I raced the train to the station at Dymchurch, the parish of the fictitious Doctor Syn and his band of smugglers, and was in time to see it pull in at the platform.
My home for the next five days was a Sterling Eccles Sport 544 caravan and I had lured my non-caravanning friend Mary-Anne along with the promise of visiting glorious gardens, fascinating forts and a delightful tearoom or two. Deal is a limb of the Cinque Port of Sandwich and has two castles – Deal and Walmer – to protect it from seaborne aggressors. Deal still has a fishing industry and its beach was busy with boats being maintained when we visited.
Two castles are quite enough for one day, so we headed back to the van to put our feet up for an hour before popping into Folkestone for dinner at the Grand, which wasn’t quite as grand as it sounds. The ancient town of Sandwich was one of Kent’s most important ports before the River Stour clogged with silt – and was one of the original Cinque Ports. Richborough, two miles north of Sandwich, is close to where the Romans first landed on our fair isle and here they built a mighty fort. The site of the fort is enormous and studded with vast stone walls and deep gullies, where an amphitheatre once stood.
The town is said to be one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Britain and it certainly has its fair share of timber-framed buildings and ancient walls. Just around the corner from the pub is the intriguingly named Secret Gardens of Sandwich, which was a must for two keen gardeners. The 1000-year-old building stands high over a network of narrow streets and is very handsome, but probably the most interesting thing about it is its ossuary. Shrubbery and then the seawall obscure much of the seaward view along the road as you come into Dymchurch, and on the land side there are plenty of static caravan parks.
It’s a miracle there is a garden at all in this very bleak place littered with shipping crates, but I rather liked it. We had notched up four ports and three forts, but we had still to visit the big daddy of them all – Dover Castle. Inside the great tower, holograms of servants going about their business bring the castle to life. The castle was used as a garrison during World War II and has opened up its secret wartime tunnels and underground hospital. The oldest part of the castle is the Roman lighthouse and right up against that is an Anglo-Saxon church.
On the way back to Little Satmar we stopped by the National Memorial to the Few at Capel-le-Ferne. Images of Romney Marsh as a dank, dark and scary place filled my head, while I listened to the gripping story – Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, by Russell Thorndike. The driver looked huge as he crouched in the seat behind the miniature engine, and the guard towered over the carriages as he waited for its passengers to disembark so he could wave the train on its way.
I was here to explore some of the old towns in the ancient Cinque Ports confederation. If you're looking for a reason to head to the Garden of England, something around which to plan a camping, caravanning or motorhome holiday, I think it's a pretty good one. My chosen campsite, Little Satmar, was in its final week of the season and I had the pick of the pitches, which meant I could just drive onto the grass and stop near a hook-up without having to reverse – ideal. We walked past the Time Ball Tower – a fascinating piece of engineering that can be seen by ships at sea. Although it must have been tricky placing furniture within all those curved walls, Walmer Castle looked very much the home.


It is about 20 miles from Little Satmar, so fuelled with a rather fine caravan brekky of poached eggs on toast, we headed east across the beautiful Kent countryside. The fort played an important role during the entire Roman occupation of Britain and there are signs around the site telling the story and explaining the function of the different areas.
We parked behind the Guildhall, which contains a small museum that tells, among other things, of the town’s importance in developing medicines.
We explored narrow alleys, found the town jail, then popped into the ancient church of St Mary’s that was eerily empty of pews.
The gardens surround a beautiful Edwin Lutyens building called The Salutation, which has guest accommodation starting at ?160 per night.
We left our campsite and headed west from Folkestone along the A259 coast road, passing through Sandgate and into Hythe. We stopped by Aunty Wainwright’s antiques to see if there was a bargain to be had, but found ourselves drawn by the lurid pink of the cafe next door, so we stopped for a coffee and muffin to prime ourselves for the climb up to St Leonard’s Church. We were spared the grisly sight of hundreds of human skulls by arriving three minutes after it had closed for the season.
We returned to New Romney, which also suffered badly during the great silting, so much so that the town is now a mile from the sea and the River Rother changed its course to exit at Rye further along the coast. The vast, grey, granite castle has stood high above the very busy port since the 12th century, protecting the shortest crossing between Britain and France.
Mary-Anne and I disagreed over this, she thought it Disneyesque and cheap, and I thought that kids would get a lot more out of this ‘visual history’. Queues for both exhibits were long, but I waited in the shorter line for the hospital and I was glad I did. But when I drove across it the sight of a distant tiny steam train chugging its way across the landscape painted a more pastoral picture. The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway is the world’s smallest public railway and its one-third size engine and carriages run for 13.5 miles between Hythe and Dungeness and its National Nature Reserve along 15in gauge track. Along the Kent coast there are castles to explore and ancient towns to visit – and at Capel le Ferne I had found a campsite that was just about at the heart of my chosen area. The position of the ball helps them monitor the accuracy of their chronometers, which they need for calculating their accurate position at sea – a sign explains it all.
A sign in Middle Street revealed some of the town’s more dubious history, describing it as “An impious and remorseless town. You can see the Queen Mum’s bedroom and the room in which the Duke of Wellington died: he was a Lord Warden for 23 years. The first Earl, Edward Montagu, was considering the title Earl of Portsmouth before he settled on Sandwich. You can get an audio guide here, too: great if it’s a sunny day and you have all the time in the world. The Guildhall was also the court and has an interesting list of punishments that were handed out during the 15th and 16th centuries.
A bit rich for us and anyway, we had our caravan, but at least we were able to enjoy the beautiful grounds for a modest fee.
Silting from the great storms of the late 13th century meant Hythe had lost its status as an important port long ago, but it and Romney Marsh were still vulnerable to attack. We cleansed the bones from our thoughts by popping into Posh Potions (for body and home), before returning to the car and rejoining the coast road.


We passed through the flat landscape of Littlestone-on-Sea and New Romney, as we wanted a quick look at Dungeness and the garden of Derek Jarman. The streets between the buildings became so silted that steps had to be created to get down to the doors, and some windows are very low, almost at street level.
It’s so large and in some places very steep that there’s no disgrace in taking the land train that winds its way around the grounds to the various highlights. The wards and operating theatre were poorly lit and you could only wonder at how the medical teams worked under such conditions.
Walk around the grassy mound and you see a statue of an airman sitting, staring out to sea as though waiting for the aircraft to return. It's a great destination if you're having a caravan, camping or motorhome holiday in Kent – a super day out for all the family.
Then all we had to do was find provisions – and for that we headed into Folkestone and a large supermarket. We had taken our photo at three minutes to the hour when the ball is at the top of the mast.
It was the fourth Earl of Sandwich who called for a piece of meat between two slices of bread to keep his fingers grease free and thus invented the ultimate convenience food. The place was awesome, but it was windy when we visited and after an hour or so we’d had enough. Sandwich must have been a marvellous place to live even then because banishment was often used as a deterrent. Hunger hit as we wandered towards the Sandwich toll bridge and with a little more strolling along Fisher Street we came across the George and Dragon, which claims to have been serving ale and food since 1446.
When Napoleon Bonaparte started casting his acquisitive eye in the direction of England, plans were put in place to build a grand canal to impede his advance. It is incredibly moving and seemed a fitting end to a visit that had been all about the protection of our shores. The castles are low to make them difficult targets for the cannon of attacking ships, plus their walls are curved so that when ammunition did find its mark it was deflected. Once through the huge, metal-studded wooden door we discovered the fort is pretty much devoid of furnishings. Just as at Deal Castle, cannon are still aimed seaward, but Walmer's exterior is softened by beautiful gardens laid out in the moat.
In 1471, a thief was banished for life, and if he dared return his ear would be nailed to a cartwheel with a fourpenny nail! The Royal Military Canal was built but the attack never came –  the canal is now a pleasant waterway to wander and picnic by. Stone and mortar alone tend not to hold your interest for long so we opted for the free audio tour, which brought to life the story of the castle as a defence garrison as it guided us through the officers’ rooms and kitchens, and down spiral staircases into the tunnels below.
There’s a restaurant and a shop within the castle walls and an adjacent car park, as well as one across the road on the beach.



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