There's a lovely Kent beach for every taste
- Credit: Visit Kent
‘It’s always ourselves we find in the sea,’ wrote American poet EE Cummings, in Maggie and Milly and Molly and May. But there are more than 350 miles of coastline in Kent, more than 50 beaches: which is the one, perfect beach where you might find yourself?
Make your own fun
Never mind beach buffs, civil engineering enthusiasts too will particularly appreciate Samphire Hoe between Folkestone and Dover, made from five million cubic metres of Channel Tunnel rubble (or gravats, if it was bored out at the French end) dumped at the foot of Shakespeare Cliff. Of course, now it’s a lovely nature reserve, with hundreds of species of plants and birds and 30 sorts of butterflies. There’s a fine pebble beach, clear rock pools and great facilities, as you’d expect from a twentieth-century piece of coastline.
The play’s the thing
Drama lovers may want to head for Shakespeare Beach, a couple of miles east. Given that we know Shakespeare often travelled through Dover, could this be the very beach he was thinking of when Edgar, leading his blinded father Gloucester in King Lear, looks down upon as he notes: "The fishermen, that walk upon the beach, appear like mice." Now you’re more likely to find cross-channel swimmers, who start from this wide stretch of shingle: it’s one of the closest beaches to France (only 21 miles), so if you feel Brexit isn’t going well it’s also a good place to stand and shout at the French. Fans of Dickens should head to Broadstairs, where he holidayed – and wrote – for two decades. Much like a Dickens novel, Viking Bay crams a lot in: fishing boats in the tiny harbour, sand arcing beneath white cliffs, beach huts, genteel architecture (plus a lovely Edwardian lift, currently closed because it costs too much to repair) – truly something for everyone.
Margate scores high for art, with its Main Sands beloved of JMW Turner and the nearby Turner Contemporary running its new exhibition England’s Creative Coast until November. This will include Folkestone, so you could visit the fabulously-named Sunny Sands beach there as part of any art tour, too. Art also means a visit to Dungeness, the shingle wasteland that is Britain’s only desert and was home to the late Derek Jarman, filmmaker, artist, writer and gardener, whose Prospect Cottage was bought by the Art Fund and will be managed by Creative Folkestone. If you like your beaches bleak, windswept and featuring a nuclear power station, then Dungeness is for you.
Military history buffs must go to the beaches running south from Folkestone to Dymchurch. Here stand 27 Martello towers, built in the first decade of the nineteenth century to defend the coast from Napoleon. (Shouting at the French from Kent beaches has a long history.) Number 24 in Dymchurch is the chef’s kiss emoji of Martello Towers, closest to its original state, open to the public as a museum and just behind a truly amazing stretch of sand and shingle, miles long, reaching up from Dungeness to Hythe, alternating between town and tumbleweed and forming the dune-fringed edge of Romney Marsh. Take the diminutive Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch steam railway to cover the whole distance.
If you like your beaches as nature intended, Abbot’s Cliff near Folkestone; Sandwich Bay; and Shellness Beach, south of Leysdown on Sheppey are popular spots. You have to work at being a naturist, though: taking your kit off is the easy bit. Abbot’s Cliff features a neck-breaking path 500 feet down and then you’ve got to look out for cliff falls. At Sandwich you must pay a toll just to get on to the beach and there are golfers teeing off just behind you. So go to Shellness, the county’s last official naturist beach. This long stretch of shingly sand, looking out to the North Sea and down at the north Kent coast, doesn’t quite have the Mad Max desolation of Dungeness, but you do feel you’re on the very edge of England.
Buckets and spades
If you want to see what the great British holiday used to be like, go for Herne Bay, with its grand Victorian seafront buildings and the extraordinary pier head, marooned a kilometre off the shingle beach and built for passengers on the steamships paddling up the Medway. A storm in the 1970s took down the rest of the structure, leaving the thriving pier stub with its merry-go-round, helter skelter and other reminders of our beach holiday history. All the north Kent beach towns give you something of this flavour: stuccoed terraces, colourful beach huts, amusement arcades, bucket and spade shops and more fish than you could throw a chip at. Honourable mention to Whitstable, whose working history as a fishing village wasn’t erased by the Victorian rush to the coast and where you can wander among houses, stores and huts made of brick and tarred weatherboard, and eat local oysters looking over the sea.
Pick ‘n’ Mix
Whitstable’s loveliness is slightly disturbed by the jetskiers taking off from the harbour but if you like that sort of thing then go for Forness Bay, at the edge of Palm Bay near Margate, with its dedicated watersports area. The beaches at this very tip of Kent all score highly on something: they’re sandy, flat and shelving, so good for families who like to swim, rock-pool and build sand castles, and all have some sort of quirk to recommend them. Botany Bay is the tourist-poster child, with its chalk stacks on flat sand, while the town's Joss Bay is good for surfing and Walpole Bay, beneath Cliftonville in Margate, has a concrete-edged tidal pool forming an ever-refreshed saltwater lido for wild-ish swimming.
And we have to give a quick shout-out to Dumpton Gap roughly halfway between Broadstairs and Ramsgate - Kent’s beach with the least prepossessing name, but one that's worth visiting for a paddle at low tide.
Elsewhere you can eat your picnic below the castles at Dover and Deal, or under the ruined twin towers of a 12C church at Reculver. Birders should explore Pegwell Bay, which runs westward from sandy Ramsgate to become a marshy nature reserve, or continue round the coast to end where we began, at Samphire Hoe, where you can find up to 220 types of birds – and perhaps find yourself, into the bargain.
Kent's Blue Flag Beaches
In 2022 Tankerton, Sheerness Beach, Leysdown Beach and Minster Leas, Botany Bay, Joss Bay, Minnis Bay, West Bay, St Mildreds, Margate Main Sands and Stone Bay all have Blue Flag certification from the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). In order to qualify for the Blue Flag, a series of stringent environmental, educational, safety, and accessibility criteria must be met and maintained. blueflag.global/all-bf-sites