Three Days on the English South Coast: Hampshire, Sussex and Kent

 

We were tired of waiting for the right time.

Perry and I had been all over the UK in the past year, but had not visited the south coast.  This was partially due to various trips to other parts of the country and partially due to the well-intended objections of friends.  These protestations represent the essence of the British approach to travel.  

Me (stated in any month except June/July/August):  ‘I think we’ll take a trip to the southeast coast this weekend.’

British Friends:  ‘Are you mad?  The weather is rubbish this time of year.’

Me: (stated in June/July/August):  ‘I think we’ll take a trip to the south coast this weekend.’

British Friends:  ‘Are you mad?  You’ll sit in traffic for hours and you won't get a hotel this time of year.’

We decided, during a particularly temperate October, to go for it.  After a bit of deliberation, we selected three coastal cities for overnight stays, traveling via A roads for a slow, relaxing pace.

Dover was our first evening’s destination but decided to stop in Canterbury.  Canterbury is located in Kent, known as The Garden of England.  Despite it being autumn, the countryside was still lush and fragrant.  Our only regret is not leaving a bit earlier to see Whitstable, a picturesque village just north of Canterbury, known for its mariner history and oysters.

Relatively close to the sea, Canterbury has been occupied since pre-historic times.  It has been a stronghold and capital to the Celts, Jutes, Romans and Normans but its main claim to fame is Canterbury Cathedral, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England and symbolic head of the Anglican faith.  

Lunch was in order before such historic inspiration.  We stopped in at Café Mauresque, billed as an Andalucian (southern Spain) and North African oasis.  It feels like an escape to Morocco, without the airfare.  With dim lighting, tables in little nooks and benches filled with stuffed pillows, it’s beautiful, atmospheric and the perfect setting to eat a variety of lovely Moorish tapas.

Caf é  Mauresque (courtesy of TripAdvisor)

Café Mauresque (courtesy of TripAdvisor)

We worked off lunch during the walk to Canterbury Cathedral.  One of the oldest Christian churches in England, it is also the site of the infamous murder of Thomas Becket (he was later canonized a Saint) in 1170, creating a pilgrimage site that inspired the Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century.  

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its famed past is reason enough to visit, but somehow it feels curiously similar to other cathedrals throughout England.  Visits to Winchester, York, Durham or even Peterborough will also give you an equally impressive and historically significant experience, however, if you are seeking a pilgrimage, be it religious (Thomas Becket, origins of Anglicanism) or literary (Canterbury Tales), Canterbury Cathedral fits the bill.  

After the Cathedral tour, we briefly strolled around the city centre shops. 

Canterbury historic city centre

Canterbury historic city centre

Canterbury is a lovely city and worth exploring, but with the shorter days of October, Dover and its white cliffs were calling.

Dover is a thirty-minute drive from Canterbury.  A major ferry port, it is even more ancient and historical than Canterbury, with evidence of occupation as early as the Stone Age.  It is famed for the White Cliffs of Dover, dramatic, chalky white cliffs that can be seen across the channel from Calais, France.  

Enthusiasm mounted as we approached the water.  I was raised in a land-locked environment, so there is something about the energy of the sea that makes me giddy.

As we followed the signs for the White Cliffs, all of a sudden, Dover Castle rose up in front of us and it was an impressive sight.  There are many castles in England but this structure is ‘mahoosive’ (as my friend Joanne likes to say) and demanded we pull over to fully appreciate it.  

Dover Castle

Dover Castle

Dover Castle is a medieval fortress founded in the 12th century and the largest in England.  As Dover is the closest point to the European continent (26 miles to Calais), it has tremendous defensive significance.  It has played lead roles in many historical uprisings and military campaigns, most recently WWII where it housed a series of underground tunnels that held a major communications center and hospital.  There are miles of tunnels, with many yet unexplored.  A full report on the tunnels is expected sometime between 2020 and 2025!

I had briefly researched Dover Castle, but with the focus on the White Cliffs, it fell into the ‘nice to do’ bucket. That changed after seeing it ‘in the flesh.'  We pulled up to the gate only to discover that it was closing in 30 minutes.  Disappointed, we continued to the White Cliffs, but vowed to come back some day.

Back on the road, the remaining few miles along a winding country lane offered pastoral views alternating with brief glimpses into the sea and port, a bit like a game of peek-a-boo.    With all this teasing, I wanted to sprint out of the car to the water upon arrival, but controlled the urge and we walked the path.  It was a bit muddy that day, so if you go, remember not to wear crispy white trainers.  

Path along the White Cliffs

Path along the White Cliffs

Along the path, you are rewarded with brilliant views of both the cliffs and the port.  The port was quite busy and fascinating to watch.  From our vantage point up on the hill, the trucks and cars lined up like a city of ants, waiting to gain entrance to several enormous ferries.  Even though these trucks were probably carrying unromantic fare such as vegetables or electronics, it was actually a fairly romantic scene as the sun was waning and sky filling with purples, pinks and oranges.  

Port of Dover

White Cliffs of Dover with Port of Dover in the background

White Cliffs of Dover with Port of Dover in the background

As we walked, we watched our steps, keeping a good distance from the edge of the cliffs.  It was a bit windy, but the weather was mild, and once we arrived at the lighthouse, we turned to the water and stood in wonder.  

As close to the edge as you want to get

As close to the edge as you want to get

It was a clear day and easy to see France across the Strait of Dover.  There was something exhilarating about gazing across that water.  It felt like a Jane Austen novel, hair whipping in the wind, I pondered the many that had stood in this spot before me, admiring the views, pining over lost lovers or fearing impending invaders.  

Perry's hair does not whip in the wind

Perry's hair does not whip in the wind

It was dark by the time we returned to the car and headed into town.  We stayed at a fairly unremarkable Premier Inn, a busy hotel for those catching the early morning ferry to Calais.  While our meal in the hotel restaurant was lackluster (dry hamburgers and overcooked gammon), the stay in the hotel was pleasant.  All that fresh sea air made for an early night and easy sleep.  

In the morning, we had to make a tough decision.  Spend a day at Dover Castle or continue to Brighton as planned.  If we toured Dover Castle, we would have to race to Brighton via the M20 and M23 vs. taking the slow and meandering route close to the sea.  As this was intended to be a south coast tour, we sadly agreed to forego the Castle this time.  If you get the chance, don’t make that mistake!

The decision was not regretted.. at the time.  Yes, the drive was scenic, but it took much longer than planned- about 4 hours instead of the 2.5 we had budgeted.  I tried to take on a Sunday driver all-the-time-in-the-world attitude, but the constant truck traffic (admired at the port, but here, not so much) and limited views of the water resulted in a tedious, not carefree road trip.

Brighton was a welcome scene and we longed to ditch our car but even this took time.  Parking in Brighton is notoriously difficult and we circled our hotel endlessly before finding a spot; a fitting end to the days travel.

Near Legends Hotel, with Brighton Wheel in the backgrond

Near Legends Hotel, with Brighton Wheel in the backgrond

While Brighton is on the water, its fame is not as a port.  It rose to prominence as a fashionable resort town in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a place to ‘take the waters.’  Bathing in and drinking seawater was a purported cure for various maladies in those days.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it became a popular seaside getaway for Londoners and many of the famous landmarks (Brighton Pier, Royal Pavilion) were built during this time.  

Brighton Beach with Brighton Pier in background

Brighton Beach with Brighton Pier in background

The Royal Pavilion was constructed for the Prince Regent (later, Prince George IV) and features a unique Indo-Gothic architecture, which originated in British India.  It does not look like anything you have ever seen, unless you are well-traveled throughout India.  The Brighton Pier opened in 1899 and houses the usual seaside entertainment- arcades, food stands and an amusement park.

The Royal Pavilion (presently undergoing a facelift)

The Royal Pavilion (presently undergoing a facelift)

Brighton Pier

Brighton Pier

Today, Brighton is considered a bohemian city, best known for its lively GLBT scene.  The beach is still there obviously, but this is not the express purpose of Brighton.  In keeping with the vibe, we stayed at the famous Legends hotel, a GLBT institution.

After dropping off our bags, we hiked Brighton’s pebbled beach.  The texture was a surprise and not particularly to my liking.  The views of the water are spectacular, but having to walk in sturdy shoes didn’t feel very seaside to me.  I like to dig my feet into the sand and water.  

Pebbled Brighton Beach

Pebbled Brighton Beach

Off the water, we walked The Lanes, a shopping district named for the narrow streets originally built in the 18th century.  The small shops are mostly quaint with a few edgy and trendy.  We grabbed sandwiches at a corner shop before we made our way to Perry’s only ‘must see’ in Brighton:  Choccywoccydoodah.  We ordered up hot chocolate so luxurious, I couldn’t believe we were in Britain.  Just be prepared for a wait, as it is not a well-kept secret.  It’s worth it.  Trust.

We walked off our decadence for the rest of the day, meandering, shopping and exploring. 

Homes near 'The Lanes' shopping district

Homes near 'The Lanes' shopping district

After a late night bite at Street Thai, we turned in, missing the Drag Queen show.

Our third and final destination was Portsmouth.  This journey proved to be even less scenic than the previous days as we cruised west across the A27 in an hour.

As a self-proclaimed ‘history person,' I was excited to see Portsmouth.  An island city, it has been a naval port for centuries and holds the world’s oldest dry dock, the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.  It houses the world famous warships HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and the Tudor-era Mary Rose.  

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and HMS Warrior (1860 warship)

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and HMS Warrior (1860 warship)

The Gunwharf Quays (pronounced ‘keys’) area is tourist destination, but I don’t say that in a negative way.  It is well laid out and not only contains the Dockyard, but a retail shopping outlet and the landmark Spinnaker Tower.  And an un-Britishlike selection of ample parking.*

Spinnaker Tower was our first stop.  Opened in 2005, it was built to honor Portsmouth’s maritime heritage, modeled after a sail.  On a clear day, there are stunning views of the City of Portsmouth, the English Channel and Isle of Wight.  It was slightly cloudy the day we visited, but fun to see the ferries come and go from the Isle of Wight.

Spinnaker Tower

Spinnaker Tower


View from Spinnaker Tower with Isle of Wight in the distance

View from Spinnaker Tower with Isle of Wight in the distance

After the tower, we headed to the dockyard and Victory.  As we waited in the queue, I was able to read up on her history.  The flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Victory is most famous for the Battle of Trafalgar, where Nelson was shot and killed.  Launched in 1765, Victory is the oldest warship in the world still in commission.  As I considered this, I looked up at her black and yellow paint job and display of spiffy flags.  It was easy to get caught up in the long and storied history of the British Navy and I felt a bit of pride for my newly adopted country.

HMS Victory (in dry dock)

HMS Victory (in dry dock)

The tour of Victory provided great insights into British patriotism. There is a plaque that captures Nelson’s famed proclamation at the Battle of Trafalgar ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.'  I was not aware of the phrase prior to my arrival and while I’m not a fan of propaganda, it struck me.  The poignancy of it being Nelson’s last order has embedded it in the English psyche ever since.  ‘England expects…’ was used prominently during WWII as well as being the slogan of the English national football team.  

HMS Victory

HMS Victory

We were kept fairly busy with displays of everyday life on a ship, reading accounts of historical battles and climbing up and down the decks.  But of all the sights, I lingered at the spot where Nelson died in 1805.  He is one of Britain’s most heroic figures and has several monuments, including one atop a column in Trafalgar Square and an ornate tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral.  In keeping with the British sense of humor, this war hero had an unceremonious ending being transported home in a barrel of brandy.  

Inside Victory

Inside Victory

While I enjoyed Victory, the Mary Rose was absolutely fascinating.  Commissioned during the reign of King Henry VIII, the Mary Rose was famous in her day and featured a well-trained crew, including skilled longbow archers.  It sank during a battle against the French near the Isle of Wight in 1545.  It was rediscovered in 1971 and raised in 1982, where it spent the next 30 years being restored and its artifacts catalogued.  

A beautiful museum has been specially built to house the fragile remains of the ship.  The artifacts are a veritable treasure chest of Tudor era life, including musical instruments that were previously thought to have disappeared from the earth forever.  It's spacious and doesn't feel crowded, but it is slightly darkened to protect the displays, which creates an atmosphere of mystery, similar to the British Library.   It also means that they do not photograph well and I have no good images to share.

The exhibits are very well done, drawing you in with a compelling story and materials presented in a thoughtful, sometimes macabre way.   I was a bit taken aback to see skeletons of the crew on display, but they did so so you could see how much damage their bodies endured as longbow archers.  Finger and shoulder bones were worn away so you could see exactly what being a bowman did to the body.  

Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth, UK

Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth, UK

Gunwharf Quays provided our dinner venue and a modern contrast to the days history.  We checked out the shops before setting our GPS to home in Peterborough. 

On the way home, I thought about these very different cities.  While they are all on the south coast, each had a unique charm all their own.  Dover provides a very outdoorsy experience with majestic views and plenty of sea air.  Brighton has a distinctly eclectic and resort-like feel with the sea serving only as a backdrop.  Portsmouth is the intersection of history and present day with its maritime museums and modern shopping.  

Next time you are in Britain, don't be mad, get out and see the South Coast. 

*The parking at Gunwharf Quays is the best I've ever encountered, even in the US.  Each parking stall has a sensor above it showing red or green, so that you can see empty parking spaces from the main aisle.

A Day in the Peak District

Peak District

Peak District

Sometimes, all you have is a day. 

The Peak District may seem like too much for one day, but it is possible.  You just need to make one magic moment to turn a day trip into a life-long memory. 

The Peak District is a famous area in the north of England.  Mainly in Derbyshire, it includes the southern part of the Pennines (range of mountains and hills), moorlands (grassy, uncultivated hills) and a national park.

As expats, we had been meaning to cruise this region for quite sometime, but as often is the case, for different reasons.  While he does enjoy rugged beauty, Perry really wanted to swing through Sheffield, an industrial city on the eastern edge of the Peak District.  He is drawn to the gritty side of life. 

I, on the other hand, wanted Jane Austen’s Peak District, with sweeping views and sweet-but-not-saccharin villages.  I am drawn to the romantic side of life. We decided we could do both and selected a Saturday in June.

From our home in Peterborough, we drove up the A1 and A57 towards Sheffield.  The route is pleasant but under-scenic, unless you have a thing for motorway service areas. 

Once in Sheffield, we drove around trying to get a feel for the city.  Despite its reputation, we found very little of the grittiness associated with the former steel producer.  It actually felt quite modern with a large university and cheerful student housing. 

City of Sheffield

City of Sheffield

The city centre was bustling with the usual selection of High Street shops.  Geographically, it sits on the edge of the Pennines and the Peak District.  As such, the city is built into hillsides, which gives it a rugged and athletic appeal.  Speaking of athletics, we made sure to swing by famed Hillsborough, the football ground for Sheffield Wednesday. 

 

Hillsborough Stadium, Home of Sheffield Wednesday

Hillsborough Stadium, Home of Sheffield Wednesday

Usually, when we explore a new city, we like to spend time in the city centre but as the rain began to pour, our plans changed.  We carried on to our official Peak District starting point:  Holmfirth.

Holmfirth is technically in the West Riding of Yorkshire but it also sits on the very northwest edge of the Peak District.  It is famous for the world’s long-running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine, which was filmed in Holmfirth.

We arrived in Holmfirth around noon and parked in the Co-operative car park for a ridiculously cheap 80 pence.  Walking across the bridge to the town centre, we were feeling a bit peckish, so hurried over to Sid’s Café (also of Last of the Summer Wine fame).   We were not the only ones with this idea as it was very crowded. 

Plan B didn’t end up feeling ‘second choice’ as we headed across the street to the Old Bridge Hotel.  The Old Bridge has been lovingly restored such that it offers modern shine and old-world charm in equal measure.  Despite the fact that it was June, the weather was damp and cold, but the fire and friendly greeting from our waitress served as a warm contrast.

 

Dining Room of the Old Bridge Inn

Dining Room of the Old Bridge Inn

We had a very hearty meal with huge, American-sized portions that would be the perfect fill up before an afternoon of hiking.  I had the Yorkshire Pudding hot beef sandwich and a pot of steaming English Breakfast tea.  The table next to us tackled the famously huge ‘Pie on a Plate’, the size of which I have not seen anywhere in my travels across the UK!

After lunch, we were ready to tackle the Peak District.  We headed out of town on the A6024 with bunting along the road bidding us farewell.  The décor was in honor of the Tour de France, which was set to roll through the Peak District the following weekend.  Yes, part of the Tour de France happens outside of France.  Discuss amongst yourselves!

We didn’t drive very far before the views started to pay off.   The fog lightly touched down on the hills and moors, creating an atmosphere perfect for evoking the brooding vibe of Austen and Bronte. 

 

Fog touches down on the Peak District

Fog touches down on the Peak District

The winding road was rewarding with sheep dotted hills and lonely vistas.  Cyclists were out in full force and we slowed accordingly, but with these views, why hurry?

 

Peak District near Holmfirth

Peak District near Holmfirth

We took a right on the A628 past the Woodside and Torside Reservoirs towards Glossop, which provided patchwork quilt-type views dotted with sheep.

 

 

Glossop is a historic market town, but as we had a lot of ground to cover, we did not stop.  Instead, we headed west on the A57, otherwise known as Snake Pass, which connects Glossop and Ladybower Reservoir. 

Snake Pass provided an exceptional driving experience and deserves its reputation as one of the best driving roads in the UK.  The superb views and exceptional scenery were the best of the day. 

 

Snake Pass

Snake Pass

 

Along the route, we came upon a lay-by/car-park for Blackden Brook, which has a great walking path that is relatively short (five miles), yet very challenging.  If you enjoy such challenges, the scenic payoff is worthwhile with the Ashop River, lovely stone walls and three impressive waterfalls to reward your effort. 

 

Blackden Brook hiking trail

Blackden Brook hiking trail

The goats and sheep in the fields were curious but gentle, and served as entertainment as we walked among them.  We did not complete the entire five miles due to wet conditions but did enough to make a little travel magic- we found ourselves in the middle of unspoiled scenery- no people, cars or  buildings.  We also worked off our lunch.

 

I think that's a goat, but I could be wrong!

I think that's a goat, but I could be wrong!

Invigorated, we continued east towards Ladybower Reservoir, south on A6013 through Bamford, and then east on A6187 towards Hathersage.  The landscape did not disappoint- undulating hills and Derbyshire moors for mile after mile. 

Hathersage is the real-life setting for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the perfect stop for coffee and a sweet treat at Coleman’s Deli.  Beyond coffee, if you are in need of lunch, this is the place.  Everything looked delicious and they were quite busy, which is always a good sign.  We walked around a bit and admired the shops. 

About two miles outside the village is Stanage Edge, which is popular with both hikers and rock climbers.  It’s become even more famous because of a scene in Pride & Prejudice where Keira Knightley's Lizzie Bennet stands on a windswept cliff looking mournful.  Here's a picture, courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

After the physical exertion from Blackden Brook and lots of miles yet to cover, we didn’t walk Stanage Edge, which I now regret.  Make the time for this stop, as I’m certain it will deliver. 

As we headed south to Chatsworth from Hathersage, the landscape gradually softened from rugged hills to the bucolic fields for which England is known and loved. 

Traveling on the B6001 and A623 past Baslow, we encountered a couple of tricky turns, but it’s such a tourist draw that we simply followed the cars to Chatsworth House, home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. 

 

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House

As it was after 4 pm, we did not tour the house and instead walked the grounds, which, barring a modest parking fee, are free to roam. 

Chatsworth House completed our Austen-filled day as it played a major role in the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.  The grounds surrounding the house provide a civilized backdrop to contrast with the rugged Peak District.  Handsome architecture and landscaping contributed to the film-like experience.

As we hopped on the A619 towards Bakewell, we drove past an attraction that I had not heard of, but quickly realized I wanted to see it.  Haddon Hall is a former medieval manor home with additions dating from the Tudor era and has been featured in such films as The Princess Bride, Elizabeth, Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre.  The proverbial Bronte/Austen jackpot!

As it was after 5 pm, we were not able to stop in, however, after asking around, have come to the conclusion that this spot offers a more intimate experience in contrast to Chatsworth’s formal demeanor.

We continued into Bakewell, home of the famed pudding.  I must admit, I confused Bakewell pudding with Bakewell tart but I was soon sorted out. 

Bakewell pudding is a pastry layered with jam and topped with an egg and almond paste custard-like filling.  Bakewell tart is a shortcrust pastry topped with jam and filled with frangipane (ground almonds).  A Cherry Bakewell adds a top layer of almond fondant and a glace cherry.  While Bakewell pudding originated in the market town of Bakewell, the origins of the tart are less certain, but rest assured, it’s not Mr. Kipling. 

 

Famed pudding, Bakewell Tart

Famed pudding, Bakewell Tart

While there are several shops claiming to be the ‘original’, we popped into the shop on the main road.

 

Village of Bakewell

Village of Bakewell

Perry could not wait and consumed his pudding while walking the promenade along the River Wye.  I waited until we got home, but both of us agreed- they were delicious!

As our day of adventure drew to a close, we drove out of the Peak District along the A6 through Matlock and then onto Derby before heading east towards Peterborough.

Overall, we were very pleased with our day’s journey, the territory covered and sights seen.  In retrospect, I would suggest making the trip in reverse.

• Start in Bakewell and pick up a famous pudding.  Hint:  don’t call it a tart and you will score points with the locals.

• Tour Chatsworth House or Haddon Hall, depending on your preference.

• Head to Hathersage and lunch at Coleman’s Deli.

• Grab a coffee ‘to-go’ and walk Stanage Edge.

• Drive on to Glossop over Snake Pass, soaking in the views.

• From Glossop, travel northeast over the peaks to Holmfirth.

• Have dinner and spend the night at the Old Bridge Hotel in Holmfirth.

Make some magic!  xx