Day Ride: Coast & castles
As far south east as you can get and keep your boots dry. Dawn Swift rides the resorts of Kent
The temperature had finally managed to creep above zero, the frost on the cars was clearing, the winter sun was shining, I desperately needed to get out on my bike – I hadn’t ridden for pleasure, for weeks. Motorway blasts for work don’t count – they can be fun, but they’re not even in the same league as a weekend fun ride. But it was still chilly, so I would need layers! That’s what’s needed here, lots of layers, including a heated under-jacket, but I’ll not plug it in unless I get really desperate.
When you look at a map, the eastern end of Kent sticks out as a semicircle into the English Channel, and one of the best half-day rides in the area is to ride that semicircle. No GPS is needed, it’s just a case of hopping from town to town, with plenty of opportunities for coffee or culture stops, lots of nice fast roads and most importantly, no motorways.
I start my ride in Folkestone, climbing the B2011, otherwise known as Dover Hill. This is a twisty road, two lanes going up, one down (with gravel pits for runaway trucks). When I did my bike test here five years ago I got a ‘minor’ for not overtaking a car chugging up the hill. I wanted to overtake, but thought I’d get a minor for doing so, so I didn’t. Still, no minors today. After the hill the road simply becomes the Dover road and gently descends back down to sea level and into Dover. Dover Castle sits high above the town, an imposing structure watching over both the town and the Channel. There’s a reason why it’s there – Dover’s position as Britain’s closest point to mainland Europe has made it key to the defence of the country for hundreds of years. Even during the Second World War the tunnels underneath the castle were used as part of fortress Britain. I follow the signs for the castle and end up behind a French tour bus climbing the 10% gradient. Ironic that a structure used to deter the French army in the past now attracts French tourists.
After a short stop to admire the castle, I head towards Deal on the A258. Walmer Castle is en route but requires a slight detour from the main road to see it, unlike Deal Castle, which you can’t miss. From Deal I head for Sandwich still on the A258 then joining the A256. You can easily bypass the town of Sandwich, but it’s well worth a ride through its ancient streets, and have an ice cream by the river.
I give the ice cream a miss this time and instead head for Ramsgate, then on to Broadstairs. Again these can both be bypassed by staying on the main road through, but that means cutting across inland rather than following the coast.
Broadstairs was the seaside residence of Charles Dickens, where his mansion, Bleak House, still stands above the bay. Alternatively, you can bypass on the main road and view the lovely shopping area, a magnet to cars on a weekend, which come here for the pleasure of queuing for miles. It’s an option if you want to practice your filtering skills or you need some retail therapy.
The final seaside stop is Margate, which not only holds memories of childhood trips to Dreamland amusement park (now a ruin) but is where I bought my first proper bike, a Honda CBF500A – like Dreamland, the bike dealer has gone. But there is still plenty to see in Margate: it has a huge sandy beach, loads of cafes and for art lovers there’s the new Turner Contemporary gallery.
After Margate is where the fun really begins, at least for me – it’s like a roller coaster pulling to the top of the first true drop. I pick up the A28 towards Canterbury, carving through the Kent countryside as I head away from the coast and back inland. Things slow down a bit as we get into Canterbury and we hit the queue for the railway level crossing. I carefully filter down the outside, keeping an eye out for any clowns who get impatient and do a sudden U-turn, and slip in behind a sportsbike at the front of the queue – nice to see I’m not the only rider out here in the cold. A police car is stopped on our side of the road on the other side of the crossing, blue lights flashing, the driver with his head in his hands as he watches his response time going down the pan. After absolutely ages the Pullman Golden Arrow goes through, beautiful carriages with candles at the tables. It could almost be the Orient Express, heading for Istanbul, except that it’s pulled by a horrid modern diesel loco, which spoils the romantic vision.
The gates lift and we’re off, after politely waiting for the despairing policeman to get across. Passing through Canterbury is a good chance to practice more filtering, and a good place to stop. Quite apart from the cathedral, there’s plenty of free bike parking here. But I resist the urge for coffee and press on for the highlight of the ride.
The road from Canterbury to Hythe is the B2068, known locally as the Stone Street. More than 1000 years ago the Romans came to Britain, saw our mud tracks suitable only for the adventure bike rider and worried about the lack of biking roads suitable for the Italian sports bikes that they would create in years to come. So they built Stone Street, which survives as an excellent biking road today, forest to our left, views of the Kent Downs to our right. After a short bendy bit through the forest, Stone Street meets the M20 motorway: left goes back to Folkestone, straight across goes to Hythe where we once again meet the sea. I go home, freezing cold, but my riding addiction satiated – for now.
Words & pictures: Dawn Swift
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