Isle of Thanet, UK

Thanet, Kent’s northeastern tip, unfolds along 26 miles of sandy beaches, the very picture of traditional English seaside. This was Victorian author Charles Dickens’ inspirational coastal hideaway and JMW Turner was so enchanted that he declared the painterly skies the loveliest in Europe. The area is also sprinkled with eclectic interest ranging from the eccentric to the heroic.  One easy way to uncover its secrets is to follow the circular, 27-mile Viking Coastal Trail via Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate, taking in picturesque villages where ancient and exotic surprises lie in store.

Begin at Margate where the Edwardian institutions of rock shops, ice-cream and seafood stalls still tempt. Just five minutes’ saunter from the seafront you’ll come across a unique marine mystery. The subterranean Shell Grotto, on Grotto Hill, was discovered in 1835 – but who built it? Is it a strange temple or Regency folly? Descend the chalk stairway to view the chamber and 2,000 sq ft of mosaic created from millions of shells. Gods, goddesses and trees of life spring from the swirling patterns. Explore the story behind the grotto in the Mystery Museum, and enjoy tea and cake in the Eighth Wonder Café.

Head a short distance eastwards and at Cliftonville a bygone era comes to life in the Walpole Bay Hotel and Museum. You can stay or dine just as in any hotel – what could be finer than Sunday luncheon while the resident pianist strikes up on the 1908 pianola? However the venue, lovingly restored by the Bishop family, is also packed with memorabilia and displays on local history. From the moment you climb the 1914 marble steps, peer into the 1920s ballroom or take the 1927 Otis trellis-gated lift you’re immersed in a world once enjoyed by visitors who arrived in charabancs – you can see their photographs around the hotel.

Back on the Viking Coastal Trail the winding cobbled streets, flint houses and fishermen’s cottages of Broadstairs beckon. You’ll easily spot Charles Dickens’ bolthole, Bleak House, peering over the postcard sweep of beachside buildings. The author frequently visited between 1837 and 1859, and on Victoria Parade you can step into the former home of Miss Mary Pearson Strong – inspiration for Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. Now the Dickens House Museum, it is full of displays relating to the writer. Picture his mirth as he watched Miss Strong chasing donkey-boys from in front of her cottage, a scene he recreated in his novel, though he transposed it to Dover to save her blushes. The secret is out!

Another great Victorian is recalled in Broadstairs, at Crampton Tower Museum: you may be unfamiliar with engineer Thomas Crampton, but we owe him a lot. A designer of locomotives and railways, he also laid the first effective telegraph cable under the English Channel. You’ll soon be fascinated by this lesser known hero of progress and his many exploits, and by the museum’s rich collection of drawings, interactive displays and working model railways.

Keep with the Victorian theme in Ramsgate, home of the country’s only Royal Harbour and abuzz with waterfront cafés and bars. Architect Augustus Pugin, leader of the Gothic Revival in the 19th century, is noted for his designs for London’s House of Lords; less well known are his associations with Ramsgate. He so loved the town that he designed and built a home here – The Grange. You can rent it for holidays and occasionally it’s open to public viewing, and there’s also a Pugins town trail around buildings designed or linked with the talented Pugin family.

Before you leave, recce Ramsgate’s latest offbeat treasure. The Brits are renowned collectors and the Pinball Parlour certainly fills a nostalgic niche. Go on, have some fun on machines dating back to the 1950s in the first museum of its kind in the country.

Our route now arcs inland to Manston and the Spitfire & Hurricane Memorial Museum, dedicated to the pilots and aircrew of WW2. ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,’ Sir Winston Churchill said of the men who fought in the skies overhead in the Battle of Britain 1940. Discover how RAF Manston bore the brunt of early action and see two magnificently restored spitfire and hawker hurricane aircraft.

Nearby Minster village takes us centuries into the past, though there’s also a curious link with the airfield. The Abbey was founded in AD 670 by Princess Ermenburga, yet in WW2 part of the site was requisitioned as an officer’s mess for RAF Manston. Today peace is restored and the Benedictine nuns who live here welcome visitors on guided tours of the ancient buildings and beautiful gardens.

Perhaps stop at Sarre Windmill, built in 1820, and find out about traditional milling. Or head straight on to Quex House and Gardens and the Powell-Cotton Museum, Birchington. This wonderful Regency mansion is the family home of the Powell-Cottons, who have taken the British passion of collecting to world-class level. Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton established the internationally acclaimed museum in 1896, to house natural history specimens and cultural objects he gathered on expeditions to Asia and Africa. The 15 acres of gardens are also a must-see, including a Victorian walled garden featuring teak-framed glasshouses, a Cucumber House and Orchid House.