Kent: the Allotment of Europe?
Updated: Sep 16
Let's be honest. For centuries we have been preparing to fight off invasions and they have never happened. This is our garden; we can grow what we like, cut the grass whenever we want to, and there is no threat to our borders. There is plenty of space to enjoy and explore together, to mingle with locals and travellers who wish to come along, and we can visit their gardens too. And yet, there are those inland who seek to cut down the branches and dig up the roots of our shared harmony.
In these challenging social and political times, when we may be on the brink of losing a continent, it felt time to visit the Kent coast. Other than a fleeting visit to Leeds Castle (why Leeds?!), Kent is a county I was not familiar with. One of the few places in England that has passed me by over the years. And so, with so much history to offer, and so much future at stake, it was high time to become acquainted with the Garden of England. Perhaps, sadly, for a final chance to look out across the English Channel and feel a sense of belonging beyond our own hallowed territory.
Turbulent times as we lurch towards the disaster of self-imposed isolation
First, a sense of place. And could there be a more timely and appropriately named venue for a late summer sojourn? We spent the last week of August in Blue Skies, a delightful townhouse in Deal, just a pebble’s throw from the beach, on the Isle of Thanet. Not an island since you ask. The region is well connected, though the streets are narrow here and not meant for cars. That doesn’t stop them trying, mind. The houses are painted so many wonderful shades of blue and green. For the colours, the proximity to the sea and the all-round sense of calm (with just a bit of a buzz along the esplanade), this was my kind of town.
The hamlet of Ham was close by, then Sandwich just a little further up the A258. Neither of these locations sated our hunger. And so, back in town, along the sea front, there had to be a better meal deal on offer. But, let down by our European friends for once, there was no lasagne in Salentinos, a chic Italian brasserie opposite the pier. And we waited over half an hour for cocktails to be mixed in an adjacent bar, where we were one of only two tables of guests hoping to have our thirst quenched. A classic meal was called for, but this led to yet another minor disappointment. Over-fried fish ‘n’ chips after another long wait, this time almost an hour. Simply unacceptable. I made a note: go global, try the Indian and Chinese restaurants next. Perhaps even the Royal Hotel directly overlooking the bay. Maybe one or two of the pubs for a chance to wash it all down with a pint of Spitfire Lager or a double stout.
The local tipple. "Downed all over Kent, just like the Lufftwaffe". Shepherd Neame brewery. Oh dear.
Advance Australia Fair
It was the hottest of hot late bank holidays on record. No option other than to head for the beach! First up, Botany Bay. A must, on cultural and historical grounds. Except there's a bit of a lack of culture, there. And maybe too much history. Still, it was a chance to see where our nefarious countrymen were despatched from all those years ago, only to return from down under to challenge us for the Ashes at every opportunity. The 2019 contest was in full swing, with Sir Ben Stokes leading the resistance.
To get to our Botany Bay we drove past countless fields of vegetables undergoing vigorous spraying. Acres of giant greens, signs boasting the ‘finest British potatoes’, and maize looking quite lowly in comparison to our sweetcorn ascending the dizzy heights back home. Is Kent really such a nice garden county? Not if you contemplate the surrounding wasteland; fields spoilt by industrial sites, warehouses and superstores. All of which gives a feeling of driving through some of the seedier landscapes of Europe, en route to a spectacular vista when you finally get to the coast.
The route to growth (Photo: Nick Smith)
For once, even I found it too hot (that most annoying and pathetic of British complaints), and we set up the windbreak in the shade. No wind, no need for the Geoffrey Boycott handkerchief, no matter. My instant assessment was that it was not the best beach. Hardly anywhere to park. Private roads and hostile parking penalties all around. A mass of seaweed at low tide. Water not very inviting. A treatment centre visible along the coast, not far enough away for me to venture into the brine. Too close to London. But, this was a very multi-cultural beach where everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. And for some of us, happily tuned in to Apple music, it was more about the journey than the destination. Still, I already had my eye on several other sandy destinations for later in the week. I was clinging onto the coat tails of the late summer sun but there was no need to worry, the sun would come out for us every day.
The original Botany Bay, Isle of Thanet
Botany Bay, New South Wales, Island of Australia
The next day brought us a chance to see some of the Great British infrastructure that has kept us safe from Europe through the centuries. Ha! Dover Castle is the grandest of three English Heritage sites along this stretch of the coast. The castle was established in Anglo Saxon times, strengthened by William the Conqueror after 1066, re-modelled by Henry II in 1180, adapted by King John and again by Henry III, who settled on a robust design in 1250. Then, in the 18th century, a series of tunnels was excavated, leading to the beach, to keep out the dreaded Napoleonic forces. They never bothered us! All too familiar fish mongering. Sorry, scare mongering. Hastings is a different story, mind. Harold should have kept his eye on things there.
A grand design, redesigned several times over. Full of English Heritage splendour.
The Dover tunnels were used in anger in WW2 by the war cabinet for the defence against Hitler’s ugly aggression. On a tour of the underground chambers we heard the recorded voices of King George VI, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and the music of Glenn Miller. I had been hoping for Vera Lynn. The main feature was a film of the story of Dunkirk, a heroic disaster recovery story projected onto the brick walls.
Transported back to WW2, deep beneath the castle (Photo: Nicolai Perjesi)
Deutschland Deutschland unter alles. The Germans seem to have known their way around here
Awaiting this tour I popped into the castle canteen for a very British cup of tea. I queued behind a European couple, German I think, who were struggling to come up with the right amount of our currency. “40 pence short”, the lady at the check-out said. Cue fumbling in pockets, much embarrassment and a lengthening queue behind. Decisive action was called for so I dug deep and offered them two 20 pence coins. Free, gratis, and for nothing (a certain blond buffoon would like that bit of mock Latin). European solidarity at its finest. Human kindness and understanding. And a desire for my own tea not to go cold before I had the chance to drink it. The couple looked confused at my generosity but eventually it clicked and they gladly accepted the change. Perhaps seeing it as an early down payment on the £39bn to follow, suspecting that our weasel politicians might hold it back in times to come. To compensate them in advance, I decided it was only fair to offer them something we technically didn’t owe.
Hopefully there are now two more Europeans who do not think that all British people are mean-spirited Brexiters desperate to get their country back and destroy the European project. Harry Enfield’s character Jürgen was always at pains to apologise for his country’s shameful conduct in ze war. Well, can I take my opportunity now to apologise to Europe for Farage and his fellow Brexit Party monsters, the clueless bully Boris, the hateful ERG and everyone they have duped between them? They do not represent us and they must not get their way. Not all British people are takers and leavers, some give and want to stay. 40 pence felt like a small price to pay to show good will.
The Truth about Bluebirds
Away from the castle, we moved on to the visitors centre for the formal White Cliffs experience. This turned out to be surprisingly uninspiring. The cliffs were covered in green matter, with not a bluebird in sight. What exactly is a bluebird, anyway? I’ve always thought it was a homely, charming sign of peace. A bird that was blue. A symbol of nature, harmony and peace, to greet the returning servicemen. I’ve since found out that bluebirds are not even native to our shores and skies. Clearly a case of the Americans getting in on the act under false pretences.
Not so white and no sign of a bird of any colour
There was much to see from on high. This was our chance to stand on the not so white cliffs of Dover and look down and out. Down onto the busy port with lorries moving freely for a few more months at least. And out across the English Channel, towards Calais. It’s only 21 miles to France at this point and on a good day we can wave to our neighbours on the mainland. Here's hoping for many more good days.
Free movement of trade; while it lasts
I was eager to get to the beach below, turn my back on the sea for once and look up. But for now, we stayed on the cliff walk. There would be plenty more chalk to absorb on the final day. Funnily enough, thinking of our European status, all our phones buzzed with texts from our various service providers, telling us we could roam freely. They thought we were in France, LOL! (En francais: hon hon hon). Maybe that was a bit pushy of them there.
Finally, a minor disappointment on the way back to base. Burger King was closed early, due to a false alarm in the kitchen. No American fare today then. A blessing, really. No risk of eating a chlorinated Chicken Royale.
Sunrise, sunrise. Back to the beach, this time stepping into the world of Charles Dickens, with a cursory acknowledgement of the contribution to our nation of Hengist and Horsa. So much history and culture again, this time at the charming British seaside venue of Viking Bay in Broadstairs. With Punch and Judy to boot. Just how do they get away with all that violence in 2019, truncheon and all?
Here, I enjoyed an exhilarating pre-prandial swim. Fantastic water. No seaweed, no rocks. About as warm as it gets on our coast. Clear enough. Beautiful and inviting. Fine sand. A fun, relaxing, almost perfect setting. Lunchtime came, and we regretted not having even a sandy sandwich between us. Alas, they don’t bring around Jamaican beef patties, curried goat and coconut water as they do on Doctors Cave Beach in Montego Bay. This turned out to be fortuitous when a flock of seagulls descended on a helpless teenager dining al fresco in front of us and half a minute of chaos ensued. The boy was petrified. The ravenous Thanet gannets wanted everything, and their grub-scoffing was only interrupted when a brave fellow stepped into the fray and dispatched them skywards.
Viking Bay: my new favourite beach
It was an easy decision then to leave our deckchairs for a stroll into town. And what a find! An amazing vegan café that confused me at first since it listed burgers, hotdogs and chicken nuggets on the menu. Something called ‘vish’ too, and then I realised. The sumptuous fare served up was indeed devoid of all animal produce. It was also crisp, clean tasting and it induced a feeling of wholesomeness.
On the way back to the sand we passed by Dickens House. I wanted so much to go in but this was a beach day so I promised myself a return visit, saving my allocation of literary culture for another day. Beach culture only today. And so we returned to our quaint, traditional but also rather unusual British beach bedecked in sunshine. A horseshoe bay bound to bring me good luck, I could sense it. My one regret was not honouring the occasion by building a sandcastle. Next time.
Looking far from Bleak
Walmer and Waterloo
The next real castle was not far away. Walmer Castle, next to Deal, was my favourite of all the castles we visited, mainly for its historic contents. Vegans look away now; the absolute highlight for me was a pair of Arthur Wellesley’s genuine calf leather boots. Far more stylish and comfortable than the modern PVC type we suffer today. They reminded me of my own cowboy boots, and were even a size 8. I furtively captured a prized photograph.
I'd walk a long way to see these!
Now, my politics and world outlook are a far cry from the Duke of Wellington’s, so I amaze myself by being such a big admirer of the hero of Waterloo and conqueror of the French. First, I am a pacifist. Second, I believe in the European project. But, I used to have such fun with my brother and our Airfix, scale size, plastic soldiers from the 1805 conflict, commemorating a historic British victory against all odds. Heavily outnumbered, just as we were at Agincourt under Henry V, but this time fighting with musket and shot instead of rackets and tennis balls. This history excites me. I chide myself and look for an olive branch to offer to Emmanuel Macron and his paysans. And I shake the hand of Angela Merkel to thank her for the contribution of her Prussian ancestors on the fields of Belgium. History is always complicated and never one-sided.
The stylish interior of Walmer Castle
Not Taking its Toll
Who could resist a trip to a place called Sandwich? On a fine evening, there was great anticipation, dare I say Great Expectations. But this Sandwich turned out to be a bit soggy. First, we made our way to the small riverside town, home to a boatyard, drinking hostelries and even a few historic buildings, but no beach. Not even a few pebbles. With the satnav reprogrammed, we went in search of Sandwich Bay, only to be stopped abruptly in our tracks at the entrance to the estate. Seven squid to access the coast via a private road. No way! The light was fading fast and to explore the nature reserve and make the most of the beach we would have needed a whole day. Rip-off Britain! We declared it a wrap and went back to Deal where the pebbles are free to cast into the crystal clear water and the pier is also free, though made of concrete and not exactly idyllic. Perhaps we British forever want something for nothing and think we have a right to enjoy it on our own terms. Just possibly.
Culture Shock: Margate
Approaching the end of a glorious week, there was still time for a change of outlook and to sample another way of life. To lower our expectations this time and go Dowwnnn to Margate!
I'm going to have to be careful here. I'm struggling to express how I really feel about this special corner of England. Home to Dreamland (not in my dreams) and the Shell Grotto, which sounded attractive with its millions of shells on the walls, but it's housed in a very plain building in a dismal, residential side street and it really was…I can’t help it…a bit grotty. The real cultural highlights for some are the Tracey Emin exhibits in the Turner Contemporary Gallery. For me, this further creates the impression of a town that is genuinely down at heel.
Seek and ye shells find
So, down to the seafront, the historic clock tower and the beach. A still just about blue sky was being challenged by an otherwise rather grey ambience. This was not helped by the background traffic noise, some of which must have been made by coaches providing days out for the masses. And that's Margate's strength; it offers a highly democratised beach experience. Even more so than at Botany Bay, there was an incredibly diverse mass of beach goers there to simply have fun, to enjoy an experience out of the ordinary. This is the super popular zone of the Kentish Riviera (for Londoners).
Margate on a brighter day (image: Kent Live)
Could we ever reimagine the town? I don’t think so. This will always be the dream location for Del Boy and his family and friends, seeking to escape the Nag's Head and Nelson Mandela House. A town that truly lives down to its reputation for being….there’s no getting await from it…best confined to historical postcards and that Chas 'n' Dave song.
The way we were (image: HipPostcards.com)
Canterbury: Rip Off in the Cathedral
In contrast, one of our days out that didn’t happen was a visit to Canterbury Cathedral. Rip-off Britain again! £12.50 for an adult ticket. The Archbishop may have no problem with demanding money in a place of worship, which also happens to be one of our finest national treasures, but I resent paying at this venue. A shame since I had been really looking forward to seeing the spot where Thomas A Becket, that turbulent priest, was done in, and then quaffing a glass of ale at one of the taverns frequented by Chaucer’s tale telling pilgrims. Another time, perhaps. When I feel less angry about the ticket prices for religious attractions. I want my country back! I want my history back!
Chaucer's Pilgrims, as envisioned by William Blake
Sapphire-coloured water at Samphire Hoe
Sadly, the final day arrived and we set out for Dover one last time, en route back to the Royal county of Berkshire. One last chance to take in a historical, cultural, geographical wonder in the county of Kent. With a dash of engineering brilliance to add to the beauty of the natural world. In short, a stop off at Samphire Hoe. A wonderful stretch of reclaimed land, where the land was formed from the debris extracted from the Channel Tunnel. So many millions, or was it billions, of cubic metres of spoil?
The cliffs look sensational. Almost Alpine. And today, just for us, they were set against a cloudless, blue sky. The cliffs are a lot whiter here than at White Cliffs tourist attraction, though still besmirched by some green patches. They form a dramatic backdrop known locally as Shakespeare Cliff. A nice tribute to King Lear, the play in which the blind, tragic hero thinks he is being led to the top of a cliff to jump off and end it all, only to land on his own two feet again, still on terra firma, tricked by his mad son Edgar. Not quite a true story, perhaps. But then, Juliet’s balcony can be found in many places in Italy, and that’s all a bit far-fetched too. In both cases, a tremendous piece of fictional literary history that so deserves to be true. There are some nice cliffs on the other side of the channel, as well, but I don’t think the French can be quite as blessed as we are.
Shakespeare Cliff: Not the downfall of King Lear
Strolling along, we encountered a flock of birds. Not those alien bluebirds, but starlings, I think. How I wanted them to be skylarks but they looked a bit small for that. The birds flew past in formation. I was being selfish, but I simply had to orchestrate a photo opportunity. Approaching the hedge where they had settled, I made my presence felt, startled them even, and grabbed a perfect snap of wings and feathers erupting into the air. Once they had disappeared, a great sense of calm descended again.
Looking back now, I find myself comparing the feeling of serenity I enjoyed at Samphire Hoe with the loud, Brexit-fuelled, anti-European antagonism still dominating proceedings in Westminster. The port of Dover may be in for hard times. The whole country may be. Damn it, the whole continent may be! Looking out across to Calais that morning, nothing could have been more charming. The water was sparkling and inviting. I wonder now, though, if it actually felt rather too quiet, almost spooky. The calm before a foolish, tragic storm.
The English Channel
All good things come to an end. And so, finally, finally, we embarked on the journey home. A20, M20, M26, M25, M3 A322. So many downlifting letters and numbers.
The Kent coast is a fascinating extremity of Britain. Land’s End is spoken for, so I will offer you Island’s End as a term of endearment as well as an appreciation of ruggedness. A fine place to experience a bucketful of cultural, historical, literary and seaside experiences. An opportunity to enhance one’s knowledge of both England and Europe. A county that offers enriching experiences, encouraging a greater sense of place, and a better knowledge of history as well as bracing thoughts about the future.
I had been expecting to be surrounded by Brexiters, but there was no sign or sense of them anywhere. Standing on the coast, I was acutely aware of the strong possibility, if not the likelihood, of losing so much of our European presence and also our own very English heritage, which has for so long been inextricably linked with mainland Europe. I hope we will not be stupid enough to isolate ourselves from our continental kinsfolk and incur all the risks that entails, the modern day slings and arrows of self-induced misfortunes.
Kent is a corner plot of land that will be forever England. There is no danger of it becoming some European allotment or playground. The real danger is that in trying to 'get our country back', we will be giving it away to the evil powers within who seek to destroy our way of life for small time personal gain and vainglorious, jingoistic political ideology. To prevent this I will fight to the last to preserve free movement, frictionless trade and all the other joys, rights and privileges we currently share with our fellow Europeans. We must dig together harder than ever, as friends and peace-lovers.
© Eddie Hewitt 2019