At the bottom of the cliffs, beneath imposing villas gazing out to sea – and a wall dating back to the threat of Napoleonic invasion – is a sign. The Coastguard is, we’re told, the closest watering hole to France. But can we really be just a few miles from the port of Dover?
Climbing out of the car, we race onto the pebbly beach and stand, watching cross-channel ferries move slowly across the horizon. The UK’s most south-easterly point – just 18 miles from Calais, meaning mobile phones even bleep with a French signal – this is also where channel swimmers begin their heroic attempts.
If the name St Margaret’s is unfamiliar, you may be surprised at its history. From late Victorian times, this ancient inland village-plus-bay, a few miles from Deal, developed into a holiday resort for the well-heeled. Its vulnerable location meant that the Second World War saw mass evacuation, heavy bombardment from above, and the area occupied by troops.
We stroll in bright sun along the promenade to the far eastern end of the bay, where four houses perch over the shingle. In 1945 playwright Noel Coward bought the furthest, and set about repairing and modernising it. Seagulls would climb through the windows, and “the waves either lapped against, or lashed the end wall of his bedroom” (Cole Lesley, Life of Noel Coward).
Coward lived there for seven years, buying up the other three houses for his “privacy”; this was, in fact, strictly against the law due to the post-war housing shortage, so he registered them in other family members’ names. And it became a haven for famous guests like Daphne du Maurier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who would swim daily in the freezing sea.
Another famous guest was James Bond creator Ian Fleming, who Coward would race from London to meet at the Swingate Arms (still there on the Deal Road). But by 1951 Coward had tired of the gawping day-trippers (claiming the beach “crowded with noisy hoi polloi”) and sold the house to Fleming and his wife, who remained until 1957.
And, if you’re a Bond fan, this really is 007 country: it was between the cliffs of St Margaret’s and Kingsdown, for example, that Fleming sited the missile in Moonraker, while the Royal St George’s course in nearby Sandwich is the setting for the golf scene in Goldfinger.
Back up in St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, a mile or so from the bay, head to the Red Lion for some Bond memorabilia. After playing that infamous round of golf, OO7 stopped there on his way to Lydd airfield, where he flew to Switzerland in search of Auric Goldfinger. Well, that’s what the pub reckons anyway, so why not? And it’s commemorated by a witty plaque, above.
This article was updated in May 2016