The Saxon Shore Way
The Saxon Shore Way
From today’s grim industry at Gravesend in Kent to the medieval splendour of historic Hastings in East Sussex a modern day traveller can cover the distance in just over an hour. For our Saxon ancestors it was a very different proposition. The walk across the Weald of Kent was a perilous journey fraught with dangers so instead they chose what we would call today ‘the long way round’; they followed the coastline of Kent and just after it crossed into today’s East Sussex they were at their destination.
The 160 mile long Saxon Shore Way still exists today and is one of England’s longest, yet least well known, long distance walks. As closely as possible it follows the ancient route trod by the Saxon’s but coastal erosion as well as land reclamation, particularly around the Romney Marsh, sometimes means a detour away from some of Kent’s beautiful and stunning scenery is necessary. What the Saxon’s made of the White Cliffs of Dover or the Roman fortification at Reculver we will never know; I only know they are beguiling in their majesty.
The route starts at Gravesend on the River Thames and very quickly you leave the industry behind and enter the North Kent Marshes where Charles Dickens found inspiration for many of his most famous characters. “The dark flat wilderness, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it… the low leaden line of the river… and the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, the sea…” Needless to say Charles Dickens used some degree of literary licence in describing the North Kent marshes. Today the area is a world important RSPB nature reserve and home to hundreds of thousands of birds. The going underfoot can be hard going at times but the peace and quiet along with the blissful isolation is amazing.
Follow the footpath all the way round Kent’s Hoo peninsular and exchange the River Thames for the River Medway estuary as you take in villages straight out of a Dicken’s novel, not surprising as he lived in nearby Gadds Place in Rochester with its historic castle and cathedral. Follow the Medway through Chatham and make some time to visit Chatham Historic Dockyard – Britain’s most complete Georgian naval dockyard with its collection of historic ships including the World War Two destroyer HMS Cavalier. Cavalier, in fact rests in the dry dock where Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar HMS Victory was built.
The Saxon Shore Way follows the contours of the Medway as it passes through Sittingbourne and Faversham and then out onto the North Sea coastline at Whitstable and Herne Bay. Then the two imposing buttresses of the ancient Reculver Roman Fort stand sentinel over the marshy landscape and are well worth a visit.
In Saxon times the Isle of Thanet was just that an isle some distance from the mainland separated from the rest of Kent by the Wantsum Channel and at this point the Saxon Shore Way cuts sharply inland taking the walker through pleasant fields and orchards until, once again, you emerge atop the White Cliffs. Without a doubt the White Cliffs are quintessentially England and as a man born and bred in Kent they’re Kent’s crowning glory.
The walk continues on past Dover Castle, Folkestone and Hythe. At Hythe the course of the Saxon Shore Way, again cuts inland following more or less the route of the Royal Military Canal. This man made canal is the third largest defensive structure in the United Kingdom after Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke and was built to stop Napoleon’s forces if they had ever crossed the English Channel and stepped foot on England – it was fortunately never tested in battle. The canal leads us straight to the outskirts of Rye– a beautiful East Sussex community perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Romney Marsh, the River Rother and a distant view of the golden beaches of Camber Sands.
From Rye the path continues its track inland of the sea through the former port of Winchelsea, now separated from the sea by many miles. This small village is one of East Sussex’s most heavily defended with medieval turrets and stone walls feet thick. From Winchelsea the path returns to overlooking the sea as you walk along the cliff top in the direction of Hastings. After walking through a wonderful country park you descend into Hasting’s Old Town with the fish market and the fishing boats that are hauled daily up onto the pebble beach. To get from the cliff top you have a choice, use the hundreds of steps cut into the cliff or take the Victorian lift into the heart of one of East Sussex’s most popular seaside resorts.