“My name is Bond, James Bond”, is one of the most famous cinematic introductions ever spoken. James Bond will always be associated with casinos, glamorous women and the jet set fast living life, but many would struggle to find a reference that placed James Bond in Kent. Although Ian Fleming was born in Mayfair, schooled at Eton, trained at Sandhurst and had a home in Jamaica, it was in Kent that he spent most of his life. Moonraker, Fleming’s third novel is set primarily in Kent and London. I went in search of the backdrop to the book and to see some of Fleming’s old haunts.
Taking the Dover Road down to the coast I imagined Bond in his super charged Bentley doing racing gear changes around hairpin bends as he does in pursuit of Mookraker’s protagonist Hugo Drax. I arrived 70 miles later (slightly slower than James Bond) at the charming White Cliffs Hotel in St. Margaret’s. This old inn has a number of rooms, a welcoming log fire and fine food on offer.
St. Margaret’s sits up on the cliffs above St. Margaret’s Bay. It is here that Fleming used to escape from London life at the weekends. In 1952 he bought ‘White Cliffs’ from his friend Noël Coward, one of only four villas on the beachfront. It’s a windswept spot in blustery April but on a clear day you can see France. I lunched, as Fleming must have done at The Coastguard Pub along the beach from his house. I can recommend the catch of the day – roasted trout with new potatoes and peas followed by lemon meringue cheesecake. It’s just the sort of meal Fleming would have had, he favoured simple foods unlike Bond who always went for the top line offerings anywhere he ate.
The plot of Moonraker involves a successful post war industrialist (Drax) who develops a nuclear rocket that will be Britain’s saviour in defence. Of course, all is not as it seems. Drax’s rocket is built at his research establishment on the Kent coast between Dover and Deal under top-secret conditions. Bond first comes across Drax at M’s club Blades, where he is accused of cheating at cards. Bond gives him a metaphorical bloody nose and Drax loses a large amount of cash. Bond is then sent by M to investigate two mysterious deaths in Deal just prior to the launch of the rocket. He hooks up with an undercover female policewoman Gala but the pair are rumbled and Drax shows his true colours. London is in terrible danger.
Fleming played a significant part in Naval Intelligence during the war and used much of what he was involved in later for the plots of his books. We learn that Hugo Drax’s real name is Graf Hugo Von Der Drache (German for dragon) he’s the German commander of a crack werewolf commando unit hell bent on revenge after the Fatherland’s defeat in WWII.
The signposting of Kent landmarks shows Fleming’s eye for minutia and little details that make his books compelling. The Reculver Towers get a mention, as does Leeds Castle and many pubs now long lost. It was written in a time when there was far less traffic on the road and you can believe the speeds reached in the chase sequences are real.
Drax’s house and laboratory is set I think in Kingsdown on the way to Sandwich, another important location for Fleming. En route I stopped of to take in Deal, a wonderful quiet seaside town with its own castle (along the seafront in Walmer there is a cinque port castle that’s worth a look around, the Duke of Wellington lived there).
Dunkerleys of Deal was my refueling stop. An excellent restaurant that afforded a view of the sea as I dined on beetroot cured salmon, cornfed chicken with a ‘crispy’ poached egg. This table clothed gem is worth finding, unashamedly old school it does everything right. Fleming would approve.
Just outside Sandwich is probably the most important place on my trip, Royal St. George Golf Club. Fleming loved golf and would play at any opportunity. This was his home club. Sandwich is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Britain. Full of timber buildings and Shepherds Neame pubs (Britain’s oldest brewery) it’s a dream to wander round.
I had heard good things about the not too easy to find Blue Pigeons pub in Worth, just outside Sandwich. Out in the sticks this bare boarded, few frills eatery offers an enticing menu, erring on tradition with a few unusual contributions (tandori chicken on nan bread), my lamb was tasty, the Dauphinoise potatoes were outstanding and the crème bruleé perfect, something magical going on in their kitchen (with cream at least)!
It’s hard to ignore Dover Castle (Fleming calls it that ‘cardboard castle’) as he passes it on his travels. It has a commanding position and offers a wealth of history, most of which is underground. From the Napoleonic times it has had a warren of tunnels used by the military. During WWII it was a crucial hub of command for the Battle of Britain and the D-Day landings. A tasty fish lunch is to be had at Hythe Bay Dover fish restaurant. Ask for a window seat and you can take in those famous white cliffs over lunch.
As I left the coast and drove back to London I couldn’t help but call in on one of Fleming’s local pubs The Duck in Pett Bottom. It is said that he wrote some of ‘You Only Live Twice’ there in the garden. His aunt Charmain lived in the cottage next door where Bond grew up after his parents died in a climbing accident. Fiction of course but somehow seems more real when you can attach tangibility to the stories. The cottage has since become part of the pub.
I sat in the pub drinking a cup of tea musing about Fleming and wondered what else he would have done had he not died so young. That golf club that was so important to him was to be the scene of his demise. On 12th August 1964 he was elected captain of the golf club and spent the rest of the day celebrating with friends. He then suffered a heart attack and died later that night at Canterbury Hospital. He had been a heavy smoker and drinker but unlike Bond, it finally caught up with him.
I stayed at the very comfortable White Cliffs Hotel, which offers rooms and apartments and super food including great breakfasts.
White Cliffs Hotel, High Street, St. Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, Dover, Kent, CT15 6AT, England
Tel: +44 (0)1304 852229
Insider Tip: Ask for the ‘Chalk’ room, it has a four-poster bed and roll top bath in the bedroom.
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass