"Dear little Bognor" is how Queen Victoria referred to this Sussex seaside town, which later awarded itself the suffix Regis ("of the King") after George V convalesced there in 1928. But he mustn't have enjoyed his stay very much. In 1935, he lay dying and his physician, trying to cheer the monarch, was heard to suggest, "Your Majesty will soon be well enough to visit Bognor." The King's reply, his last words, "Bugger Bognor!"
Arriving at the coast near Dover, battling blustery winds under a threatening sky and looking to photograph the famous white cliffs, I follow a sign to Samphire Hoe, a waterfront promontory offering a good vantage point. And so it does: But the towering chalk cliffs are more piebald than white, and I'm disappointed to discover that this particular hoe is merely a pile of excavations from the nearby Channel Tunnel!
I ramble along the narrow, bumpy, cliff-top Old Dover Road toward Folkestone, find the A259, the main south coast road, and soon I'm rolling across scrub-grass marshland along massive earthen dikes. Planted behind the sea wall is a squat brick cylinder the size of an apartment building. One of 103 Napoleonic-era Martello towers built between 1905 and 1812, it was intended to repulse Le Petit General's forces.
In New Romney, I detour just in time to watch the 12:35 to Hythe pulling out of the station. The narrow gauge Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is a national treasure and its "blood and custard" painted, minivan-size carriages are still hauled by steam. The scaled down (but perfectly detailed) locomotive "Typhoon" is a sensual treat of coal-scented steam, gleaming green paint and whooshing exhalations.
I turn off the A259 toward tiny, time-warped Lydd, a rustic village straight out of an Agatha Christie movie set. From here, I follow signs for Camber across the wind-blasted marshland. The sky is still threatening, and I feel a few rain spots. The road meanders inland following a tall barbed-wire fence: this is military land, guarding the distant, squat domes of the Dungeness nuclear power station.
All mock-Tudor frontage and antique stores, enchanting Rye sits at the mouth of a narrow, yacht-lined harbour. For centuries, a select group of Kent and Sussex coastal towns, including Rye, were granted special freedoms in return for maintaining a maritime force that the crown could call on in wartime. Human nature being what it is, these privileges were abused, and the "Cinque Ports" as they were known gained notoriety as smuggling portals.
I'm charmed by Hastings. Once a faded, somnolent seaside resort, Hastings has rediscovered its maritime history. The beachfront displays traditional fishing boats, spindly wooden net huts and trendy stores. Even the refurbished pier will reopen soon. Famished, I spy Oastler's Pie and Mash restaurant. The meat pie and creamy, buttery potatoes, both floating in trademark green "liquor," (a savoury sauce seasoned with parsley), are delicious.
On through Bexhill, one of my favourite resorts (mostly for its dreamy, high-art deco De La Warr Pavilion) to Eastbourne, I park on the seafront, where the median is an extravaganza of spring bulbs, and explore the pier. I've left the clouds to the north and late afternoon sun burnishes the shingle beach a light gold. Now almost 140 years old, the pier retains much of its Victorian charm, and the lowering sun casts strong shadows across the promenade as mini-tornados whip up the paper trash.
West of Eastbourne is Beachy Head, a vast chalk cliff. In the opening scene of the movie Quadrophenia, Jimmy symbolically rides his stolen Vespa off Beachy Head into oblivion. This is also Britain's number one suicide spot, and the howling wind makes me wonder how many of them were intentional! The gale overturns my camera bag, sending lenses and filters rolling in the grass. The minor roads to the cliff are delightful, whipping over and around the dunes.