Much pleasure in life can be derived from the simple act of discovery: finding a good band, an exciting restaurant or a secluded park. Frequent travelers live to unearth those gems. Sometimes, though, travel is as much about shared experiences as it is about striking out on one’s own.
To wit: When in Southeast England, depriving yourself of a chance to see the famous White Cliffs of Dover would be a big mistake. And so the towering chalk cliffs, a marvel of the country’s natural landscape (and a stark reminder that it is, after all, an island) were on my agenda when I embarked on a brief driving tour of the coast. I was able to thoroughly enjoy the region’s rolling, campestral beauty in a three-town tour. Better still, I did so while leaving the modest stack of pounds sterling in my pocket intact.
Mostly intact, I should say. While I was able to keep lodging costs down by staying in cheap hotels and Airbnbs, I miscalculated on what ended up being the most expensive aspect of the entire trip: the rental car.
I marched into Hertz outside Heathrow Airport in London, reservation in hand for a rental costing 33 pounds per day (about $43) with unlimited miles. “You are aware this is a manual transmission, correct?” the woman at the counter asked me. I could barely contain my hubris. “Of course,” I replied, and signed the rental agreement. I had, after all, recently been motoring up and down the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula in a manual transmission car with no problems.
But I couldn’t get the hang of it. The car I was driving in Portugal — a friend’s well-worn but trusty Skoda — had a forgiving clutch. The new, shiny SUV that I was given at Heathrow (a common “free” upgrade from a standard car that’s sometimes not worth it, especially if you’re looking to save money on gas) had a clutch that I couldn’t get comfortable with. Within a mile or two, a faint burning smell had me heading back, alarmed, to the airport.
Ten minutes later the manager met me at the desk. “Well, I just drove the car around and it’s perfectly fine,” she said. She eyed me carefully. “Are you sure … you wouldn’t feel more comfortable with an automatic?” I protested briefly but caved, humbly taking the automatic — which cost an additional 30 pounds per day, nearly doubling what I’d expected to pay.
After that one hiccup, things went smoothly on my two-hour drive down to Eastbourne, a seaside town roughly 20 miles east of Brighton, its more popular resort cousin. But Eastbourne’s Grand Parade, the main avenue along the coast, can stand toe to toe with any splendorous thoroughfare. Handsome 19th-century buildings watch over the English Channel, a wide pebble beach and Eastbourne Pier, a lovely Victorian relic. Better still, going during shoulder season (I went in April) allowed me to score a cheap room at the Cavendish Hotel, its imposing white facade taking up the length of an entire block.
The room was worn but acceptable — decidedly less grand than its outside indicated — but at only 44 pounds I wasn’t going to complain. I used the RingGo mobile app when paid street parking was necessary. It’s cashless and fairly convenient; for a 40-pence charge, you can add additional parking time from any location via the app.
I headed out for a morning walk near the beach, the air brisk from the wind blowing off the English Channel. I walked the length of Eastbourne Pier and headed into town for a quick lunch at Gashi Fish & Chips. The food was hot and fresh, and the price was right, only 3.95 pounds to go (1 pound more to stay) for a piece of flaky cod and steaming french fries.
ACROSS the street, I exchanged dollars for pounds at a pawnshop called Cashbrokers. The dollar sign that replaced the first “S” in the sign nearly kept me away, but the promise of a commission-free exchange made me try my luck. It ended up being a good experience, and I received a better rate than expected. Better still, I consulted a woman behind the counter about things to do in town.
“Well, there’s some nice walks up Beachy Head,” she said with a raspy chuckle. “But that’s if you like walking.” Luckily, I do.
I made the brief drive from Eastbourne to see the famous lighthouse and headland, which has its own vertiginously high chalk sea cliff, the tallest in England. I parked along Beachy Head Road near a worn wooden sign that said “cliff edge” and showed a cartoon man falling off a ledge. I plodded through the grass and wildflowers, smelling the sea air and taking in the bright, clear day; the weather throughout my visit was wonderful.
Despite the signage, the cliff nearly sneaked up on me. One minute I was enjoying the bucolic scenery; the next, I was faced with a sheer wall of off-white plunging hundreds of feet to the rocks and sea. It felt awe-inspiring and a little dangerous (just ask the guy on that sign). Standing in the distance on the beach, like a barbershop pole, was the red-and-white lighthouse. I had this impressive scene nearly all to myself: green grass giving way to a rampart of white chalk, and the sea swallowing the entire tableau.
The scenery on the drive to my next destination, the ancient town of Rye, was nearly as enjoyable. Fields of green, cattle grazing and sheep lazily milling about, and vast, shockingly bright swaths of yellow rapeseed flowers marked the countryside. I approached the tiny town, historically the first layer of defense against many a European intruder, from the south on New Winchelsea Road, passing Camber Castle. (The fort, built by Henry VIII, gives infrequent tours, about one a month.)
Carefully maneuvering my car along the narrowing streets, I arrived at my $65 Airbnb at the bottom of Mermaid Street and lucked into a free spot in the nearby lot. A relaxed walk up Mermaid to West Street, and I was quickly in the England of my dreams: tiny houses crumbling under the weight of their own history; tile roofs and cobblestone streets; lanterns hanging off ivy-covered walls. I passed under a large gate built in the 1300s by Edward III and quickly covered most of the town; it’s small and extremely manageable by foot.
After a quick dinner at Webbe’s at the Fish Cafe, an elegant but approachable spot in an old teddy bear factory (I had a garlicky pan-fried gurnard fillet for 13 pounds), I walked over to Cafe Zara for a coffee and a sweet, nutty piece of baklava (4.50 pounds). While I was slightly disappointed in the lack of accessibility to some local businesses (a bookstore was unexpectedly closed; a place for afternoon tea I found online seemed to have disappeared entirely), finding good food was never a problem. The Standard Inn, a small hotel and pub established in the 1400s, for example, serves a mean pot of buttery, smoked local mackerel (5.95 pounds).
I spent part of a morning in the Church of St. Mary, the nave of which dates back to 1180. I paid the 3.50-pound fee to climb the bell tower, which provides excellent sweeping views of Rye and its countryside. (The climb is not for the claustrophobic.) There’s also a considerable amount of antiquing to be done, if you’re so inclined: I scored a beautiful old French coffee pot at Crock & Cosy for 30 pounds, talking the shopkeeper into giving me a 5-pound discount, and got lost in Quay Antiques and Collectables among a seemingly bottomless pile of bric-a-brac: toy soldiers, war memorabilia, lamps, teaspoons and backgammon boards.
SEEMINGLY as soon as I had arrived, it was off to see Dover’s famous cliffs, a quick and pleasant hourlong drive from Rye. The calcium carbonate cliffs, which are centered on the town of Dover itself but stretch for about 8 miles along the coastline, are instantly recognizable to Britons and deeply meaningful to many. A mere 21 miles from France, they played a significant role in both world wars and, in some ways, are literally the face of the nation.
From the village of St. Margaret’s at Cliffe, where I’d found a cozy Airbnb just a few miles outside Dover proper, I set out on a walk down to the sea. Descending a tricky-to-find set of stairs, I soon found myself on the beach at St. Margaret’s Bay, gazing up at the milky-white, ancient cliffs that took eons to form. Completely alone, I walked northeast up the beach as the sun was setting, across what truly struck me as an alien landscape.
Stones of pure white and others of onyx black littered the shore. Slick moss and mud plus a light rain made the footing tricky, but I pressed on until I’d reached a slightly elevated vantage point and could take in the breathtaking panorama: the lush greenness of this “sceptered isle,” as Shakespeare once wrote, broken by alabaster bluffs against a blue backdrop of sea and sky. It was truly everything I wanted in a trip to England.