Walking England's Coast Part 1: From Dover to New Romney
Cliffs, Beaches, and an extra Rolo
(This is the first dispatch of my walk from Dover to Portsmouth. Last year I walked from Liverpool to Hull. You can read those pieces here: Liverpool to Manchester, Manchester to Wakefield, Wakefield to Hull, Leicester and London)
Three hours after landing at Heathrow, I was in Chaplins, just off Dover’s Market Square, fifteen yards from a historic sign proclaiming “Here while searching for his Aunt Betsy Trotwood, David Copperfield rested on the doorstep and ate the loaf he had just bought.” I was not eating a loaf, but instead a bland English breakfast, served to me by a kind Czech women, cooked by a very gruff Romanian man, and surrounded by broken Brits.
There was the hunchbacked man with a pork dinner, the mother in a motorized wheelchair, accompanied by her grown son, with shriveled limbs eating toffee pudding, and the obese man stuffed into a far too small day glow soccer kit, working on a nut roast and strawberry shake combo.
Outside in Market Square, just under the historical plaque, the only thing going on was addicts playing out their personal dramas as if everyone else cared. Which I actually did when it came to the showdown between team “Jon’s a lying cunt” and team “Wendy’s a fucking a fat whore.” I started on team “Wendy’s a” but quickly pivoted to team “Jon’s a lying cunt” when Jon insisted he hadn’t punched the guy we all just saw him punch.
I had planned on staying in Dover for two nights, but by the time the police came to take lying Jon away it was clear I’d been fooled by decades of tourist board propaganda. Dover wasn’t a romantic town with dramatic scenery, but a shit-hole with dramatic scenery. Newark, New Jersey with white cliffs and a castle. A scrappy poverty-riddled port town struggling to live up to its historical hype. A place that, if we celebrated these things, the local tourist bureau would laud for its logistical chops. An essential node in modern life, where motorways intersect next to a huge port, allowing us to have the stuff we have.
Depressing Dover didn’t come as an entire surprise. Everyone on my train from London, except for the elderly couple sunk into their seats by a century of gravity, looked like they were going to, or coming from, a rave. Even the teenage couple with a tiny newborn in a massive stroller were so decked out in neon, tattoos, and piercings that it’s only slightly unfair of me to think the baby’s bottle was spiked with ecstasy.
I was willing to cut Dover a break, forget about it, go to sleep and get up early, to start my 150 mile walk west to Portsmouth until I met Sandra. Or as she wrote in my phone, Sandra Puta. Which, since I’ve spent time in Brazil and the Bronx, knew what was already pretty clear — she was for sale, or rent at least.
Sandra had come into the Wetherspoons twenty minutes earlier and methodically worked her way through the tables of men, none of whom wanted the problems she was selling. It was a buyer’s market anyway, since there were plenty of younger, hotter, blonder, women nearby, so comfortable in what they did, they’d come in with their newborns, and also their mothers to act as impromptu baby sitters should their work require it. Three generations at one table.
Sandra’s failures brought her to my corner table, where she won me over with her persistence, intelligence, humor, and openness. She was originally from Brazil, but had been making her way through the EU, using refugee status to get what she wanted. Which was an apartment to bring men back to and weekly government payments. Both to make enough cash for the crack she loved.
She wasn’t shy about any of this, what she did, or the bullshit she told the bureaucrats. My Wall Street side respected her grift. She’d arrived in Dover a few months ago, using what she called her “Pussy Passport” to gain a long term visa, a flat, and a 170 pound-per-week payment, since she was a victim of human trafficking. Which, given that she alternated between talking to me and face-timing her dealer/pimp/boyfriend, seemed a stretch. At least in the literal sense.
Her honesty unarmed me. I’m used to deflection, but she was upfront about everything, including what she currently wanted, which was more money for crack. I made it clear I wasn’t going to help her with that, but I did open up and gave her my full name, and told her I was a writer. Something I rarely do, and so she quickly found me on google, then on Wikipedia, and spent the next twenty minutes trying to insert her name into my Wiki page, because she was impressed and jealous of the one thing I’m most embarrassed by and least comfortable with, which is my absurdly minor fame.