Catatonic in Kent

This week, I’m house sitting in north-east Kent. It’s a very long time since I was down (or up) this way. And it’s the first time I’ve done house sitting. I’m looking after two cats – Sooty and Pushkin. I’m hoping it’s not going to be a catastrophe. Or a catalogue of disasters for that matter. That would be cataclysmic. I could go on, but I should stop before you start caterwauling.

Sooty is 17, so he’s getting on and little grumpy. He doesn’t like to be stroked over much, maybe it’s because he has a bad back. But he enjoys his neck being ruffled and he snuggles up to me on the settee. Every so often he eyes up my lap, but then decides it doesn’t meet the required standards. Tabby Pushkin is younger and declaims Russian poetry from his favourite perch, which is the top of an elaborate cat tower, with assorted bells and whistles. Well, half of that is true.

The house is modern and superbly well equipped. It has all the bells and whistles too. There’s even a gym upstairs. I may or may not use it. But  I arrive in a deluge of rain, surfing narrow lanes, after I’ve navigated the M25 and the M20. The Garden of England, as Kent is known, isn’t at its best. There’s some blossom already but it’s too wet to be enjoyable. The cats and I peer forlornly out at the surrounding countryside. It’s what they like to call undulating. Flattish, with small hills. They have a flap in the wall, but they’re not deigning to use it.

Kent is exciting because it’s the closest county to continental Europe. It opens up endless possibilities. I can see the giant black circles that are the entrance to the channel tunnel, as I edge past Folkestone. And a little further on, signposts to the ferry terminals at Dover and Folkestone. If it were a fine day I would actually be able to see France from Folkestone, or the top of the White Cliffs of Dover. It’s only 22 miles away.

Kent - Facts and Factoids

  • I had forgotten how surprisingly wide Kent is. The M20 seems to take forever - endless grey tarmac. This  is the fifth most populous county in England, the most populous non-metropolitan county and the most populous of the Home Counties (counties which border London).
  • Twenty-eight per cent of the county is designated as two  Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the North Downs, which run east-west across the north of the county and The High Weald, beneath them) and it’s  an easy commute to the capital. That makes it high income country. Agriculture is still important here and the many hop farms and orchards have earned Kent the nickname  'The Garden of England'. There was also significant coal mining in the relatively recent past.
  • The Weald is composed of undulating clay and greensand (with some chalk). It was once heavily wooded and is still gorgeous. The High Weald National Landscape, lies at the core, the fourth largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in England and Wales. It is a mosaic of small farms and woodlands, historic parks, sunken lanes and ridge-top villages.
  • The county town of Kent is Maidstone, (not the city of Canterbury as many assume), as that’s where all the county’s administrative buildings are located. And at 100,000, it has double the population of the city. Ashford is also larger. Sittingbourne, is almost the same size and Royal Tunbridge Wells (don’t forget the Royal) is slightly smaller than Canterbury.
  • The ceremonial county of Kent includes the Medway area (based around the river of that name) incorporating the ports of Chatham and Gillingham, the town of Rainham and the cathedral city of Rochester. But for administrative purposes this is a unitary authority, with Chatham its principal town.

Sandwich, The Best Harbour in the Country

The cats and I are the outskirts of the town of Sandwich (plenty of room for edible jokes there and they proliferate in the town), in a new estate. Though the heart of Sandwich, of course, is medieval. Sandwich bills itself as one of the best preserved medieval towns in the UK and dates back to the twelfth century.

Sandwich is one of the historic Cinque Ports. In fact, it once proclaimed itself as the best harbour in the country. It reminds me very much of that other Cinque Port, Rye. Both are now some way from the coast, but still inland ports (Sandwich is now two miles from the sea.) They both have a population of just under 5,000 and churches with towers that offer views across the town and countryside.  Rye is perhaps more spectacularly located, view wise, is more colourful and has more diversity. And cobbles. So it feels really quaint and medieval.

Sandwich has numerous architectural styles, and a very refined colour palette, almost entirely cream, grey and white. It’s much more appealing when the sun comes out. The narrow streets (Short Street, delightfully, No Name Street) wind down to the River Stour and a bridge and quay. There are punts and pleasure boats for  more suitable weather.

Georgian, Regency, Victorian, medieval, with a  sprinkling of Dutch gables, introduced by the weavers who settled here. The  main attraction is a large assortment of notable half timbered buildings, many jettied and some with amazingly detailed herringbone infill. One, dated 1400, is called Kings Lodge, as both Henry VIII and Elizbeth I stayed here. There are even earlier, thirteenth century buildings - chapels and a gaol (that’s now a sweet whitewashed house). Two gates and a length of stonework – The Bulwarks, are remnants of the old town walls. Richard II demanded that these be built, as the town was invaded so often. The Fishergate is the oldest, on the quayside, now surrounded by more youthful neighbours.

The Barbican Gate stands alone at the end of the narrow Toll Bridge, the only crossing from Sandwich to Thanet for many years. There’s a signboard listing the tolls inside the arch. Tolls were initiated in the time of King Canute (it was a ferry then) and payable until 1977. The queues of traffic must have been appalling.

The Guildhall is splendid, with its stained glass windows and fronts onto the square, which used to house the cattle market and is now home to festivals and farmers stalls. The mayors were elected at Saxon St Clements Church. You got your house demolished if you refused the honour. More churches (there are two Church Streets) and alms-houses. The many shops are inviting, of the genteel, 1950s, independent style – butchers, bakers, homewares, stationery, farm shops and tea rooms.

When you get to the coast, at Sandwich Bay, not one, but two, world-class golf courses, Royal St George's and Prince's.

But Sandwich, today, is most well known for the foodstuff it gave to the world, when the fourth Earl of Sandwich, famously called for a slice of meat between two pieces of bread. The placename 'Sandwich' actually means "market town on sandy soil". So that’s what you’re eating. (And Ham is just up the road.)

History of Kent

  • Being close to the European mainland isn’t always an advantage. Kent was one of the first British territories to be settled by Germanic tribes, most notably the Jutes, after the Romans left and has often been the first port of call for invaders, since then.
  • This accounts for the 26 castles dotted throughout the countryside, mainly to the south. Sea defences here were crucial and there are Martello Towers on the sea walls and old forts, out there on the water.
  • England has relied on the county's ports to provide warships through much of its history; most notably the Cinque Ports in the 10th–14th centuries and Chatham Dockyard in the 16th–20th centuries were of particular importance.
  • It suffered especially during the Battle of Britain in World War II and there's a memorial at Folkestone.
  • Kent also lays claim to the oldest cathedral in England (Canterbury) and the second oldest, at Rochester. (Even cathedral begins with cat.)

Pegwell Bay - Where Caesar Landed

To the east of Sandwich, nearly two miles away, now the Kent coastline has moved, is Pegwell and Sandwich Bay. It’s a marshy reserve and park, a paradise for seabirds, at the mouth of the River Stour. It’s thought that this is where Julius Caesar landed (twice), when he attempted the first Roman invasion of Britain. A fort was excavated a few years ago. Nearby, Ebbsfleet is the site of the landing of the first Christian mission to southern England, by St Augustine, in 597 AD. It's commemorated by St Augustine's Cross.

And a hovercraft service operated from the north of the bay, to Calais, 1969 until 1982. The terminal buildings are still there.

Tails from Kent

When I get back to my house-sit, mid afternoon, the cats both come to greet me, looking expectant. It’s not feeding time yet, I think. There’s plenty of dry food in their bowls still. So I sit and eat my late lunch, cold chicken and salad. They hover. I go to the bathroom. When I return. Sooty is on the table, admiring  my meat.

And then we get into our evening routine. Pushkin comes to be stroked and purrs ecstatically, but still keeps a wary distance. Sooty, however, indicates that I am to sit on the settee and he curls up next to me. If I dare to get up he comes to fetch me back, chirruping away. I suppose he’s cat-calling.

The Cinque Ports

  • The Cinque Ports date back to the eleventh century. Five (cinque pronounced sink) of the busiest harbours in the country, facing France, across the Channel. They were tasked with commerce and provision of sea defence, before there was an official navy. The originals were Hastings, Hythe, New Romney, Dover and Sandwich. Later, in 1190, two ‘ancient towns’, Rye and  Winchelsea, were added to the confederation, to make seven.
  • Over time, ‘limbs’ were created to support the original ports. Limbs were corporate or noncorporate.
  • Corporate limbs included Pevensey (limb of Hastings),  Seaford (limb of Hastings), Tenterden (limb of Rye), Lydd (limb of New Romney), Folkestone (limb of Dover), Faversham (limb of Dover), Fordwich (limb of Sandwich), Deal (limb of Sandwich; originally a non-corporate limb, but incorporated in 1699). Non-corporate limbs varied over time and many no longer exist.
  • The current limb list is: Tenterden (limb of Rye), Lydd (limb of New Romney), Folkestone (limb of Dover), Faversham (limb of Dover), Margate (limb of Dover), Deal (limb of Sandwich) and Ramsgate (limb of Sandwich).

The Isle of Thanet

The eastern most part of Kent was once the Isle of Thanet. It still bears that name, but it’s now a peninsula. The Wantsum Channel, which separated it from  the mainland and gave Sandwich its access to the sea gradually silted up. By Victorian times Thanet was no longer an island. But the Victorians were increasingly interested in seaside resorts and the area, with its gorgeous sand beaches thrived.  The three main tourist areas that developed were: Ramsgate and St Lawrence, Margate and Broadstairs and St Peter's. I’m headed that way, first on narrow country lanes, through villages lined with cute thatched cottages. There isn’t really room for two cars to pass comfortably. The Kent locals take the view that I shouldn’t be on their roads anyway and don’t bother to thank me for waiting, whilst they hurtle past.

To the southeast of Thanet I’m skirting, what used to be RAF Manston, and for a short  while, Kent International Airport. The signposts still point hopefully that way. At least there’s still the Spitfire Museum, to attract a spotlight.  The  interior of the island is a labyrinth of urban roads with the sole purpose of giving access to new housing estates (one  of the new development is even named after the famous aircraft) numerous retail parks and industrial megaliths, as far as I can see. In both cases it’s slow going.

Ramsgate, the Royal Harbour

Ramsgate was a  great Kent attraction in the nineteenth century. (St Lawrence is the inland farming community which twins with Ramsgate). It’s not quite that long since I’ve been here, but it has been many years, when I came to stay with friend Shauna. It doesn’t look to have changed much. The marina is still the main focus, one of the largest on the south coast, prettily backed by arched terraces. Up above, lofty Victorian and Edwardian hotels and shops, which extend along Marine Drive, above a lovely sweep of golden sand.  Fishing is still an important industry. The Port of Ramsgate is the only Royal Harbour in the country. Whatever that means. They completed it in 1850, in time for the Victorian invasion. Later, it was home to cross-channel ferries (bound for Ostend) for many years. It’s beautiful at night, when the terraces are all illuminated.

 The railways didn’t come to these parts of Kent until later in the Victorian era and initially the tourists came by boat from London. The original sailing hoys took anything up to 72 hours to reach Margate, whereas the newly developed  steamships were capable of making at least nine voyages in this time.

Today, the town shivers in a chill wind, off the North Sea. And the car park by the pier isn’t very welcoming. The pay machine won’t work. It insists I use an app which I download and try to register. It says I have already registered, so I have to reset my password, as I haven’t a clue what the original was. But it won’t send me a code, and when I try to phone the number given, the recorded voice of the very unhelpful man on the line says I have to use the app. So I remember why I gave up with this app last time. I decamp to the kerbside bays, where the machine works. At twice the price. All this, while I’m desperate for the loo. It doesn’t help rational thinking.

A stroll along the sands is invigorating in the breeze and the climb from the beach up to the heights of the Marine Drive exhausting. Perhaps the lift operates later in the season. I pass by the war tunnels (now the main tourist attraction), which dive deep into the cliff and were used as  bomb shelters. Up top, is the original toll booth they used to charge all the Victorians who wanted to promenade here in their holiday finery. There's plenty of Georgiana too, both real and mock. According to the local estate agents, Wellington Crescent is a sort after Regency parade of dwellings.

Broadstairs, The Jewel in Thanet's Crown

So, now I’m heading north along the coastal lanes of Kent, to Broadstairs, in search of free parking. I'm pleased to find this abounds here, on the esplanades, each side of town. The town lies above a harbour and is surrounded by lovely sandy coves, framed by green capped  chalk cliffs. They are (from south to north) Dumpton Gap, Louisa Bay, Viking Bay, Stone Bay, Joss Bay, Kingsgate Bay and Botany Bay. The headland of North Foreland, complete with lighthouse,  rises between Stone Bay and Joss Bay.

 Broadstairs and St Peter's (the ’historic village’ to which it is joined), has aspirations. It’s apparently  known as the "Jewel in Thanet's Crown". And its  Latin motto is Stella Maris 'Star of the Sea'). The name, Broadstairs derives from a historical flight of steps in the chalk cliff, leading  from the sands up to the eleventh-century shrine of St Mary, on the summit.

The main town beach, Viking Bay, is another stunning golden crescent, with rows of colourful  beach huts. Up above, is the Charles Dickens house. I assumed this was his holiday home, as he regularly spent his vacations here, but no, he sensibly stayed in the Albion Hotel, next door. The cottage was his inspiration for the home of Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. Apparently, he often had tea there,  with a Miss Mary Pearson Strong, and it was her belief in her right to stop the donkeys walking in front of her home, which fed into the character of Betsey Trotwood. The pub, the other side, is named after Dickens, of course, and many other hostelries and shops in town, make reference to his work. There's an ' Old Curiosity Shop', of course.

Dickens apparently declared 'You cannot think how delightful and fresh the place is and how good the walks'.

The town is again, crammed with fishermen’s’ cottages, those charmingly last century, feel good independent shops and quaint cafes. And also some escape rooms, which are becoming increasingly fashionable.

Kingsgate Bay

The most lauded beaches of Kent, scenery wise, are the northerly pair, so I’m wending my way, up more ribbon thin roads, to find them.

Reposing on the cliffs above Kingsgate Bay is Kingsgate Castle, formerly part of the estate of Lord Holland. It looks very grand, with crenellations, based on a medieval castle. But Wikipedia says it was just the stable block  (1760) for Holland's inland country residence. It’s been rebuilt, over time, and is now private apartments. The world wide web doesn't have many good things to say about Holland. It claims that he embezzled 50 million pounds or more from the public purse, during the American war of Independence. That's an astonishing amount in that day and age. No wonder he could afford fancy stables.

There’s a great view of the castle from the Captain Digby pub (built in the same style as the castle), which is, surprisingly, chock full of older folk, eating lunch. Free parking and very reasonable prices. I’ve discovered that the so-called castle has the best view of the bay though. Chalk cliffs and an arch at the end. The bay is called  Kingsgate because  Charles II and his brother made an unplanned landing there in 1683 (the gate is the gap in the cliffs), to escape a storm. And  George II, also made use of ‘the gate’  in 1748.

And that's not the end of the castles around the bay. To the north, is Neptune's' Tower, a folly, built by Lord Holl, not long after Holland's castle went up. It was built to resemble the Henric forts, with four bastions and a central courtyard, but is now badly disintegrating,

Beautiful Botany Bay

From Neptune's Tower, I'm continuing north, as I’m walking to Botany Bay, which has only recently come to my attention. It's been highlighted, in the media, as one of the most photogenic beaches in England. And I’ve never been there. To be honest, I’ve only ever heard of the one in Australia. It’s a rewarding, if still chilly stroll. The snowiest of angular cliffs,  striated to the point where they look almost as if they’re built of bricks, fall away to more stretches of tempting sands. But I’m not bowled over. There are stacks, not easily discernible against the sea and so not hugely picturesque. I descend to the bottom and wonder along the beach, searching for a better vantage point, but I can’t find one. A huge windfarm on the horizon. Am I back in Brighton?

It's desolate and there are seabird colonies, in the seagrass. 'Mind the Curlews', say the boards. A few lonely gulls are surfing. I ask a solitary passer-by if I can get up to the top of the cliffs, at the next headland. 'Yes', he says, 'there are steps by the water works there'. So I struggle on, sinking into the sand. There is indeed a ladder, at the headland. It's vertical, running dizzyingly up to the railings and there’s a padlocked gate at the top of it. With a sign saying 'No Access', just to emphasis the point.

Back along the sand, where I spy a steep sandy path. A supreme effort and I’ve scrambled up. Axel from London kindly appears and hauls me up the last stretch. He’s wearing a great pair of glasses. And they match his tee shirt.

And there is, thankfully, a better glimpse of the stacks, from a gap in the vegetation up here. It’s a nice view. But Botany Bay is not making it onto my Best Beaches of the Country list.

Keep Margate Weird

Right on the north east corner of Kent is Margate. It sprawls along the coast, a hotch potch of ‘Old Town’ and the newer, decidedly  fraying seaside resort. Like Ramsgate and Broadstairs, Margate was an important medieval port and then a Victorian holiday destination. Like them, it has huge sweeps of glorious sand and several scenic bays – Margate Town, Westbrook, Mildred (with some chalk cliffs to enhance it) and Minnis (though that’s strictly Birchington.)

In the last century, Margate evolved into a Kiss Me Quick type resort, with tourist attractions like the  Dreamland Amusement Park, which, neon signs indicate, is still there today. It was closed down for a while and reopened after petitions were presented, surviving several arson attacks in the process. The site is venerated as fairground rides (under various names) have been operated here since 1880. The Dreamland name came into being, in 1920, when the park's (now Grade II listed) Scenic Railway wooden rollercoaster was opened.

Arlington House, adjacent to Dreamland (and the station) is equally controversial. it's an 18-storey residential apartment designed in brutalistatic style, with every apartment having a sea view. Its popularity waxes and wanes and the commercial section beneath is sad and empty; a proposal to redevelop it into a Tesco store was unsuccessful.

When the mods and rockers (later skinheads) didn’t head to Brighton, they came to Margate. But then, the town  fell out of favour (package tours abroad beckoned instead) and seems to be struggling to establish an identity. There's even a mural which declaims 'Keep Margate weird'.

The 'Old Town' doesn’t really have an old town vibe, though there is a square, in the centre of the narrow streets, with the Old Town Hall (museum now attached) and a sprinkling of eateries and independent shops. I'm sampling a scone in the cute Little Fish Café. The western half of town looks down at heel, with its amusement arcades and pubs. Even the weather vane on the clock tower is wonky. The port and lovely beach hold it all together.

Efforts have been made to revive the town’s fortunes, with the installation of the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery. JMW Turner found inspiration in Margate’s skies and light and the gallery is built on the site of the boarding house, where he stayed during his visits here. The project was strongly supported by Tracey Emin, who hails (as they say) from Margate. Bizarrely, the building, on the cliff top, is decidedly contemporary and box like. Inspirational, as a stand alone, but jarring badly with the Old Town architecture, just across the promenade. Nevertheless, it’s free to enter and the exhibitions of abstract art and sculpture  inside, turn out to be thoroughly engaging. This is the highlight of my visit to Margate.

And, in the interests of impartiality I should point out that Visit Kent writes this:

'Dubbed Shoreditch-by-the-sea, the Kentish seaside town is THE place to see and to be seen, with its vast array of vintage boutiques, cool hangouts, emerging arts scene, and - of course - the amazing Dreamland Margate.The UK's first vintage theme park, Dreamland is a retro paradise with old fashioned rides and vintage amusements all with thoroughly stylish designs. Climb aboard the scenic railway, hit the roller disco, dart around in dodgems, and enjoy the many special music and entertainment events held throughout the year.'

Canterbury, an Ancient Capital of Kent

When I wake up in the morning, Pushkin is on the landing, agitating for breakfast. After I’ve doled out sachets of gourmet cod and plaice to each of the felines and Pushkin has devoured both bowls, I decide to set off for the city of Canterbury. Better to be in town, in the rain, I reason. My first visit to Canterbury was a school excursion, after we had finished A levels. And  I haven’t been to Canterbury, since I was kidnapped by a headteacher 25 years ago and taken there forcibly for lunch, when I was working as a school advisor. I didn’t get a chance to look round then and  the meal wasn’t very good.

UNESCO World Heritage listed Canterbury is a very different experience to Sandwich, even in the wet. The streets are chock full of traffic and the pedestrianised areas  are bustling, with school parties and shoppers. More than a million tourists  a year  venture here.

The city has been occupied since Palaeolithic times and served as the capital of the Jute Kingdom of Kent. The High Street is a melange of architectural styles and significant historical structures. The city wall was founded by the Romans and rebuilt in the fourteenth century.

Canterbury Cathedral

Most importantly, the city has been the seat of the Archbishops of Canterbury,  the leaders of the Church of England, since the conversion of England to Christianity. That began in the sixth century with Saint Augustine. (I’ve walked to his priory too, on the edge of town, but, annoyingly,  it  is closed until April.)  As such, Canterbury Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury,

I’m disappointed that the famous cathedral is partially shrouded  with scaffolding. Though I’m told that until recently there was a lot more. Originally founded in 597, the cathedral was completely rebuilt, just after William the Conqueror arrived, towards the end of the eleventh century, greatly enlarged at the beginning of the 12th century, and largely rebuilt again, in the Gothic style, following a fire, in 1174. Thomas Becket was murdered here, in 1170, at the behest of his erstwhile friend Henry I, resulting in huge numbers of pilgrims visiting his shrine. Significant eastward extensions were required to accommodate them. And the Norman nave and transepts were replaced in the late fourteenth century. I’m not sure if any of the original still exists.

Before Henry VIII’s reformation, the cathedral was part of a Benedictine monastery, known as Christ Church, (the university here is called Christchurch and the ratio of students to other residents is one of the highest in the country), hence the chapter house and cloisters. Henry also had the shrine removed -no-one knows where the body is now- to prevent it becoming a focus of dissent. You can still visit the Martyrdom Chapel, where one of the cathedral staff tells me Becket clung to a pillar, in an attempt to escape his four knightly assassins. A gruesome story we were all told in great detail, at school.

Becket was the second archbishop to be murdered here. The first was Anglo-Saxon Ælfheah, in 1012, captured by Danish raiders, pelted with ox bones (left from their feast) and then dispatched, after he refused to be ransomed, as the money he had was earmarked to feed the poor. He was later canonized.

Notwithstanding the scaffolding and the school parties and the exorbitant £17 entrance fee, the cathedral is still a worthwhile and peaceful visit. There isn’t an abundance of stained glass, but what there is, is lovely, and the vaulted ceilings really are awe inspiring.

Canterbury Tales

There's much more to Canterbury. There are museums and art galleries. And the  oldest extant school in the world, the King's School. You can’t escape Chaucer, of course, and variations of his bawdy Canterbury Tales, based on a pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine, in the cathedral, exist in a variety of forms, in and around the city.

Off, in pursuit of other major sights. I make a special excursion so see the castle - although I’ve read it’s small and mostly ruined. I follow the path atop the city walls – it’s not the most exciting of views -office blocks and more traffic. But I can’t find the fortress at all. It turns out to be  completely smothered in scaffolding and entirely unrecognisable as a castle. Some builders eating their lunch, close by, tell me authoritatively that it isn’t very exciting anyway. But that there’s a  bailey mound in the Dane John Gardens nearby. (I saw them from the city walls.) I don’t think it’s a proper bailey, as it dates back to the first century AD. There’s some sort of monument on top, commemorating the gift of the gardens to the city by an alderman. I see there’s a fountain, a playground and a bandstand.

The main street has an old gate at each end. One comes with come with a clock attached. Presumably, that’s not as old as the gate. Wandering in and around the High Street. I’ve also discovered  a ducking stool, over an arm of the River Stour, which runs through the middle of the city (by the Old Weaver’s House). And, after some searching, the  Greyfriars building, which I remembered from my school girl visit. This was the first Franciscan friary in the country and little of it survives today. It too suffered after  the Reformation. The principal remaining building spans the river picturesquely. It’s variously interpreted as a guest house or warden's lodging, but is  known today, as the Greyfriars Chapel.

From ancient to modern. There’s the Marlowe Theatre, Kent County Cricket Club's St Lawrence Ground and several shopping centres abutting the city's medieval centre. Not to mention several escape rooms. They seem to be the latest tourism essential.

Whitstable for Oysters

North Coast Whitstable isn’t at all as I remember it. It’s grown enormously over the last quarter century. Or so it seems to me. The Whitstable Oyster Company restaurant is still there, but it’s now crowded in by a new sea wall and sundry modern buildings, clad in dark wood to emulate fishermen’s huts. In fact, the whole of the quay is now covered in fishermen hut style dwellings. Either renovated original ones or modern copies. They house everything from hotels to shops to cafes and restaurants. There are a plethora of eating places. And a high street lined with quaint shops of the type I’ve come to expect from Kentish seaside resorts.

Fishing boats chug in and out of the port, and alongside the beaches, which are sand and shingle here. And there’s no promenade. Just the sea wall. I saunter past all the new edifices , to the east side of town. Up on top of Tower Hill is the Whitstable Castle and public garden. It’s sadly, a Victorian mock castle, a mansion with turrets and crenelations and views over Tankerton Beach. It was called Tankerton Tower to begin with, then Tankerton Castle. Now it’s been claimed by the town.

Whitstable developed as a port for Canterbury and as yet another Kent seaside town. It’s a useful stopping place on the main route from London to Canterbury. In 1830, the first entirely steam hauled  passenger railway was opened by the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway Company. The railway route, fondly known today as The Crab and Winkle Line, is now a cycle path between  city of Canterbury and Whitstable.

But Whitstable is most famous for its oysters. They go back almost two thousand years, to when the Romans discovered the shellfish and, regarded them so highly, they shipped them back, live, to Rome. The three companies  that developed to market them were sending as many as 80 million oysters a year to Billingsgate fish market, in the 1850s. However, in the twentieth century, pollution, disease and overfishing  kicked in and the native oyster was entirely eradicated. It’s an all too familiar story.

Pacific Oysters are now farmed on the foreshore instead and served up as ‘native’, to the eager punters at all the new eateries. They’re also, cannily, selling oyster shells. At 50 pence a pop. I’m eschewing oysters, however. They’re not my favourite . It’s scallops and moules mariniere for me.

Deal or No Deal?

I'm taking the long slow route back home to Brighton, all along the Kent coast. First stop, going south, is Deal, another limb of the Cinque Ports. Is it going to be a Big Deal I wonder? It's reminiscent of Worthing. Shingle beaches, fishing boats drawn up above the tideline. A pier. But this one is a brutalistic concrete. Narrow lanes, lined with old fishing cottages and shopping streets, with the all too familiar lines of small independent shops interspersed, with the odd chain store.

Deal never really had a harbour, but there is deep water, between the coast here, known oddly as The Downs, and the treacherous Goodwin Sands. When Sandwich silted up, Deal became, for a time, the busiest port in the country, sending boats off the beach to provision the ships at anchor. Later, it was also a mining area; there's a museum, dedicated to the industry, just up the coast.

And Deal has castles. one each side of the town, at Walmer and Sandown, and one, an impressively Tudor Rose shaped edifice right in the middle of the promenade, facing the ocean. They're connected by earthwork defences, part of Henry VIII's master plan, to protect against invasion from France and the Holy Roman Empire, Deal Castle has a keep, with six inner and outer bastions and a moat.

Departure Point Dover

Right on the corner of Kent (and England), Dover, of course, is a major Cinque Port and the key hub for ferry traffic to France. It's named after the River Dour, which flows through it and has an imposing grey castle, perched on top of the White Cliffs, famous because of the song. But there are no bluebirds. Not to miss a trick, the cliffs are now marketed as the White Cliffs Experience. It's five pounds to park your car and visit the café. Then, you can wander along the cliff top paths for some views of the ferries chugging in and out of the aforesaid port and of the cliffs, further along the coast.

Dover is classified as a Large-Port Town, which means that it has more port traffic than population. It's a good view, but you get a better one of the cliffs out at sea, as you actually leave the harbour. And I really have to squint, to convince myself I can see France, on the horizon, in the gloom.

It's a steepish climb, up to the first view point. You can go further along, to sheer drop views and a lighthouse, but it's drizzling. The café and exhibition centre at the far end are closed. And I've just discovered that I've lost my car keys. It seems prudent to return and look for them. Fortunately, some kind soul has handed them in.

Fashionable Folkestone

Now I'm heading west, along Kent's south coast. Wikipedia says that in its heyday – during the Edwardian era – Folkestone (once a fishing village) was considered the most fashionable resort of the time, and was frequented by Queen Victoria and Edward VII and other members of the English aristocracy. This legacy is evident in the architecture of the town, with elegant villas, and large hotels. But like its fellow resorts, after the two world wars, the town fell into decline. The opening of the nearby Channel Tunnel put paid to harbour trade and all the ferries leaving from Folkestone, were terminated.

But there's still a pretty little little port, with the railway that used to be the terminus for passengers coming to the ferries. preserved on the harbour arm. The cliffs here, where the North Downs meet the sea are greensand, but you can make out Dover's chalk cliffs in the distance.

Imperial Hythe

Hythe was the middle original Cinque Port, but its harbour has now completely disappeared. It's now a genteel and fading seaside resort with a long sea wall fronting a Victorian seafront promenade and a not hugely inviting shingle beach. The Imperial Hotel dominates the promenade. it brings back memories. I twice led residential training for a group of headteachers here. There was a lot of vodka involved.

There are three Martello Towers in Hythe. One is now a house, on West Parade, and the other two are on the beach. In total, 74 of these towers were built between Folkestone and Seaford. The walls were up to four metres thick, and each tower had a huge cannon mounted on the top. They were named after a tower at Mortella Point in Corsica which the Navy had captured from the French.

Luckily the French didn't come this way again (and neither did the Germans later), but the towers proved useful for keeping an eye on smugglers and were used as signalling stations and coastal defences during the two world wars.

Hythe is the northern terminus of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, running third-scale steam and diesel locomotives. The track runs parallel to the coast through Dymchurch and New Romney to the Dungeness peninsula and I'm going to follow its track.

New Romney and the Rother

Yet another of the old Cinque Ports, New Romney's harbour, at the mouth of the River Rother, and historically surrounded by sandbanks, has disappeared altogether - it's now Romney Marsh. In 1287, a severe flood filled the harbour and town with sand, silt, mud and debris, and the River Rother changed course, to run out into the sea near Rye, Sussex. The debris was never entirely removed from the town, which is why many old buildings, especially the church, have steps leading down into them from the present pavement level. New Romney is now about a mile and a half from the seafront.

I'm only passing through-I'm running out of time. But I do stop at the headquarters of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway.

Desolate Dungeness

My last stop, on this Kentish exploration, is Dungeness. This is one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, a headland formed by longshore drift, which shelters Romney Marsh. The fields here are dotted with the sheep, for which the area is famous. The meat is said to have a very distinctive flavour. The animals produce extra fat to combat the hardy environment conditions. This marbles the meat, making it moist. The breed is also resistant to foot rot, which helps in these wetlands.

Dungeness is famous for the remarkable variety of wildlife found here: over 600 different types of plants (a third of all those found in Britain) and rare invertebrates such as moths, bees, beetles, and spiders. I'm not going to be looking too closely for those. I like wild spaces, but this is too bleak for me. It's importance as a natural habitat is astonishing considering that it is also home to the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. But apparently, one of the most remarkable features of the site is an area known as "the patch" or, by anglers, as "the boil". This is produced as waste hot water from the Dungeness nuclear power stations is pumped into the sea through two outfall pipes. It enriches the biological productivity of the sea bed and, so I've read, attracts seabirds from miles around.

The flooded gravel pits on Denge Beach, also provide an important refuge for many migratory and coastal bird species and there's an RSPB bird reserve here. There's a small village, with a pub, some caravans an assorted rickety dwellings, rusty fishing boats and two lighthouses.

The wonderful online world reports that Dungeness has such low rainfall as to qualify as the only desert in the UK. However, it seems unlikely to me, given England's generally wet condition, and indeed, further reading suggests that this is not true.

Royal Tunbridge Wells

If you omit the Royal from the name Tunbridge Wells your search engine may not recognise this place (take note BBC.) The prefix Royal was added by Queen Victoria as she was very fond of the place. She stayed in the Royal Wells Hotel, which has great views from so called Mount Ephraim (Tunbridge has three mounts and a Wells Hill) over the Common, which slopes down over picturesque sandstone outcrops, on the west side of town. This is High Weald country.

Royal Tunbridge Wells is always well worth a visit. The area came to prominence, as a spa, during the early seventeenth century. In 1606, Baron North, an ailing courtier to James I, recuperating in the country air, discovered a chalybeate (iron salt containing spring here. He drank from the spring, his health improved, and he went on to promote its healing properties. Eventually, Queen Henrietta Maria, visited in 1630 and two houses and an enclosed area were built to facilitate visits and 'dipping'.

More houses and shops followed quickly, and in 1684, the Church of King Charles the Martyr, the oldest church in the town, with its distinctive clock tower. But it really became a fashionable resort in the mid-1700s, when taking the waters was promoted by Georgian fashionistas, such as Beau Nash (when they weren't in Bath). Nowadays, we go to the sea for our holidays instead, but Tunbridge still does well out of tourism.

The Pantiles, oddly separated from the newer, rest of town is probably the most famous area. and the best place to start exploring. This 160 metre promenade was laid out, in the 1680s, wooden walkways each side (upper and lower), lined with luxury goods shops. The Bond Street of Kent. Fire destroyed most of the buildings which were then rebuilt with today's distinctive white colonnades. The floor was paved with pantiles and the name was changed from the prosaic, The Walks. Today, it seems, there are more cafes, than shops. The bandstand was recently revamped and it's a nice place to watch the world go by.

The original chalybeate spring is found at the north end, bubbling away. It's not hugely exciting, not much more than a dribble, but its height fluctuates, You can buy the water close by - if you're so inclined.

Keep wandering north, up the High Street and Chapel Place (it seems that everything is up here- don't believe Google) for pubs, antique shops, boutiques. and more cafes. Further north, a Georgian arcade, which now contains Sainsbury's and then, Hoopers (excellent) Department Store. Opposite, is the station (another clock tower). Atop this hill the Town Hall/Assembly Rooms and gardens. And even further up, the hugely impressive Royal Opera House, now sadly a JD Wetherspoon pub. If you're not shopped out go a little further for the modern Royal Victoria Shopping mall. This is where you find Fenwicks and the like.

Penshurst Place

Five miles north west of Royal Tunbridge Wells is Penshurst Place, one of England's oldest family homes. It was built in 1341, as a 'defended' manor house. Over the years, it has been adapted and enlarged and owners have included Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII and the Duke of Buckingham.

The gardens date back to 1346, still designed today, in Elizabethan room style, surrounded by yew hedging, with peep holes, like archers' embrasures and are themed: including orchard, nut, Italian, rose, magnolia, grey and white, Heraldic (with colourful figures on patterned poles) and flag. The latter is union flag shaped, but sadly, not yet in flower, when I was there. They are adorned with various statuary and topiary.

It's a popular site for filming, with just a few notables being: Anne of the Thousand Days, Elizabeth R, The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall.

Hever Castle

Another three miles up the road is Hever Castle. This historic castle is promoted and best known as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's unfortunate second wife. The castle proper dates back to 1270. It was converted into a manor, in 1462, by Geoffrey Boleyn, who added a dwelling within the walls. Geoffrey Boleyn's grandson, Thomas Boleyn, inherited the castle in 1505. He lived there with his wife Lady Elizabeth Howard (of the family of the Dukes of Norfolk) and their children George, Mary (who was the mistress of Henry VIII) and Anne. Henry VIII often used the nearby Bolebroke Castle (as well as Penshurst Place), to conduct his courtship with Anne.

Henry claimed the property after the death of Anne's father, Thomas Boleyn, in 1539. He passed it on to Anne of Cleves in 1540 as part of the settlement to buy her off, so that he could annul their marriage. After that, there were several owners, who didn't take great care of the property. But in 1903, it was acquired and restored by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who used it as a family home. He added a 'Tudor village' (also known as the Astor Wing) and built a yew maze and an ' Italian Garden' to display his collection of statuary and ornaments.

I'm not wild about mock Tudor, but apparently the village has won prizes. The castle is stunningly postcard perfect and the gardens rewarding. There's some incredible topiary, including a whole chess set. The Italian Garden leads up to a large lake, with a paved maze, around a water feature, on an islet. On the opposite shore, a winding lakeside path takes you into woodland - exceptionally gorgeous in bluebell season. It's a well thought out tourist destination. There's even a small military museum.

Hopping Down to Kent

  • Kent is famous for its hop farms.
  • The hop is a plant in the cannabis family (!), commonly seen twined around tall poles in Kent. The long, sturdy stems are called bines (not vines). They have 'fur' for grip, not hooks or suckers.
  • Traditionally, in medieval England ale was brewed using gruit - a mixture of fermented herbs, so beer and ale were not interchangeable terms, as they frequently are today.
  • Hop flowers were increasingly preferred, as there was less spoilage, though there was initial resistance to the imported 'wicked and pernicious weed' and it was banned, for a hwil in Norwich, in 1471.
  • The first hops were grown, in England, in Kent, in 1524, imported by Dutch farmers.
  • Kent had suitable soil, an established enclosed field system and a good supply of wood for the poles and charcoal for drying.
  • Hops are dried in oast houses: tall kilns, with witch like hats, topped by cowls, which rotate to face away from the wind. The countryside is sprinkled with them, many now converted into stylish dwellings.
  • Hop flowers are picked in September, and, from the mid-1800s onwards, this month saw an exodus of families (up to 200,000 people), hopping down to Kent, to carry out the work, in the countryside, alongside itinerant workers. It wasn't a skilled job., but was hard work and poorly paid. The accommodation was rough. in 1931, George Orwell disguised himself as a tramp and wrote about the hardships of the life in an essay. He then transcribed this experience into his novel, 'A Clergyman's Daughter'. Or, more succinctly, in 1902, Henry H Johnson wrote: 'Hop-picking is over! Thank God, it is done! I’ve wished myself dead ever since it begun'.
  • Today, hops are usually harvested by machines and the kilns have super powered fans to speed up the process and allow more hops to dry, at a time.

Tenterden - The Jewel of the Weald

Inland, in the heart of hop country, is Tenterden. And I have another gem on my hands. Tenterden is dubbed 'The Jewel of the Weald'. (The Weald is the area between the North and South Downs, extending from Hampshire to Kent.) Visit Kent boasts that the town has 'fascinating history, a wealth of architecture and excellent shopping - all within everyone’s idea of a typical country town and surrounded by Kent’s tranquil countryside.'

Tenterden developed on land granted to the Abbess of Thanet in the eighth century. So, Tenterden - deriving from the Old English Tenetwara (the Men of Thanet) and the word den (a clearing within a forest). The abbess had a saintly daughter, St Mildred, who was venerated in the town. It acted as a ship building Cinque Port limb for Rye and became prosperous as a wool town, with Flemish weavers settling here. It was also a centre for religious dissidence following the reformation, with several significant residents setting sail for the New World.

Mine is a peaceful and relaxing visit. I manage to get a parking spot on the High Street to begin with, though it's time restricted. So I can saunter along the bow shaped greens at the centre of the village. Georgian tiles and weatherboard and Victorian architecture, with shops to browse and plenty of cafes, to my left. Residential and quintessential Miss Marple type cottages, set back from the Village Green, with long emerald lawns, to my right. Antique shops, a small market, independent clothing boutiques. It's reminiscent of the Cotswold market towns. St Mildred's Church towers, literally, over the shops at the Old Town Hall end. It has a smaller Shambles area than York, an area where several butchers shops were sited (illegally to begin with.) A modern Waitrose is hidden up a small brick arcade.

There's even a small steam railway. The Kent & East Sussex Line will take you to Bodiam Castle, just over the border, in East Sussex.

Rochester - For A Dickens of a Day Out

Rochester is an easy day trip. It's a pocket sized town, with heaps of history, easily walkable from the station, only thirty miles from the centre of London. The castle and the cathedral are right next door to each other and you reach them by wandering up the very pretty High Street. Dickens was born in neighbouring Chatham and later spent much of his time in Rochester, (he moved to nearby Gad's Hill) setting several novels, most notably Great Expectations and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood here (though the imagined towns were given other invented names.) There are plaques galore and this fact has been exploited to the full by the local businesses: Sweet Expectations, Copperfield's, Tiny Tim's, Peggotty's Parlour and so on. There's an annual Dickens Festival, every June. I expect it is crowded and therefore both the best of times and the worst of times....

Rochester is located in the unitary authority of Medway, an urban conurbation in the northwest of Kent. It lost its city status when Medway was formed, a fact that is subject to ongoing protest.

Rochester High Street

A plaque on a black and white timber house explains it to be the house of Mr Sapsea, auctioneer and Mayor of Cloisterham (the setting for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It also did duty as the home and shop of Uncle Pumblechook, in Great Expectations.

Almost opposite is Eastgate House, an imposing red brick building, once a girl's school and The Nun’s House, in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. (Remember the wonderfully named Miss Twinkleton?) This one also doubled as Westgate House Girl’s Boarding School, in Pickwick Papers. Unsurprisingly, it's now a Charles Dickens Centre, and round the back, incongruously, a cream and pale green Swiss chalet which Dickens once used as his study. It's been transported, from his house at Gad's Hill.

Also on the High Street west to east: The Poor Travellers’ House (now a museum) founded from a bequest left by Richard Watts for ‘Six Poor Travellers, who not being rogues or proctors’ were to be provided with ‘One Night Lodging, Entertainment, and Fourpence’. Dickens used it in his Christmas story ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’.

Next, 'the home of Mr Tope, the chief verger at Cloisterham Cathedral in The Mystery of Edwin Drood''. Then, the Old Corn Exchange with its huge jutting clock. Dickens had comments to make about this too. Fifteenth century College Gate deserves a photograph, and a Dickens mention, again in Edwin Drood.

The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel, is an 18th-century coaching inn, where Queen Victoria stayed just before she ascended the throne. (So then it was just called The Bull Inn), and referred to several times by Dickens, of course.

That just leaves the Guildhall, now a museum showcasing the Victorian era. This is where Pip came to be articled as Jo Gargery’s apprentice, in Great Expectations. And, today, there's a section devoted to Charles Dickens.

Off The High Street

Three quarters of the way up the hill in Crow Lane is another redbrick mansion utilised by Dickens. Restoration House, a fusion of two medieval buildings, got its name as Charles II stayed here, on his return to England in 1660. But, in Great Expectations, this was Satis House, famously home to the grim Miss Havisham. More poignantly Dickens was seen studying it three days before he died. It's thought it was going to feature in his unfinished mystery.

The Vines, a small open park. was once the vineyard of the monks of St Andrew’s Priory. Dickens didn't get round to that. But between the Vines and the cathedral, sits Minor Cannon Row, a (red brick again and slightly shabby) terrace built to house the clergy. They featured in The Seven Poor Travellers and Edwin Drood.

Also south of the High Street, above the river, is the actual Satis House. It famously got its name when Queen Elizabeth I stayed here and summed up the hospitality with that word. Perhaps 'enough' was considered praiseworthy in those days. The irony was, of course, that Dicken's inhabitants were anything but satisfied. And today's inhabitants go out of their way to mask the identity of their dwelling. so I assume they're not very satisfied with having troupes of tourists wandering by. Google certainly isn't very sure where it is.

Rochester Cathedral

The cathedral too, featured in Edwin Drood. It is most famous, as the second oldest cathedral in the country, after Canterbury. This building dates from 1080. Its Romanesque frontage and arcaded towers demand attention and inside it is starkly beautiful. The King's School, run by the diocese and founded in 604 AD, along with the original cathedral on this spot, is the second oldest continuously running school in the world.

Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle, on the hill next door, with a good vantage point over the river (there's a splendid bridge over the lowest point of the River Medway here). was built by Bishop Gundulf of Rochester in 1128. It, has one of the best-preserved keeps in England. and of course, Dickens referred to it often.

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