In 2007, Valerie and I visited her family in Kent. Several members of the family live in Herne Bay and beach-side villages nearby. Dickens knew this coast well. A number of his tales are set in this atmospheric part of England. Mind you, when I first visited in 1981 I have to say I’d no clear idea at the time on which Kentish coast Herne Bay happened to be. After a steady old railway journey through rainy grey countryside we arrived latish afternoon and said our helloes. A little while later and welcoming glass in hand we were called upstairs by Valerie’s mother to admire the sun setting over the water. And yes, it was certainly worth the climb: the cloud had moved away and scarlet-pinks and orange-purples were seeping around the horizon. However much more extraordinary and indeed arousing a horror existentialist in its profundity I couldn’t help noticing the sun was drifting into the waves pretty-well due east from where we were. More than stunned I said not a word and went hunting for a map. Finding a Shell touring guide I opened it to discover Herne Bay faces north to the Thames Estuary, not south to the Channel after all. As someone whose earliest memories include an appreciation of north, south, east and west (every farm I’d ever known in WA had fences erected exactly on compass bearings) there was more than relief in finding this out. Even after examining the road map I was still so shaken there was never a thought of mentioning the thing, certainly not that evening. It was years before I owned up to Valerie.
Beaches along the Kentish coast are largely shingle, rounded flinty sundry-sized pebbles. Among the rocks are sharp cockle shells and mud. Not really an Australian’s idea of a beach. The water is persistently brown and frequently cold. In winter it’s sometimes icy. Not figuratively you understand: there can be actual ice, in little lumps, bobbing about. And there are other things. In ’88 Valerie and I were visiting with the children, then three and six. After a lovely summer’s day exploring the magnificent rural hinterland we gave in to Ben and Alys’s pleading and drove to the beach. To our astonishment, despite warm sunny weather elsewhere, the sea was invisible under a dense layer of mist. Fluffy white mist came to the top of the cliffs and not a pace further. It appeared just right to step out over and take a stroll. Under a great deal of noisy pressure we slowly, nervously, climbed down long flights of slippery steps and inched our way through the murk. Once down on the beach we noticed conversations were going on, some quite nearby. Feeling our way gingerly over invisible rocks and mud (the mist was staggeringly thick) we found the place was packed. It was like a nice summer’s day at Cottesloe or Bondi. All Londoners staying at the nearby camping ground and not inclined to let a spot of sea mist spoil their holiday.
Still, Kentish beaches, in good weather, are rather lovely. Ignoring the razor-sharp shells and the evil mud, the shingle is... in its own quiet way... attractive. Rather too bumpy to spread a towel on mind you….and hard on the ankles. From the broad path though, that runs near the top of the beach for miles and miles, the shingle is….beautiful.
From the village of Beltinge there’s a walk along the edge of the cliffs to the towers of Reculver. The walk is I guess a little over two miles along a broad path mown through wildflower meadows, the crumbling cliff to the side. This is the neighbourhood’s common and I guess in the old days would have been dotted with tethered horses and donkeys. Now it’s an official coastal walking path, and though sometimes still called the common is more frequently, simply the downs.
Reculver Towers is a historic site. This place was once a Roman fort, one of two fortlets (as they were in those times) built by the Emperor Claudius in the first days of his invasion of Britain way back in what I’m sure was the warm and splendid summer of AD 43. One hundred years on Claudius’s fortlet was enlarged and turned into a reasonably commodious castrum and in the glory days of the Roman Empire became known as Regulbium. Two hundred years later the Romans withdrew, their castle decayed and come the middle ages its stones used to build a monastery, by now called Reculver. Reculver’s monastery walls have long vanished now but its handsome chapel survived in good order right through to the mid-years of the nineteenth century. In the 1840s, after a great storm tore down much of the nearby cliff-face destroying many buildings it was thought best to move the chapel somewhere safer. Most of it’s fabric was then dismantled, carted inland and used to build the very pleasant Beltinge Church. The soft muddy cliffs hereabouts erode at an extraordinary rate. Square miles of countryside have fallen into the sea since Roman times, many farms, entire villages washed away. Despite this the monastery’s towers were never demolished. They were left behind and strong breakwaters constructed and these have worked wonderfully to preserve this tiny strip of beach for more than 150 years.
So the towers of Reculver survive. They sit prominently, precariously, on the extreme lip of their cliff. So prominent they are that for generations The Twin Sisters have been used for navigational purposes by vessels steering to and sailing from the docks of London. As you see from my photographs from a visit in 2007 the Towers of Reculver are wonderful examples of medieval stonework. For emigrants sailing to Australia they also happened to be one of their final glimpses of Mother England. In New South Wales, at Parramatta, the façade of St John’s Cathedral, the country’s oldest Anglican church and one of Australia’s earliest buildings is a duplicate copy of the Reculver Towers.
I had two days to spare in 2007 and walked along the clifftop common several times admiring the meadows along the downs and photographing wildflowers. From the broad path beside the cliff there’s a view across magnificent wheat-fields to the new Reculver Church. It stands nearly two miles distant from those cliffs still steadily tumbling into the sea. Looking the other way, rearing incongruously out of the grey North Sea and indeed giving the impression of a carefully considered and stupendous work of art there was a windfarm. Its great sails moved slowly in the faint airs that day. Beyond, steel-grey sea merged imperceptibly into pewter sky. Emphasising the impression of an artwork, several times as I walked the wind farm quite suddenly vanished. Minutes later it would as precipitously re-appear as banks of sea-mist moved on. This seemed to be happening from minute to minute. Every little while in my stroll to the towers I’d glance out to sea to see if the windfarm was there or not. No horizon behind and the sea-mist invisible against grey sea and grey sky the miles-wide grid of the windfarm vanishing was like a prodigious conjuring trick.
Returning home and later that summer I was pondering the problem of the floor of our water garden. Its crushed limestone surface had seriously deteriorated in previous years. It was even growing weeds: in winter liverwort, not the loveliest of things in the garden. Exploring a garden supply business around then I noticed some river pebbles graded to between 15 and 25 millimetres. The pebbles reminded me of smaller versions of Kentish beach shingle. And they had a very nice crunch when trodden on. So, in honour of Kentish beaches I ordered in a load and spread them over the floor of our water garden.