There was something liberating, early that morning, about driving to Kent. I simply couldn’t wait to see the white cliffs again. They have a way of capturing your heart, of printing themselves in your memories, an invisible tattoo of sort. Kent forever.
I stopped at Samphire Hoe first, a little before Dover. No one ever wonders what happened to all the soil dug when making the Eurotunnel… It was deposited right here, at the base of Shakespeare’s cliff, filling artificial lagoons, to create a 30-hectare nature reserve. It’s such a lovely walk on a sunny day with the scent of plough stoppers filling the air, a fragrance halfway between sweet peas and marshmallow. It’s turned into a real little Eden since its opening 20 years ago: 200 plant species, including the rare spider orchid, 30 butterfly species, 13 dragonfly and damselfly, 123 bird ones. It only takes 20 minutes to walk to the sweet pebble beach on the other side but it’s enough to make you feel at one with nature again. Want to know more? Stop by the Visitor Centre at the entrance: there is a lot of information about its creation. Entrance is free, with a small fee to cover the parking.
Samphire Hoe Country Park | Samphire Rd, Dover CT17 9FL
Next on my list was Dover’s Banksy mural, which appeared in the city beginning of May. A man chipping away at the EU flag: with both the continent and Brexit on the horizon, this is quite a powerful piece!
Banksy’s mural in Dover | Corner of York Street and Townwall Street
Tip: try The Allotment restaurant nearby for lunch. Heart-warming focus on local products, botanical cordials and artisan ice-cream
I could not help but stop at the Dover castle, an iconic fortress overlooking the shortest sea crossing between England and France. Strategic to say the least… the view over the region is impressive. I started with the medieval side, amazed by the beauty of the king’s chamber, recreating the luxury of 12th century palace – heavy curtains, fur throw on the bed, bright colours really bringing the rooms to life.
There is more than just medieval walls and towers here. A roman lighthouse, for example. Although the real star at the moment, with the movie Dunkirk having hit the big screen, is the network of underground tunnels near the castle. Originally dug in the 18th century, when England was facing an invasion from the Napoleonic army, they were merely used as barracks. There are most famous for their role during the Second World War: this is where Operation Dynamo, the massive evacuation of British troops from the French coast was masterminded.
You get to see the command centre as it was – phone systems from the 40ies, bakelite headsets and long cords included, teleprinters, tables and charts tracking ships and planes. With little technology at hand, communication was key… Each operation room had a Sector Clock on the wall, each 15-minute block of time colour-coded into five-minute segments. 2,000 people literally lived here to make the rescue mission a success – you can imagine the intensity, the tension each time a phone rang, the cigarette smoke filling the air… You lose sense of time very quickly here, the tunnels becoming a world of their own. It continued serving as headquarters until the end of the war, including an extension to accommodate a hospital space, which can also be visited.
Dover Castle | Castle Hill Rd, Dover CT16 1HU
My next adventure took me back to the seaside: foraging in St Margaret’s Bay with Lucia from The Wild Kitchen. At low tide, the right side of the beach reveals a large rocky area so green with seaweed you’d easily confuse it with a lawn from a distance. There are quite a few varieties growing there: Sea leaves, Mermaid’s hair, Sea lettuce… each with a slightly different texture and flavour. My favourite? Definitely the Pepper Dulse, which looks like miniature ferns and tastes like truffle butter with a hint of garlic. An experience any foodie would describe as wow-minding.
The wonderful thing about seaweed foraging is you simply can’t get wrong. All of them are edible and they already come seasoned… The only rule is to bring a pair of scissors along to cut the leaves rather so the plant can continue growing. After that it’s up to you. You can eat it straight away, an impromptu picnic or take your booty back home, dry it (over a radiator, in the sunshine) and sprinkle it on food, make a dashi broth, wrap fish before cooking it, or even infuse gin or vodka with it. So much to experiment with!
We continued the foraging by the beach, this time looking at plants growing along it. We started with sea beet (think spinach, more elegant in taste. Excellent cooked in tarts, stews, curries…) before trying rock samphire (part of the carrot family, crunchy, salty but rich in aromatic oils which can remind you of… diesel fumes! Wonderful pickled though) and sea purslane (which often grows in mud and sand dunes – the leaves look dry but are amazingly juicy). Amazing how many nutritious, super tasty ingredients you can walk by, not having a clue. Nurturing nature indeed.
Our basket now full, we passed the little white house Ian Fleming used to rent. Guess what number the bus to London was from Kent? 007 of course… Wondering which Bond adventures were written here, we took a footpath leading up the cliff, meeting a couple of horses on the way, collecting a purple flower used to make an infusion called Kentish tea, admiring wild orchids here and there. Delighted, we then sat down to enjoy the amazing view on the bay. I was treated to homemade nettle and mint tea (which would be gorgeous with a dash of gin!) and fresh strawberries to be dipped in a mix of sesame seeds and dry seaweed. Life doesn’t get better than this!
Lucia organises foraging tours (seaweed, shellfish…) and can organise private events too, her little hut on St Margaret’s Bay being the ideal place to have lunch or dinner. A wonderful idea for birthday celebrations, hen parties… Do ask her cooking tips too: we discussed lemon curd with a touch of seaweed, candying sea kale, making elderflower ice cubes to add to a gin and tonic… If it’s inspiration you are after, look no further!
Time to call it a day! I put my suitcase down at the White Cliff hotel, a delightful inn dating back to the 16th century. A touch of gold on the floral wallpaper, wonderfully comfortable beds with goose down quilts, vintage style wooden furniture… A little gem, which comes with its own gastropub. Think beetroot and ricotta dip, creamy and refreshing, topped with crunchy asparagus, pea shoots and a few drops of fruity olive oil. Or 28-day aged sirloin steak, heightened with a Bloody Mary salsa and succulent gratin potatoes on the side. Add to this a glass of Chapel Down Union Red, revealing redcurrant and violet notes. And for pure decadence, a strawberry pavlova served with dandelion and burdock jelly cubes, a little piece of art.
In Kent, sweet dreams are guaranteed!
>> Google Map of the day at the end of the page, just click on the picture to access it
>> Day 2 coming soon – walking along the cliffs from St Margaret’s Bay to Deale