In July, 2007 I was visiting Valerie’s family in Kent. Many of my wife’s relatives live in Herne Bay and the little seaside villages on the coast nearby. Dickens knew this part of England well. Several of his tales are set along this atmospheric coastline. Mind you, the first time I was there, back in ’81, I have to say, apart from knowing it was by the water, I’d no clear idea on which part of the Kentish coast Herne Bay might happen to be. After a steady railway journey through grey rainy countryside, Valerie and I arrived latish afternoon and said our helloes. A while later, welcoming glass still in hand, we were called upstairs to watch the sun setting over the water. And yes, it was worth the climb. Earlier cloud had moved away and scarlet-pinks and orange-purples were seeping around the horizon. Of more serious note and indeed arousing almost existentialist horror, I couldn’t help noticing the sun was sinking into the waves due east from wherever we were. I said not a word and went hunting for a map. Finding a Shell touring guide, I found Herne Bay faces north to the Thames Estuary, not south to the Channel. As someone whose first memories are of knowing where north should be, every farm my family owned had fences exactly on north/south, east/west compass bearings, there was more than relief in finding this out. I remember saying nothing that evening though and it was ages before I owned to Valerie.
Kentish beaches are largely shingle, pebbly flints in sundry sizes. Between the flints there are cockle shells and between the shells there’s mud. So really not an Australian’s idea of a beach at all! The water is brown, persistently cold and in winter sometimes icy. Not figuratively you understand, there can be little lumps of the stuff bobbing about. And there’re other oddities. In July ’88 Valerie and I were visiting with the children, Ben and Alys, then three and six, and after a memorable day of exploring the magnificent countryside, Kent’s verdant ‘garden of England’, we gave in to the children’s pleading and headed for the beach. To our astonishment, despite the blue sky elsewhere, the North Sea had vanished under a dense layer of murk. Lumpy grey mist came up to the top of the cliff and not one pace more. It looked solid enough to step out and stroll over. Under considerable noisy pressure we inched our way down several long flights of slippery wooden steps and stepped cautiously into the dank. Once down on the beach we could hear conversations, some close by, in fact all around. Feeling our way over invisible rocks and evil mud, the mist was as thick as any I’ve ever seen, we found the place was packed. It was like a nice summer’s day at Cottesloe or Bondi. By their accents we could tell they were all East End Londoners, from a camping ground along the cliffs and not inclined to let a bit of sea-mist spoil their holiday.
Still Kentish beaches, in sunny weather, can be nice. Ignoring the odorous mud and the razor-sharp cockles, in its own quiet way shingle is interesting. Too bumpy to spread a towel on mind you and decidedly hard on the ankles, however from the broad path running above the beach for miles and miles the view can be wonderful.
From the village of Beltinge, just east of Herne Bay, there’s a walk to the towers of Reculver. These are more than two miles from the village and at the end of a path above crumbling sea-cliffs mown through wildflower meadows. The walk is the village common and I suppose in Dickens’ time the grass was kept short by tethered donkeys. However now it’s a regularly-mown coastal walking track and though occasionally called the common, more often it’s the downs.
Reculver is a historic site, indeed one of significance, originally a Roman fort, or rather a fortlet, one of two thrown up by the Emperor Claudius in the first days of his arriving in Britain in what I’m sure was that invitingly sunny summer of Anno Dominii 43. A hundred years later Claudius’s fortlet was enlarged into a much more commodious castrum and in the salad days of the Empire this was Regulbium. Some 200 years later the Romans departed, their castle fell down and in the early middle ages its stones put into a monastery, by now called ‘Reculver’. Reculver’s great walls were in turn pulled down in the 16th Century by Cromwell under Henry the Eighth but not its handsome chapel.
This was still in fine order right through to the eighteen hundreds. In the year 1840 and after a tremendous storm which tore down cliffs and destroyed many out-buildings it was thought wise to move the old building away from the sea’s edge. Much of its fabric was quickly dismantled, carted inland and used to construct the very pleasing Beltinge Village Church. The soft muddy cliffs of this curious coastline erode at an extraordinary rate. Countryside by the square mile has plunged into the sea since the Romans. Farms and entire villages washed away. Reculver’s towers were never demolished however, they were left and strong breakwaters constructed and these have worked wonderfully to preserve these structures through to present times.
As you can see from my photographs, the Towers of Reculver are very good examples of medieval stone work and they still stand prominently, precariously, on the extreme lip of their muddy cliff facing the North Sea. Indeed so prominent are the towers that for hundreds of years The Twin Sisters have served as a navigational beacon, used by vessels steering for and sailing from the docks of London. For those setting off for the far side of the world in the 1880s the towers were also a final glimpse of home. The façade of Australia’s first reasonably substantial building, and certainly our oldest Anglican Church, St John’s Cathedral in Parramatta, is a full-scale copy of the Reculver towers.
In 2007 I’d arranged to stay with Valerie’s mother in her Beltinge house half-way along Haven Drive. This is a new house, built in the 1930s, so relatively new, and certainly newer than the hunting lodge a street or two away reputedly once belonging to that same King Henry. Sadly Vera had died weeks earlier. Her house was shut up and I in a B&B across the way. Still two days had been put aside to visit the family so ample time to explore the cliff-top common admiring the meadows and photographing wildflowers. The path to the towers is much used, retired couples from the village strolling with their dogs to the Reculver and Londoners from the camping ground along the cliffs hiking to the amusements of Herne Bay. From the path there are views across wheat fields to the new Beltinge Village Church, a good mile inland from those muddy cliffs still steadily tumbling into the sea. Looking the other way, to the North Sea, rearing incongruously from the gun-metal water of the Thames Estuary and indeed with drama to give the impression of a stupendous work of art, there was a windfarm. Its great sails were almost motionless in the faint airs those days. Beyond, grey sea merged imperceptibly into pewter sky. Emphasising the impression of an artwork and one of considerable surreal pretension, several times, as I walked, the windfarm vanished. Moments later, sea-mist rolling on, just as precipitously it would re-appear. The windfarm’s vanishing and re-appearance seemed to be happening minute by minute. I was glancing out to sea every little while to see if it was still there or not. No horizon behind and banks of sea-mist invisible against grey sea and grey sky the miles-wide grid of the windfarm vanishing was like some prodigious conjuring trick.
At the end of my two days, I went exploring a footpath through the wheat to visit the Beltinge Church. My mother-in-law’s ashes had been interred by the church wall. The path I was walking had been made straight through the wheat planted in the big field between the church and the village, the crop now waist-deep to each side. Vera Wemyss was one of the war generation, she had lived in London all through those years. And rather enjoying herself she’d occasionally let on despite the hazards of the blitz. Her previous visit to Victoria, she’d spoken to me of three very close calls. Still, Vera was blond, striking even in her 80s and I’m sure London had its attractions. Despite her Hollywood-temptress looks mind you my mother-in-law was no one’s fool, in fact rather held her own when it came to such things as serious maths. During the war she’d worked in the army pay corps though for Vera this was coasting. In taking the job she’d turned down an intriguing invite to a hush-hush affair that might have more tested her talents. However it meant moving to this out-of-the-way place Bletchley Park and despite all the bombs my mother-in-law much preferred London’s big-city pace to the quiet rural lanes of Berkshire.
The footpath I was walking was a public way, had been trodden down by Beltinge villagers painstakingly step by step into the soft ploughed earth after the sowing of the wheat. The path had been re-made by parishioners walking to their church every spring for a long time, most years since the war. It ran much of a mile and I strolled along admiring the crop, pondering its density, wondering how the harvest might go. The gap in the wheat, though narrow, was wide enough to let in light, so encouraging to plants adapted to disturbed soils. That pale evening the path was a ribbon of colour, bright all the way with red poppies.