Friday, March 09, 2018

Notes on Kent

It took a while for Kent to grow on me, having long thought of it as either bland – The Garden of England, National Trust properties and places like Ashford and Maidstone – or pretty rough end-of-the-world towns like (the clues are really in the names) Gravesend (where Pocahontas died) and Rainham (voted 7th worst place to live in the UK last year; Dover – also in Kent – came first).

But dig deeper and Kent's beauty, uniqueness and quirkiness reveals itself. The most interesting aspects of Kent are along its coastline. I've always liked Margate, years before it started trying to regenerate with its Turner Contemporary gallery, hipster shops and Dreamland (though I like all of them too). A little further south, Broadstairs, Charles Dickens' favourite holiday spot, and Ramsgate, where Wilkie Collins gets two blue plaques (one for where he lived; the other where he was having an affair) and Van Gogh lived and taught briefly, couldn't be more different to still-slightly-seedy Margate. The three towns make up the isle of Thanet.

Many towns in Kent have a literary or artistic connection. Tracey Emin hails from Margate, and Turner spent some of his childhood there, and would visit the county throughout his life, the coast inspiring many of his seascape paintings. Mary Tourtel, creator of Rupert the bear, and Richard Dadd, the artist who killed his dad, were born in Kent. William Caxton, inventor of the printing press, was also born in the county. You can't go far in Canterbury without coming across Chaucer. And novelist William Golding worked as a teacher in Maidstone.

Dungeress is one of my favourite places in the UK. It has an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel with its unique shingle beach (containing hundreds of rare insects, birds and plants), fisherman's cottages painted black and nuclear power station in the distance. Famously the home of Derek Jarman and his garden, the cottage is still lived in by his former partner, and the garden still tended.

Remnants of war feature heavily along the Kent coastline. The giant concrete sound mirrors (acoustic early warning systems soon made obsolete by radar) near Dungeress in Denge are like the beautiful ruins of an ancient civilisation. Seven miles off the coast are the striking Maunsell sea forts, looking like rusty aliens in the sea. Nearby is the sunken SS Richard Montgomery, the masts of which can be seen just above the water. Filled with explosives which can't be touched, the ship could apparently explode at any time, causing a tsunami. Quite a few Martello towers survive in Kent. Built between 1805 and 1808 to guard against invasion by Napoleon; in the event, after the Battle of Trafalgar, they were never used.

Other notable Kent towns are Dover, of course famous for its iconic white cliffs (talking of iconic, one of my favourite things in Kent are their oast houses, very distinctive buildings once used for drying hops); Chatham, where the important naval docklands no longer function as such but remain open for the tourist industry; Whitstable, famous for its oysters and beach houses; Herne Bay, a beautiful seaside town where last year someone was beheaded with a Samurai sword; Deal, yet another lovely seaside town, has lots of bric-a-brac shops and Sandwich has a Roman fort and amphitheatre (I'm sure it's been done to death, but I've always wanted to do a business deal in Deal followed by eating a sandwich in Sandwich).

The tiny Isle of Sheppey is a weird place – there are people who live on the island their entire lives without ever leaving it. Although not even really an island (an island on an island, if you will) – there's a bridge connecting to the mainland – it has the isolated feel of one.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Art of the seaside
Margate's Shell Grotto
Sound Mirrors

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