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At Herne Bay

September 16, 2014
by the gentle author

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.

Reculver Towers

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

At 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

A Walk from Shoeburyness to Chalkwell 2013

A Walk Along the Ridgeway 2012

At Walton on the Naze 2011

At Canvey Island 2010

At Broadstairs 2009

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Sarah permalink
    September 16, 2014

    Lovely photographs of an area I used to know well, congratulations on getting the ‘feel of place’ so well.

    Please may we hear how Mr. Pussy is doing these days? His public misses him!

  2. Victoria permalink
    September 16, 2014

    Just enjoyed a virtual day out of London. Herne Bay looks intriguing and now I want to visit. On a dull and blustery day could imagine an M R James story being set along that coastal path.

  3. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    September 16, 2014

    A few years ago I printed out your essay about Walton on the Naze and promised myself a day outing to see the place. I had a great day.

    Our family holiday used to be 10 days in Cliftonville, Palm Beech. I graduated to Scouts and that took over summer holidays for the next five years.
    I have printed out your essay about Herne Bay and look forward to the visit. If it is anything like Walton then it will be well worth it
    Thanks a lot.

    Melvyn Brooks Karkur, Israel

  4. September 16, 2014

    Lovely photos, and reminders of childhood holidays and outings! Valerie

  5. Annie permalink
    September 16, 2014

    Turkish delight ice cream – a true wonder….What a brilliant day you had and there is something still very Roman about the church ruins. I like frontiers like this where the land and sea are never quite done with each other. Have you read Rosemary Sutcliffe’s wonderful Eagle of the Ninth trilogy? If not, do. Some of the tale is set around here.

  6. September 16, 2014

    I love the story, I love the pictures. And I love that map!

  7. Linda Salter permalink
    September 16, 2014

    Instantly recognised Reculver Towers. As a North Londoner, used to holiday in Herne Bay in the 1960s staying at B&B. Regularly entertained by Les…and his Orchestra in the evenings at the Bandstand. Remember the coast far more than the buildings.

  8. September 16, 2014

    Oh yes, I also need to leave the city and would like to go to the sea, after all!

    Love & Peace

  9. Chris permalink
    September 16, 2014

    My home town! Marvellous to see it through another’s eyes!

  10. Robert G. Redford permalink
    September 16, 2014

    Marvellous atmospheric writing capturing all the nostalgia of holidays in Herne Bay in the 1950’s , wonderful for a North Londoner. My Dad took me to catch crabs in the early evening on a deserted beach before returning to bed in a cosy B&B. Reculver was magic, always present in the landscape, with its brooding twin Towers; one never forgets it.

  11. Jill permalink
    September 16, 2014

    What a lovely day you shared with us! I’m amazed that the sea seems no closer now to Reculver than it was when I was a kid.

  12. Sally Baldwin permalink
    September 16, 2014

    By one of those wonderful bits of synchronicity, I was reading just last night details of the Claudian invasion of Britain in the year 43… and you’ve brought me right to the shore!

    Thanks once again from your loyal reader…

  13. Letterslive permalink
    September 16, 2014

    You never fail to enchant, Gentle Author. Thank you for this and for all your other pieces.

  14. Gary Arber permalink
    September 16, 2014

    In 1947 I visited Herne Bay and was there in VJ Day (the end of the war with Japan) I walked to Reculver along cliffs that are now beneath the sea, which is fortunate because the area then was an army range and the cliffs were littered with live 2 and 3 inch morter bombs.
    The towers were then well back from the sea with a road and cottages between them and the sea.
    I now visit the area because the area between the towers and Minnis Bay from the beach to the railway is a wonderful area for wildlife.
    If it wasn’t for the strong concrete protection the towers would have fallen into the sea long ago.

  15. nilly permalink
    September 16, 2014

    My favourite place in the world! I wonder if you found Rossetti’s grave in Birchington churchyard?

  16. Mike Walker permalink
    September 17, 2014

    Great article and photographs, brought back so many memories of happy summer holidays almost 60 years ago. The walk from Reculver to Minnis bay and back was a regular feature.

  17. September 17, 2014

    Splendid words and pictures, GA. Whitstable and Herne Bay resonate with the progressive music of the Canterbury Scene, which was spawned in the late-1960s and gave rise to Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers, and Caravan. Richard Sinclair, bass-player and singer with Caravan, wrote a song titled ‘Back to Herne Bay Front’.

  18. Colleen Christine permalink
    September 17, 2014

    Wonderful photos and commentary! I have always wondered about this place, since Jeeves takes his holidays there, “for the shrimping”. You told me all the things I wanted to know, and took exactly the photos I would have taken if I had visited. Now I fear that in future years, I will come to believe that I have personally visited because you gave me such a sense of the place. Thanks for taking us along.

  19. August 31, 2015

    My father, though a proud Northerner, has lived in Kent for over 30 years and I have come to know it well. I love Reculver, especially at sunset.

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