At Herne Bay
I spent all of my week away from Spitalfields Life in August working on the Spitalfields Nippers book but, now it has gone to the printers, I was able to make up for this yesterday and take advantage of the Indian Summer with a day trip to Herne Bay.
Several years ago, I grew fascinated with a ruin upon the seashore in the background of a photograph of members of the Cambridge & Bethnal Green Boys’ Club taken by Harry Tichener in 1938 . When Maxie Lea, who is featured in the picture, told me that it was taken at Herne Bay, I knew that one day I must go and seek this location for myself.
Yet, when I arrived yesterday and walked from the railway station to the deserted seafront, I discovered there were many other attractions that make this secluded corner of the Kent coast worthy of a visit. Set back fifty yards from the shingle beach, sits a magnificent line of grand hotels and seafront villas. Some are whimsical Victorian fripperies and others are elegant bow-fronted Georgian, and it makes an appealing backdrop to the well-kept and newly-renovated municipal gardens, basking in the September sunlight beneath an azure sky flecked with feathery trails.
A proud white stucco gatehouse guards a poignant remnant of what was Britain’s second longest pier in 1896, now just a stub attached to the shore with the far end marooned out at sea, unreachable and distant since the storm of 1978. You can take a stroll past the huts, adorned with saucy paintings in the style of Donald McGill, to reach the end of what remains and join a sparse line of fishermen and senior local residents, casting their eyes wistfully towards the horizon and awaiting a miraculous reconstruction.
Turning my gaze to the east, I could already recognise the towers at Reculver shining white in the far distance and encouraging me to take my leave of the town and seek the coastal path. The outskirts of Herne Bay present a curious mixture of dereliction and some cherished Regency villas, culminating in Marckari’s ice cream parlour where I had my first taste of an authentic Turkish delight ice cream. Thus fortified, I strolled onward upon the broad featureless concrete promenade with the towers reassuringly present, constantly in my vision.
Climbing a winding stairway takes you to the cliff path, lined with sloes and hawthorn, and giving way to meadows that descend towards Reculver. Soon, the towers are no longer an image on the horizon but looming above you. You ascend the path beneath them as a colony of swifts swoop and dive over your head, filling the air with their cries before returning to roosting places high in the turrets. You have arrived upon a raised platform of green, overlooking the sea, where the sweet fragrance of nectar hangs in the air. This was where the Romans built a fort in 42AD, when this was the end of the land and the marshes to the east were open water, known as the Wantsum, a channel that isolated the Isle Of Thanet from the mainland.
St Augustine brought Christianity to Kent at the end of the sixth century and, by AD 669, King Ecgbert gave this land for the foundation of a monastery. A tall church was built upon the Roman ruins, creating a landmark that signalled the spiritual significance of this favoured spot, visible from such a great distance. In 1810, the ruins of this church were reconstructed by Trinity House to create a stable structure that could function as a navigational aid. Once there was a thriving village of Reculver, yet the encroachment of the sea and regular flooding led to its decline until only a couple of houses are left today. Yet it retains a distinctive atmosphere and, after all this time, the imposing sea-battered towers are like natural excrescences of rock.
Setting out across the marshes as the afternoon sun declined, I was entranced by the naturally occurring gardens upon the shingle, where grey-green sea kale grew in star shapes complimenting the pink leaves of sorrel spreading close to the ground and interspersed with curious bushes of yellow poppies that seeded themselves all along the beech. Glancing over my shoulder, the towers of Reculver seemed to get no further away, watching over me now as they had beckoned me earlier.
Nine miles to the east of Herne Bay, I arrived at Birchington – a suburban resort with art deco villas, some dignified austere brick farmhouses and an unexpected half-timbered medieval cottage. My feet were sore and my face was burned from wind and sunshine, and I fell asleep upon the train – only waking again as we drew into London to wonder if the whole excursion had been a dream.
Herne Bay pier was once the second longest in Britain
Bow-fronted Georgian terrace on the seafront
Regency villas in a side street
The path to Reculver
Harry Tichner’s photograph of Maxie Lea (standing right) at Herne Bay in 1938
1685 Map of the lost village of Reculver
At Minnis Bay
Cottage at Birchington-on-Sea
You may like to read about my previous trips beyond Spitalfields at this time of year