Why we went
Superfine white sands, shallow seas perfect for paddling, and literally miles of near-empty beach stretching as far as the eye can see. Are you tempted? Need I mention this is little more than an hour’s drive from London?
Greatstone Beach at New Romney likes to describe itself as Kent’s best-kept secret, and after a week on a family holiday with our two little girls I am 100 per cent converted to its charms.
We wanted a proper beach holiday and this was as authentic as it gets - the back garden at our accomodation, Dunes View, was built into the sand dunes and those incredible tropical paradise style sands were within Frisbee-throwing distance of our back door.
This corner of Kent may only be 70 miles from central London but it’s like a foreign land once you leave the motorways behind. It’s flat - eerily flat - and has a shifting coastline which means baffled drivers will motor through one-time port towns that are nowhere near the sea anymore.
Greatstone On Sea (mercifully still coastal) lies a couple of miles north from weird, wonderful - and well-known - Dungeness, home to two lighthouses, a miniature railway, a fishing fleet...and an enormous nuclear power station, sitting incongruously on one of the largest expanses of shingle in the world.
It may seem like a stony desert but the shingle is home to 600 species of plants, a third of those found in the UK. Just to the north lies Romney Marsh, home to one of Britain’s ancient breeds of sheep. We drove through in awe as we passed field after field of crisp white newly shorn sheep - hardy animals well-suited to the marshy conditions. Wool smuggling was big business in the early 18th century and the sheep are still highly prized; they were even evacuated ahead of women and children in the Second World War.
Dunes View delighted our four-year-old, Catherine, with its upside down arrangement. Four decent sized bedrooms, two bathrooms and a utility room are all on the ground floor. “Where’s the kitchen Mummy?” she asked, confused. Upstairs was a real treat for grown ups too - a recently renovated open plan living space with plenty of kitchen space, a driftwood-inspired dining table, two generous sofas, giant beanbags and even two deckchairs. It’s a big room, framed at one end with sliding patio doors out onto a balcony and what has to be the best view I’ve ever had.
The tide comes right in almost to the edge of the dunes, but low tide goes way out because the sand is so flat - we needed the telescope in the living room to see who was paddling off in the distance.
The balcony was a fabulous space to hang out with its comfy outdoor seating, perfect for early morning cups of tea or evening glasses of rose.
What we did
Holidaying at Greatstone On Sea - especially at Dunes View - meant that naturally we hit the beach, big time. We were fortunate to have wonderfully sunny weather all week and two-year-old Hannah was just as keen to change straight out of her pyjamas and into her swimming costume as we were.
It was a real luxury to be able to walk straight onto the sands without the logistical headache of loading up the car with buckets, spades, picnic, towels - all the paraphernalia associated with children and the seaside. The dunes themselves were filled with beautiful wildflowers and our girls were enchanted with the magical feeling of having your own private beach.
When we could tear ourselves away from the fantastic sandcastle-building, there were plenty of sights to see and do nearby. The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway provided an excellent day out - just over 13 miles of track served by wonderful steam and diesel engines, built to be one-third full size. It is genuinely child-sized and as we puffed along the tracks to Dungeness it felt like a real adventure, capturing the magic of steam locomotives.
We crunched noisily across the shingle at Dungeness and made our way to the Old Lighthouse. It’s almost 46-metres to the top of the weathervane and our girls raced up the spiral staircase with limitless energy. I was having heart palpitations from anxiety (I’m not great with heights) but managed to stagger outside at the top and marvel at the panoramic views.
On an altogether more sedate trip we pottered up the coast to Hythe, one of the ancient Cinque Ports - the five coastal towns of Sandwich, Dover, New Romney, Hastings and Hythe which were united in the 11th Century as the first line of defence against invasion from across the Channel.
Nowadays, it’s a beautiful market town with a picturesque canal walk, quaint backstreets and a lovely town centre with independent shops and cafes. We enjoyed afternoon cakes and ice creams at the quirky Doll’s House Cafe on the High Street.
What we ate
Romney Marsh sheep are as famous for their meat as well as their wool, and we made the most of local butchers in Lydd, Romney and Hythe for some tasty lamb cooked on the gas barbecue back at Dunes View. It was up on the balcony, which meant my husband Matt could don his chef’s apron whilst gazing out along the shoreline as the sun went down.
There are plenty of pubs dotted throughout the marsh serving local ales and home-cooked meals. We ate at the Bell in Ivychurch and also the Star Inn at St Mary in the Marsh, which is more than 500 years old. Many of the pretty little villages on Romney Marsh also have medieval churches dating back much further. St George’s Church in Ivychurch is filled with antique farm implements and interesting photos of rural lives gone by, whilst St Clement’s in Old Romney is filled with pastel pink pews, repainted by Disney for a film in the sixties. Both churches had a kettle, mugs, biscuits, tea and coffee for visitors popping by, a really welcoming touch, especially for thirsty cyclists making the most of the quiet country lanes and blissfully flat terrain.
For local, fresh fish we headed to The Dungeness Fish Hut Snack Shack, a brilliant venue right on the beach serving sustainably caught fish and seafood landed by two small fishing boats owned by this family business. Menus vary depending on what’s been caught that day but the snack shack always serves fish baps and homemade fishcakes, alongside things like lobster or crab rolls, skate cheeks, dab, brill or plaice.
Greatstone Beach is peaceful and tranquil and vast - and perfect for spending all day by the sea. We were impressed with our holiday home’s well-stocked garden shed filled with beach chairs, buckets, spades, windbreak and toys, all appreciated by families on a beach break.
Dunes View has been stylishly renovated and its open plan living space is flooded with light - from sunrise to sunset with windows facing east and west. It’s the closest I’ve been to staying right on the beach without actually pitching a tent in the dunes. The secluded garden also boasts a private hot tub and we made full use of it, enjoying a decadent early evening aperitif, as well as jumping in right after a bracing sea swim.
Why we would go back
This patch of south east Kent has such a relaxing atmosphere that it’s hard to believe it’s so close to London and England’s built up southern counties. The amazing beach has become a new favourite of mine and rivals the sweeping sands of Northumberland or Western Scotland - but much closer for southerners crowded round the capital.
It’s a step back in time - to an England of genteel seaside holidays, whole days devoted to sandcastles, fish and chips tangy with vinegar and the evocative ‘tooooot’ of steam trains passing by. But it’s also bang up to date offering quick-fix de-stressing with contemporary accommodation, sustainable and locally-sourced food, and the chance to get back to nature when you sink your toes in the island paradise-quality sand.
Dunes View costs from £550 for seven nights off-season and sleeps eight.
Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway runs year round and the Romney Rover ticket offers all day all stations travel for £17 adults and £8.50 aged 3-15. Under threes are free.
Tickets for the Old Lighthouse, Dungeness, cost £4 for adults and £2.50 for children aged 5-15. Under fives are free.