses servicing the port or working to keep out undesirables, there seems little else to do. It’s a one-function town, with the sole purpose of filtering traffic into the UK and it performs this function most efficiently when these transients spend the shortest possible time here. Gone are the days when important ports were also important economic centres, because there was a ready market of temporarily resident individuals. As a result, it’s a depressing place, it’s a town you’re not unhappy to leave quickly. Despite the wealth of history, Dover’s not a welcoming place for tourists. It feels more old-style Cold War border town than a modern European trading hub.
along the cliff top and into Folkestone
Nevertheless, Dover is a fascinating area for anyone interested in history, sociology, geology and nature. It’s worth a look around the historic parts of the port (especially on the hilltops), before heading out of town. Walking west, the cliffs aren’t particularly beautiful, no green and restful rolling chalk downs here, but there’s a wealth of wildlife and even more abandoned fortifications to see. The views change constantly as you walk along the cliff-top path. On a good day, you can see the coast of France, Dungeness Power station and the hills around Rye.
Eventually, you descend the cliffs to walk along the shore and on into Folkestone, where you encounter a different type of defensive work. Here, there are large areas of flat concrete to protect the crumbly chalk cliffs from the ravages of the sea, another ongoing battle in this part of the world.
Folkestone always seemed to live in the shadow of Dover and with the advent of the Channel tunnel and low-cost flights, it’s no longer a ferry port. It is still a port, with fishing and pleasure boats in the harbour, but it’s a much quieter place than it used to be, not so long ago. There’s been a considerable effort to regenerate the town, but it needs a lot more money and ideas to make it work. Parts of the old town are quite charming, but you get the sense there are a lot people around here with not much to do. In these bleak economic times, the immediate prospects are not great, which is a pity.
It was difficult to concentrate on the pathways project as there was so much military/industrial dereliction to photograph which is another favourite theme of mine. However, I think I managed to combine both subjects in a few of the shots. The gallery tells the story of the walk and you can see the route here.