On a hazy summer morning, Dover harbour appears to be in a state of perpetual motion. Beneath the white cliffs, cross-Channel ferries glide in and out while, closer to shore, a fleet of dinghies skims across the water. A group of swimmers make their way along the shingle beach, watched over by a sculpture of two bathers ploughing through the waves – a reminder that this has been the starting point for countless attempts to swim the Channel. Beneath my feet, inlaid into the paving stones of the esplanade, a granite strip marks the start/finish line for the North Downs Way long-distance walking trail.
Dover has always been a place of arrival and departure. As Britain’s busiest passenger port, it’s used by some 13 million cruise and ferry passengers each year, but few stick around. “It’s the sort of place people tend to want to get out of quickly, which is a shame because there is so much to discover,” says Joanna Jones, co-director of Dover Arts Development, the organisation behind a new architecture trail aimed at encouraging people to see the area in a new light.
Chalkup21 is a 17-mile walking trail that hugs the coast between Folkestone and Deal, linking nine buildings and public artworks, all built in the past 17 years. “Much is made of Dover’s military heritage, but we have all this award-winning contemporary architecture and we wanted to celebrate that,” says Jones.
Among the highlights are the Battle of Britain Memorial building at Capel le Ferne, designed in the shape of a Spitfire wing; the timber-and-glass cafe at the end of Deal Pier; and the artfully reimagined Dover Esplanade, which was given a new lease of life in 2010 by design studio Tonkin Liu.
The trail officially launches later this month and walking the whole thing will usually take two days. Joanna has invited me to join her on a preview of the eastern half of the trail, from Dover to Deal, a distance of just under 10 miles. We’re joined by architect Charles Holland, who is designing trail markers for each of the architectural sites, and artists Greig Burgoyne, Frazer Doyle, Louisa Love and Marcia Teusink, who will be devising a series of art workshops and walking events to enhance the trail.
Starting on Dover Esplanade, we begin the steep climb behind Dover’s Eastern Docks, with Joanna pointing out the site at the bottom of the cliff path that will be home to a new public artwork: Gateway to the White Cliffs, by Elaine Tribley. Installation of the sculpture on 23 August will mark the official launch of the Chalkup21 walking trail.
As we emerge on to the cliff top it’s just possible to make out the gauzy outline of France on the horizon. The clanking and grinding of the port far below drifts up on the breeze. “Dover has this amazing history, but it’s still incredibly relevant,” says Joanna. “We’re very much on the frontline of Europe. It’s no coincidence that this is where Banksy chose to do his Brexit mural. That’s what I like about this trail – it’s looking forward, rather than nostalgically looking back.”
Assuming it sticks around, the Banksy mural (which appeared on the side of an amusement arcade in May and depicts a workman on a ladder chipping away one of the golden stars of the EU flag), will be one of dozens of “trail tips” – insider recommendations for places to visit, eat and stay – that will appear on the Chalkup21 website when it launches at the end of the year.
It would have been easy to miss the next stop on the trail – the National Trust visitor centre at Langdon Cliffs, a low-slung, grass-roofed building set back from the path. The cafe veranda has to be one of the most scenic coffee stops on the south coast, with its far-reaching sea views, but we continue across the rolling chalk escarpment, stopping briefly to take in the recently excavated first world war “sound mirrors” (an early precursor to radar to detect enemy aircraft) at Fan Bay.
After this, the path starts to descend towards St Margaret’s Bay, a wealthy settlement of seaside villas that counts Lord Byron, Ian Fleming and Noël Coward among its former residents.
The village is also home to the Pines Calyx, a pioneering eco-building that makes innovative use of recycled and green materials: the flooring is made of upcycled fishing nets and it has curvy rammed-chalk walls and a domed grass roof. If a committee of hobbits were to design a conference centre, it would look something like this. The building itself is not open to the public, but the peaceful sculpture garden and Pines Garden Tea Room are.
After a lunch of quiche and cake at the tearoom, we pick up the trail again, climbing up to the village of St Margaret’s at Cliffe. Its Ness Point House is a private home and not officially on the trail, but architecture buffs will no doubt relish the chance to have a close look at the curvaceous, white, wave-shaped dwelling designed by the Tonkin Liu partnership, which won this year’s Riba regional award.
The final stretch skirts the pebble beach at Kingsdown (where the beach-front Zetland Arms is a perfectly sited pit stop), and finishes in the genteel seaside town of Deal, home to Chalkup21’s final point of interest – Jasin’s Restaurant at the end of the pier. Designed by the Níall McLaughlin, architecture practice, this pared-back cafe has been designed to make the most of the panorama of sky and sea. It’s a suitably dramatic end to a trail which, whether or not you’re interested in architecture, is a glorious excuse for a walk.