Cycling routes throughout the South East, accessible from Guildford in a day
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Route C: Isle of Thanet (Viking Coastal Trail) and the East Kent Coast
Weather at Finish:
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|Summary After an initial ride through pleasant countryside from the start at Bekesbourne station, this ride takes you around the coast of the Isle of Thanet following the cycle-friendly Viking Coastal Trail, which starts at the ancient ruins at Reculver, then runs (literally) along the coast to the faded glories of the resorts of Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate, interspersed with surprisingly attractive sandy bays. Then pick up National Cycle Route 1 around Pegwell Bay to the time-capsule town of Sandwich, which has one of the greatest concentrations of historic domestic buildings in the country, then onward along the toll road (free for cycles) to Deal, where, from here on, the coast of France will be visible on a clear day. There is then quite a stiff climb to West Cliffe, followed by a ride across the plateau above the White Cliffs and the compensating descent to Dover. The proximity to the sea throughout makes this ride a breath of fresh air.|
52 miles; whole day
Bekesbourne Station, a few miles south east of Canterbury
Dover Priory Station
You could shorten the route by terminating at Ramsgate station (train back to Canterbury).
Load your bike on your car and drive to Bekesbourne station from Guildford (about 1hr 40mins). There is parking in the car park or road outside the station (no charge at time of writing).
From Dover Priory, there are trains approximately hourly back to Bekesbourne (journey time approx 20mins).
|Conditions under the tyre: The Viking Trail has been designed for cycling: its traffic free almost throughout and has a good surface. The first few miles from Reculver follow the sea wall. In the resorts of Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate the trail follows the existing esplanades, and there are short stretches where notices tell you to dismount in high season. From Pegwell Bay to Sandwich the route is on a good roadside cycle track: the accompanying roads are quite busy, but itís only a relatively short stretch. From there it is a good surface all the way to Dover, apart from one short optional descent on a track approaching Dover. There is a short climb out of Ramsgate, and a much longer one from Kingsdown to West Cliffe, and itís quite a pull. I rode this route on a simple Raleigh bike, so no need for a fancy mountain bike.|
|Reverse route: This ride is quite exposed to the elements, and a key factor is wind direction. When I rode it I was going into a head wind most of the way and rather wish I'd done it in reverse. Check the forecast and chose your direction accordingly. To reverse the route, still park at Bekesbourne, but take the train directly to Dover.|
You could cut across on roads and lanes form Sandwich back to the start at Bekesbourne.
Instead of getting the train back from Dover, if you have the energy, you could cycle the 16 miles or so back to Bekesbourne along Regional Cycle Route 16.
If you feel like a longer ride, you could start the ride from Canterbury East station and use the Crab and Winkle trail to reach Whitstable, then carry on along the sea front to Reculver. As of Spring 2011, the promenade from Swalecliffe to Hampton and from Herne Bay to Reculver through Reculver Country Park is open to cyclists as part of the Oyster Bay Trail. It is understood that a change in the bylaw to allow cycling on more of the promenade is planned, and in practice cyclists seem to use the whole promenade. But check the relevant web site or enquire locally, and always obey local signing.
From Bekesbourne station, make your way on quiet roads through Littlebourne and Wickhambreaux, and, skirting Stodmarsh Nature Reserve, on to the bridge over the Great Stour at Grove Ferry.
Turn left onto the A28 through Upstreet, then next right on a country road through Chislet and Marshside, cross a bridge over the A299, then on to join the coastal Viking trail at Reculver, where you can stop and explore the ruined Church Towers and Roman Fort. From here to Margate it's difficult to go wrong, provided you watch for 'Viking Coastal Trail' signs when you hit the towns. Follow the sea wall path to the outskirts of Birchington at Minnis Bay. From here the route stays on the sea wall beneath the cliffs and promenades round the various bays (Grenham, Epple, Westgate etc) in pleasing proximity to sea and sand till reaching the wide sandy sweep of Margate sea front, and arriving at the new Turner Contemporary Art Gallery. The official route continues beneath the cliff on the 'rendezvous' esplanade before climbing to follow a traffic free path along the cliff top (or, at low tide, you can stick on the promenade beneath the cliff until emerging onto the cliff at Foreness Point, although this will involve crossing a short stretch of the sandy beach at Palm Bay.) At Kingsgate Bay, join the B2052 for a short stretch (where Kingsgate castle is a prominent landmark). Just past Joss Bay, itís worth staying on the main road for a short diversion to North Foreland lighthouse, then return to take Crescent Road which turns into Cliff Promenade. After returning to the B road, take Park Road and follow the route signs down into Broadstairs, passing Dicken's Bleak House on the way. Here you must either take to the road along the sea front, or get off and push down the promenade.
The route from Broadstairs to Ramsgate follows roads and a pleasant stretch through the Memorial Park, emerging from Victoria Parade onto the B2054. Then turn sharp right into Marine Road which hairpins into Marine Esplanade to arrive at Ramsgate Harbour.
Climb the hill out of Ramsgate on the roadside cycle track and cycle on a wide promenade through the pleasant park above West Cliff, with good views over Pegwell Bay to Richborough Power Station. Follow route signs over the Pegwell Tunnel and the A299, then a good track over Chalk Hill which takes you down to the cycle track beside the A256 into Cliffs end. On the left is the replica Viking Ship at the edge of Pegwell Bay. The official Viking Trail bears right in Cliffs End to return to Reculver, but our route joins National Cycle Network Route 1 (NCN1) continuing on the A256-side cycle track. Past the obvious bulk of Richborough Power Station the massive Pfizer office complex comes into view.
At a roundabout, you can either take Ramsgate Road direct to Sandwich, or follow the A256 past the complex and take the road into Sandwich at the next roundabout. Either way, you end up crossing the Ramsgate Road bridge into Sandwich. the route lies immediately left over the Bridge, but you might like to take time to explore this fascinating town. Otherwise, follow NCN1 signs through the waterside park to join Sandown Road. Soon you pass a toll booth, which as a cyclist you can ignore, and continue through the golf links to Deal.
The route goes all the way down the sea frontage of Deal past Walmer Castle to Kingsdown. From here on, you should get good views of the French Coast on a clear day. Here you leave the coast and make your way up Undercliff Road and Oldstairs Road and climb steadily (phew!) to West Cliffe. Then, take signs down Upper Road which traverses the 'plateau' above the White Cliffs, passing prominent transmitters to your right. On Fix Hill Down, just before the road begins the steep descent to Dover, the official cycle route is signed down a path which cuts the bend, and takes you past the view point over Dover Harbour and the NT Visitor Centre (although if you're knackered by this stage, just stay on the road). From here itís more or less downhill all the way on Upper Road, passing round Dover Castle and entering Dover on the A258. Note there is also a traffic free route from the NT Visitor Centre - see my Google map. It follows a steep path down to join Marine Parade along the sea front then into the town by the Yacht Club. The path down is very steep and has steps in places, and you really have to walk down much of the way. But it gives good views over the Port.
There are pubs at Grove Ferry (The Grove Ferry Inn) and Reculver (The King Ethelbert).
The route passes along the sea front of the resorts from Birchington round to Ramsgate, all of which are well supplied with cafes, pubs and all sorts of eateries. The old quarter of Margate has some cool cafes, as does the new Turner Contemporary Gallery, There is a kiosk at Botany Bay, and also the Botany Bay Tea Rooms in a pleasant walled garden next to the small car park (limited opening times, May-Sept only).
Sandwich has many eateries (and sandwich shops, presumably), including a couple of pub/hotels by the bridge, if you don't want to detour into the town.
In Deal, you could try the newly built cafe on the pier (no entry charge, but you'll have to lock your bike at the entrance and walk as bikes are not allowed on the pier.).
There is a National Trust tea room at the White Cliffs, and in Dover itself, the route passes down one of the main shopping streets (Castle Street) which has the usual chain restaurants and coffee bars.
Points of Interest
The main draw for this route comes from the proximity to the sea, the sense of space and fresh air, and the satisfaction of 'circumnavigating' a chunk of England's coastline. If that's not enough, there's plenty else to see along the way.
Howletts Wild Animal Park is just off the route on the way out of Bekesbourne. It was set up by the late and colourful John Aspinall with the aim of protecting and breeding rare and endangered species and returning them to safe areas in their native homeland. Their website promises "close encounters at the glass fronted tiger enclosures, gorillas, clouded leopards, monkeys, tapirs, Iberian wolves, macaques, rhinos and many other rare and endangered species from around the world."
Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve can be accessed from the village of Stodmarsh just past Wickhambreaux. The reserve developed when coal mining subsidence formed marshland with large reedbeds, lakes, ditches, meadows and wet woodland, and are a good spot for birdwatching, though it is an extensive area and you would need a good few hours to do it justice. There are toilets in the car park.
Grove Ferry is a pleasant spot where the route crosses the River Great Stour.
Reculver Towers and Roman Fort . At Reculver, you cross onto the isle of Thanet. The Isle of Thanet was originally cut off from the rest of Kent by the Wantsum Channel, which was up to 2 miles wide in places. The Romans built Reculver Castle to protect the NW end of the channel, and Richborough castle, which you can visit later, the SE end. (Thanet was still cut off in medieval times.) The old channel is still very low lying land, vulnerable to inundation by the sea. The Saxons built a church on the site of the castle, and this in turn was incorporated in the twelfth century St Maryís church, whose distinctive twin towers are all that remains today. They were retained when the church itself was demolished in 1809, because they were an established landmark for mariners. The ruins are an evocative place, and the Kentish Flats Wind Farm, visible some 6 miles offshore, provides contrasting modernity.
The Thanet resorts were fashionable with artists and writers in the nineteenth century. In 1882, the pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti spent the last few months of his life convalescing in Birchington, and was buried in the yard of All Saints Church in the town. The distinctive Celtic memorial cross was designed by his friend and fellow painter, Ford Maddox Brown. The painter JMW Turner was inspired by the big skies and seas of Thanet and was a frequent visitor to Margate. The town is attempting to capitalise on this connection to attract a more upmarket clientele with the opening of a striking new art gallery - Turner Contemporary close to the harbour. Meanwhile, Margate itself has a down-at-heal feel, with a dilapidated sea front though this masks the historic centre of the town, which has many Georgian houses, and the old Dreamland amusement park is being redeveloped.
There are seven attractive sandy bays between Margate and Ramsgate, backed by low chalk cliffs. Botany Bay has a kiosk serving light refreshments in season. Kingsgate Bay is overlooked by the 'ramparts' of Kingsgate Castle, which looks like a toy fort. Joss Bay is popular with surfers - it has a surf school. Just beyond Joss Bay is North Foreland Lighthouse, which is now automated, and the adjacent cottages have been converted for holiday lets.
Broadstairs has a more refined air than the other resorts, with a pleasant sea front (walk don't cycle). Charles Dickens liked to escape to Broadstairs from London, first staying in 1837 when he was writing instalments of Pickwick Papers.In 1851, he took a lease on Fort House overlooking the bay, and here he completed the final instalments of David Copperfield and started upon Bleak House. it is said that Fort house was his model for Bleak House, and its name was changed accordingly some 30 years later. You will pass 'Bleak House' on the way into town, although it is no longer open to the public. The Dickens House Museum is housed in the former home of Mary Pearson Strong, the inspiration for the Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. Other famous persons who have lived in Broadstairs include Oliver Postgate (Bagpuss, and the seminal Noggin the Nog), artist Walter Sickert and Annette Mills, the co-star of Muffin the Mule.
Ramsgate is a serious working port, whilst leisure sailors are catered for in the Royal Harbour Marina. The esplanade has received a recent makeover. The Victorian architect and designer Augustus Pugin built his house The Grange on St Augustineís Road, completing it in 1850 just two years before his death. It has been meticulously restored to its original gilded glory by the Landmark Trust, which holds open days, and will also rent it out to you to stay in. Pugin even built the Catholic church of St Augustine's next door for himself. He died in Ramsgate and is buried in the family vault in the church. This Puginalia is just off the route on the way out of town. On the Royal Esplanade is the sculpture 'Hands and Molecules. Commissioned by Pfizer, and designed by local artist David Barnes, the bronze sculpture was unveiled in June 2000 to mark the opening of the National Cycle Network in Thanet. Pegwell Bay was a popular site from which to invade Britain, starting with the Romans in AD43: they built Richborough Castle close to their landing grounds, and its remains are well worth a visit though somewhat off the route. Then there was Hengist and Horsa in AD449. By the shore of Pegwell bay is The 'Hugin', a replica of a Viking Ship which sailed from Denmark to Thanet in 1949 to celebrate the 1500th anniversary of their invasion. Finally, St. Augustine landed at Ebbsfleet in Thanet in 597AD, on a mission to bring Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons. St Augustine's Cross stands at the spot where, it is believed, Augustine first met King Ethelbert, whom he later converted to Christianity. The Celtic-style cross is almost seven metres high, and was erected in 1884. The massive bulk of Richborough Power Station looms over Pegwell Bay. It was built in the 50s and burned mainly coal from the Kent coalfields. After conversion to oil, and unsuccessful trials of a new fuel 'orimulsion' the plant was finally closed in 1996, after concerns about the environmental impacts of the trials. It has clearly not been demolished and is presumably 'mothballed'.
The Pfizer complex outside Sandwich was the European Headquarters for Research & Development and the Pfizer Global Manufacturing site for the UK. The offices sit within a 340-acre site. There were approximately 3,600 staff based here, 2,700 of whom were employed in Research & Development. Stunning symbol of advanced technological development or intrusive eyesore - or what - you decide: anyway, in 2011 Pfizer announced they were closing the operation down, a devastating blow for the national and local economy.
According to Pevsner, Sandwich could make a bid for the title of "completest medieval town in England". In medieval times, Sandwich was a port on the Wantsum Channel. Now the channel has dried out and Sandwich is some way from the sea, although it is still a Cinque Port. Its streets are packed with half-timbered houses and many other heritage buildings. Pick up the guided walk leaflet from the TIC.
Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory monitors bird migration in the area, and is open to the public - check the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory Trust website.
Deal is an attractive town with several Georgian houses and an attractive sea front. A new architect-designed cafe has recently been opened on Deal Pier. Deal Castle and Walmer Castle were originally built during the reign of Henry VIII as part of a chain of coastal artillery defences. Walmer became the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1708. In that capacity the Duke of Wellington lived here, and died here in 1852.
The White Cliffs View Point (NT) overlooks the Channel and Dover Harbour. There is a Visitor Centre with a good cafe overlooking the sea.
|Finding your way Apart from the stretch from Bekesbourne to Reculver the route is well signed as either the Viking Coastal Trail, or NCN1. The route is neatly covered on one sheet on the Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 sheet 179 (Canterbury and East Kent). For greater detail you need OS Explorer 1:25,000 sheets 150 (Canterbury & the Isle of Thanet) and sheet 138 (Dover, Folkestone & Hythe). It might be worth printing out my Google map of the route into and through Dover.|