Marked by iconic chalk cliffs, Victorian resort towns, boggy marshland and a large port, the Kent coastline stretches around the most south-easterly part of the UK, from Lydd and Dungeness in the south to Dartford in the north. Not only does this section of the British coast contain a large amount of variety, but it is also quite a long stretch of coastline, hence the extended length of this article compared to other articles. However, I feel that it is easier and more suitable to summarise the Kent coastline in one article, rather than two shorter ones.
The southerly section of the Kent coastline stretches around the Dungeness peninsula. This is a very flat area of land, made up entirely of flint shingle that has been washed up and deposited here by waves, from both the west and the north . This is a rather remote part of the Kent coastline, with much of the land being used for a nature reserve, with various small lakes and reed beds within the shingle providing a habitat for birds and many insect species . On the eastern side of the peninsula is Dungeness Old Lighthouse, as well as various small wooden beach houses. There is one feature that dominates the skyline at Dungeness – right on the tip of the peninsula, where the coastline quickly changes from east-west to north-south, exists the large Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. A very unfitting sight for this area, this was one of the first nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom, and it is still used today for generating electricity.
Dungeness is also the start of a miniature heritage railway – the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway – that travels 22 km (13.5 miles) northwards to the port town of Hythe . This section of the coastline remains rather flat, with Romney Marsh to the west, and the sea to the east. However, as one travels further northwards, the number of buildings increases, and there are several small seaside towns with many holiday homes, caravan parks and permanent residences. These towns include Littlestone, Saint Mary’s Bay and Dymchurch. Behind an impressive seawall, that was built to prevent these towns and Romney Marsh from inevitable flooding, there is a rather long shingle and sandy beach.
At the northern end of the railway sits the town of Hythe, which is nestled between the coastline and of a range of hills to the north known as the Greensand Ridge. This is a row of sandstone hills that stretches from Petersfield (110km/70 miles to the west) and terminates at Folkestone, around 2km (1 mile) to the east. Hythe is also renown as historically being one of the Cinque Ports, five ports in Kent and East Sussex that rendered ship service to the English Crown in late Saxon and early Norman times, reaching their peak power and prestige in the 12th and 13th Centuries. However, they were last called upon in 1596 . The other ports were Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. Today, however, Hythe functions mainly as a resort town.
There is an esplanade between Hythe and Folkestone, as the main road climbs alongside sandstone cliffs to the port of Folkestone via the village of Sandgate. This picturesque village includes many old buildings, Victorian or older, as well as Sandgate Castle, an artillery fort constructed by King Henry VIII. The town of Folkestone to the east is another resort town that also has a more modern harbour, and a nice promenade on top of the sandstone cliffs, with views of the sea on the southern side and quaint Georgian-era hotels and guesthouses on the northern side.
North-eastwards along the coast, from Folkestone to Saint Margaret’s Bay, contains some of the most iconic stretches of coastline in Great Britain, not only due to a particular section of chalk cliffs, but also because of buildings that were key, in order for us to defend Great Britain, during centuries-old conflicts and World War Two.
At the centre of this particular stretch of coastline is the port of Dover. Located in a valley between two cliff faces, this is a very important ferry port between Britain and France. Despite the existence of the Channel Tunnel underneath the English Channel, which is located several miles to the south-west, this remains a very important ferry terminal between the United Kingdom and the European Continent to this day, transporting over 10 million passengers through the port in 2019 .
Dover is also very renown for buildings on top of the cliffs. Dover Castle and its immediate surroundings have a lot of history stretching back to Roman Times, as well as a great significance as recent as the 1940s. The Roman Pharos is the oldest surviving lighthouse in the country, as well as one of the oldest in the world, that was once used to aid the navigation of ships from France. Next to the lighthouse is an Anglo-Saxon church, named Saint Mary of Castro. The construction of the castle that exists today began in the 1180s by King Henry II – at that time, it consisted of a medieval palace . The castle contains many famous winding medieval tunnels located underneath; these were built to protect the most vulnerable side of the castle from attack. For example, during the Siege of 1216, Dover Castle was very important in preventing French armies from invading England. However, the castle has a much more recent importance in terms of defending the United Kingdom, this time during World War Two (1939-1945). During this war, in May 1940, the Dunkirk Evacuation (codenamed ‘Operation Dynamo’) was co-ordinated and masterminded within these secret tunnels. Underneath Dover Castle also existed a secret bunker and an underground hospital. All of these attractions exist today as a museum, and are very popular with visitors due to their significance during World War II.
The white chalk cliffs on either side of Dover are an iconic part of the British coastline. These form the eastern extent of the North Downs, an escarpment of chalk hills that begins at Guildford (100 km/60 miles) to the west and terminates here. The cliffs to the east of Dover are known as the White Cliffs of Dover – these are a very famous section of cliffs that are not only a national landmark, but are even known internationally, as they are seen as a symbol of both home and war defence during World War II. Unlike the classic song though, you won’t find bluebirds over the cliffs – these birds are found in North America, and not in Britain or Europe. However, you will find more underground passages on top of these cliffs, such as Fan Bay Deep Shelter, a restored WWII battery that is open to visitors.
North of Saint Margaret’s Bay, the cliffs slowly decrease in height towards the village of Kingsdown. From Kingsdown up to Thanet, the coastline is comprised of rather flat land bordering the coast, passing the seaside town of Deal and flat rural land, part of which is used for a golf course. A shingle beach runs between Kingsdown and the mouth of the River Stour, which marks the southern edge of the Isle of Thanet. It is also noteworthy that, since we are now north of Dover, the sea bordering the coastline here is now called the North Sea – it is the English Channel no more.
Thanet is not an island in the true sense; although it is bordered by sea on its northern, western and south-eastern sides, it is surrounded by marshland on all of its other sides. It contains three main towns that overlap one another: Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate. All three are popular Victorian-era resort towns with hotels, restaurants and promenades, but each town has its own features. Ramsgate is home to a large yacht marina, whereas Broadstairs is a particularly quaint Victorian-era seaside resort with a connection to one of Britain’s most renowned writers – Charles Dickens – who often visited the town. It also contains a large sandy beach, known as Viking Bay. The other town is Margate, which is home to a fun fair known as Dreamland, and another large sandy beach. The Isle of Thanet also contains some low cliffs, such as at Botany Bay, which is a stretch of coastline between Broadstairs and Margate where fossils are quite commonly found. The coast here also contains a small sea arch.
The coast along the northern side of Kent stretches from the Isle of Thanet in the east through to Dartford, transitioning from bordering the North Sea to forming the southern side of the River Thames Estuary. Aside from a few seaside towns, this coastline is mainly characterised by marshlands and small, flat islands, although there are some points of interest.
The towns of Herne Bay and Whitstable lie more than 5km (3 miles) west of the Isle of Thanet. Both towns are rather small and picturesque, with the former containing a small pier, and the latter being known for a small harbour with an adjacent market. Whitstable also contains a large stately home; known as Whitstable Castle & Gardens, this is a large castle-like mansion that started life as a residence for the Pearson family in the 1790s . Aside from the use of this beautiful house as a wedding venue and a function room today, it hosts occasional events that are open to the public.
To the north-west of Whitstable lies a feature known as the Isle of Sheppey. This is a mainly marshy island just off the mainland, separated by a small channel known as The Swale. There is one small industrial town on the island known as Sheerness, as well as several other villages. There is a small cliff on the north side of the island, which is rather prone to coastal erosion, but aside from this, it is mostly made up of flat, marshy land that borders the sea. Southern parts of the island contain The Swale and Elmley nature reserves. The section of marshland from Whitstable to Dartford is, in fact, recognised by the UK Government as one of 22 environmentally sensitive areas – not only due to the fact that there is a large amount of industry in the vicinity, including shipping activity, warehouses and even a power station, but also that this area is particularly sensitive to coastal flooding during storm surges. It would be a shame to let this area of marshland disintegrate – not only because it is a natural feature, but also due to its importance as a habitat for birds, other animals and plants. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) estimates that 300,000 birds use the mudflats of the Thames marshes as a regular haven in their migratory journeys between Africa and The Arctic.
The River Medway estuary interrupts the coastline here a little, forming a large flooded valley with many mudflats and small islands. Moving westwards, onto the Hoo Peninsula, the coastline consists of more of the same: mudflats, marshes and reedbeds. It is also noteworthy that this peninsula marks where the North Sea ends – the coastline to the west of here is part of the River Thames Estuary. There is another nature reserve on this peninsula – RSPB Cliffe Pools – that exists just east of the industrial town of Gravesend.
Although much of the heavy industry previous associated with towns such as Gravesend has disappeared, there is still some industry remaining. Many small warehouses line the coastline, with small jetties reaching out into the Thames Estuary. The town itself is a rather typical British town, with a high street and modern-day chain shops, but it contains an old part of the town known as the Heritage Quarter, which hosts picturesque buildings, including Saint George’s Church. West of the town is Swanscombe Peninsula, another area of marshland which forms the neck of a meander in the Thames Estuary. Continuing westwards, one reaches the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, which forms one half of the orbital motorway around London, located on the outskirts of Dartford. Despite still being an estuary, I think it is fair to say that this is no longer a part of the marine coastline around the United Kingdom, and instead is firmly part of the River Thames. This part of the estuary is roughly where the borders between Kent, Essex and Greater London meet.