Start Herne Bay clocktower
Distance 6.9 miles
Time 3-3.5 hours
Total ascent 115 metres
Google map of the route
It’s funny who you bump into on a stroll along the north Kent coast. At the start there’s pioneering aviator Amy Johnson, while lurking near the end is Hammer horror and Star Wars actor Peter Cushing. In between, there’s detective inspector Edmund Reid, who not only failed to detect Jack the Ripper but also that the town he chose to retire to would be washed away.
All three add more history to a walk along this stretch of the 163-mile Saxon Shore Way that runs from Gravesend to Hastings. The volunteers who created the trail in 1980 wanted it to follow the shoreline as it did in the third century AD, when the Romans were being plagued by Saxon pirates. The path is waymarked with a warrior helmet logo.
None of the famous people mentioned are still with us, so I enlist the support of my friend Adam as a walking buddy to prevent me from talking to ghosts. Our easy route – mostly along a flat, concrete pathway with the Thames estuary and beach to our right – features abundant birdlife. Adam knows what’s what on the shingle shore and intertidal mudflats, spotting ringed plover, redshank and turnstones.
The bronze statue of Amy Johnson is a few hundred metres into a walk that begins at Herne Bay’s clocktower, built in 1837, the first year of Queen Victoria’s reign. In 1930, Johnson was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, and the statue shows her in flying gear, hand to head, ready to pull down her goggles. Her gaze passes the town’s 1920s bandstand and out to the estuary where her plane crashed in bad weather on 5 January 1941. Her body was never found.
Also out to sea is the dilapidated and eerie-looking pier head, a remnant of a time when Herne Bay’s pier was the second longest in England and paddle steamers were able to moor alongside it. Storms have left it isolated, distant from the stub of pier that remains, with its beach-hut-style stalls and a helter skelter.
The sun is on us, though any warmth is whipped away by a blustery breeze that underlines the pier head’s vulnerability. The sea and gales have previously wreaked havoc on the place we arrive at next: Hampton-on-Sea.
The idea of Hampton was catnip to Victorian businessmen, who from the 1860s thought it represented a real catch for the oyster industry and would make an impressive seaside resort. Sadly, the combination of an 1866-built oyster pier, poorly conceived sea defences and a culvert of Hampton Brook prone to flooding caused erosion that meant by the early 1920s the “town” was drowned.
We pass what remains: the Hampton Inn and a short stone pier. I read an information board as Adam watches a starling murmuration above Long Rock to the west. The last resident to leave Hampton was Edmund Reid, in 1916. Once head of the CID, Reid spent his retirement highlighting the plight of the town and its people as both ebbed.
As we walk to Long Rock, a site of special scientific interest, Adam points out turnstones on the shore flipping pebbles with their beaks, and sanderlings lined up just out of reach of the waves. By a patch of inland water is an egret, its white plumage contrasting with the blue water and the grassland around it. The rare hog’s fennel grows here and supports the equally rare fisher’s estuarine moth. The quiet is interrupted only by bird cries and the tumble of waves that are far enough out to reveal The Street, a shingle spit at Tankerton that can be walked – with caution – at low tide. A kestrel hovers above, but is soon gone.
Fishing boats bobbing against their moorings signal we are approaching Whitstable, its harbour front busy with people buying seafood and browsing art and craft stalls. What I love about this walk is how it evolves from a traditional (Victorian) portrait of the seaside into a contemporary coastal scene. In Whitstable, our path brims with oyster shacks, cafe-restaurants, artists’ studios and wooden houses by the shore, many of them holiday homes.
These houses have wonderful estuary views. One, at Sea Wall, belonged to Peter Cushing. The actor was so fond of a particular vista – he would paint here – that it has been named Cushing’s View. A bench and plaque mark the spot, though it doesn’t mean the conclusion of our walk.
We continue through Whitstable, passing Old Neptune, a popular pub on the shore, and head for West Beach, its shingle dotted with battered and derelict boats. The end comes with our elevation – the only hill we encounter. It is well worth the short, sharp incline to discover the Rose in Bloom pub on Joy Lane.
Sitting on its terrace – awaiting lunch, with a view of the Isle of Sheppey, the estuary in wide angle and, in the distance, Southend – I think how fish and chips remains a unifying part of coastal life. No matter how the seaside evolves, nor how much nature shapes and changes it, this dish is the one tying past and present together.
The Rose in Bloom’s Shepherd Neame ales, including Master Brew and the Whitstable Bay collection, come from a brewery in nearby Faversham. The menu offers locally caught seafood (mussels in cream and garlic with fries, £14.50; cod and chips, £14; sea bass with fries and salad, £14), and the interior is elegant, with a conservatory.
Yet the main attraction of the Rose in Bloom is its outdoor terrace (covered in winter). High above the shore, eating and drinking here is elevated by a sublime vista over treetops and a tangle of undergrowth and across the Thames and Swale estuaries to Essex.
The Space at 8 is a stylish, two double-bed apartment on a terraced row no more than a couple of minutes’ walk from Whitstable’s high street, with its cafes, bars and shops, and less than five minutes from the beach. It used to be a fisherman’s cottage, but renovation in 2018 has turned it into an art-laden design haven.
There’s a gorgeous tiled bathroom, large kitchen and dining area, and – the clincher – bifold doors that open on to a south-facing garden, with a furnished patio that feels quiet and private, despite being so close to everything.
Sleeps four from £120 a night