Folkestone, Hythe & Romney Marsh – epic adventures, authentic escapes

Along Kent’s Heritage Coast from Dover: Folkestone, Hythe and Romney Marsh highlight the kaleidoscopic contrasts of Kent’s scenic southeast. Roads less travelled lead to Hellfire Corner, smugglers’ haunts and animal magic, as well as quaint churches and inns with stories to tell. Relive the genuine Edwardian elegance of a seaside resort or get away from it all in a strange shingle corner voted one of the world’s ‘most authentic’ places. Children and adults alike will be captivated.

A sense of epic adventure sweeps through our journey, beginning at the Battle of Britain Museum, Hawkinge, just north of Folkestone. The site of the closest RAF station to enemy-occupied France, Hawkinge and the Folkestone area stood up to barrages of cross-Channel shelling in WW2 – not for nothing was this called Hellfire Corner. In original 1940 buildings you’ll find the country’s most important collection of artefacts from the airborne struggle that marked a turning point in the war. Be enthralled by full-size replicas of hurricane and spitfire fighters, vehicles, weapons, flying equipment and the thought-provoking relics of more than 600 crashed aircraft.

Head on south now to Folkestone for a change of scene and mood on a pleasant town stroll. Edwardian seaside elegance is invigorated by the transforming modern vibe of the Creative Quarter where artists and creatives have begun to gather. Take the 19th-century water-balance lift from the harbour up to The Leas, a mile-long cliff-top walk which is one of Europe’s finest marine promenades. You’ll probably have your eyes fixed on the great views to the French coast, but look out for the unexpected memorial to William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of blood. Then amble the zig-zag path to the award-winning Coastal Park, a superb undercliff featuring pine avenues, flower gardens, picnic areas and an Amphitheatre that stages summer entertainment.

Inland a few miles, adventure drives our compass again. Port Lympne Wild Animal Park and Gardens at Lympne opens up 600 acres of wildlife magic. Join the intrepid African Experience Safari or explore in your own time: see the largest breeding herd of black rhinos outside of Africa, Siberian and Indian tigers, and Barbary lions. And do be at the ‘Palace of the Apes’ in time for feeding. Port Lympne undertakes important conservation and breeding programmes with rare and endangered species, and animals live in habitats matching those of their native lands. While you’re here, don’t miss the magnificent mansion either, featuring fabulous mural rooms, wildlife art and even paintings by Sir Winston Churchill.

Neighbouring Hythe is a small town that charms, split between the older half of mainly 18th-century houses and the newer Victorian resort. Learn about its strategic importance to maritime safety and power as a member of the Cinque Port Confederation, hunt for antiques and collectibles along the High Street, and enjoy lunch or a snack in an old inn.

There are two unusual routes out of town: one is the Royal Military Canal, originally built to enable the swift movement of men and stores to counter threats of Napoleonic invasion in the early 19th century. These days it’s a lovely place to ramble, go boating or fishing. Try out the intriguing ‘acoustic mirror’ that picks up voices on the opposite bank – it’s a modern interpretation of the huge concrete ‘listening ears’ constructed around Hythe and Dungeness in the 1920s-1930s, to detect the sound of incoming aircraft before radar was invented. You can still see some originals in the area, left scattered like weird giant sculptures.

Alternatively, hop aboard the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch miniature steam railway – affectionately known as the world’s smallest public railway – for a memorable 13.5-mile expedition to Dungeness. Built in the 1920s, the set-up was the culmination of the dreams of two maverick millionaires, Count Zborowski of Chitty Bang Bang fame and Captain J E P Howey. Boys and their toys!

There are several alluring stops en route where you will be tempted to get out and explore. At seaside Dymchurch there’s a fully restored Martello Tower, one of a chain of such artillery forts built along the coast from 1805 to fend off possible attack by Napoleon. End-of-the-line Dungeness is like reaching the end of the world, so individual that it has been hailed one of the most ‘authentic’ destinations anywhere. Scrunch along Europe’s largest shingle beach, home to a third of all known plant species, and survey the scene. The RSPB Nature Reserve is populated by all sorts of breeding seabirds and wintering wildfowl. Clapboard dwellings strike a characterful note and the unique ‘nuclear garden’ of late avant-garde painter and filmmaker Derek Jarman is a must-see amid the shingle.

But our final adventure takes in the mysterious coastal hinterland of Romney Marsh, 100 square miles of low-lying land reclaimed from the sea over the last 6,000 years. Walk or cycle some or all the 24-mile trail around medieval marsh churches and inns where smugglers plotted and hid their booty. One start-point is New Romney, on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch line. It’s a hauntingly beautiful escape quite unlike any other.

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