Holiday playground on a coast that was once an island
In Roman times the Isle of Thanet was a real island, separated from the mainland by a mile-wide stretch of water, the Wantsum Channel. This channel silted up over the centuries, and today Thanet is an island only in name. Along its coastline the resorts of Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate unite to form a continuous holiday playground, providing bays and beaches that differ widely in character and amusements that cater for many tastes.
Originally a fishing village, this quiet seaside town was laid out as a resort in the 1830s and has preserved its Victorian atmosphere. The main feature of the seafront is the 80 ft tall clock tower which dates from 1837. Heme Bay’s pier was once the second longest in the country after Southend’s, before it was severely damaged by storms in 1978 and demolished in 1979. The Pier Pavilion Leisure Centre, built in 1976 at the pier’s landward end, is the focus of the town’s holiday attractions. It replaced the Grand Pier Pavilion, built in 1910 but destroyed by fire in 1970.
Heme Bay’s long straight foreshore is exposed to the full force of wind and tide, and the approaches to the beach from the promenade can be sealed by floodgates in severe storms. The best swimming is at the western end, between the Pier Pavilion and the stone jetty known as Hampton Pier, where the shingle leads down to sand with some mud holes. East of the pavilion the beach becomes more stony. Volunteer lifeguards sometimes patrol the beach. A stone slipway opposite William Street can be used for 2 hours either side of high water.
West of Hampton Pier the foreshore turns sharply south, forming a bay used by powerboats, which are launched from a slipway at the bottom of Swalecliff Avenue, within 3 hours of high water. Offshore is a water-ski channel, but elsewhere there is a speed limit of 8 knots within 500 yds of the high-water mark.
At the eastern end of the town the ground rises, with gently sloping grass banks giving way to steep muddy cliffs, and a pedestrian parade below.
A small, overgrown ravine leads through yellow-brown clay cliffs to a shingle beach. The walk from Heme Bay to the glen along the foreshore is a muddy one; to avoid this, the glen can also be reached from Beltinge or Bishopstone by a footpath, which leads down to some wooden steps on to the beach.
Sharply etched against the sky, the twin towers of Reculver’s ruined St Mary’s Church are the principal landmark of the 10 mile stretch of coast between Heme Bay and Margate. In the 3rd century AD the Romans built the fortress of Regulbium to guard the northern end of the Wantsum Channel, which then separated the mainland of Kent from the Isle of Thanet. In AD 669 King Egbert of Kent founded a monastery and church inside the fort; the present towers date from a rebuilding in the 12th century.
By the early 19th century the sea had washed away half the Roman fort and threatened to undermine the church. Most of it was demolished, but the towers, nicknamed the Two Sisters, had become so important as a landmark for sailors that they were restored by Trinity House, though without the spires that once made them even more conspicuous.
A small resort of caravan parks and amusement arcades has developed round the ancient ruins. Swimming is possible from the shingle beach round the sea-wall. Shellfish gathered from the foreshore must be boiled thoroughly before consumption.
From Reculver there are good walks westwards to Heme Bay, 3 miles along a clifftop footpath, and eastwards to Margate along the sea-wall.
Although it now forms the westernmost part of Margate, Birchington still has a recognisable identity as a separate village, grouped around its medieval parish church of All Saints. The Victorian artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti died at Birchington in 1882, and is buried in the churchyard.
At Birchington the shoreline takes on the pattern typical of the Isle of Thanet: low chalk cliffs, protected by a massive sea-wall and buttresses, lead down to seaweed-covered rocks separated by small sandy bays. Birchington has four of these bays, where swimming is safe provided the rocks are avoided. The largest and most popular is Minnis Bay, which has a small grassy area covered with beached sailing dinghies, and a slipway that can be used for 2½ hours either side of high water.
At Grenham Bay there are warnings of cliff falls; there is access at either end of the bay, and a launching ramp at the eastern end. Beresford Gap is reserved for powerboats and water-skiing, and bathing and fishing are forbidden. Epple Bay is the prettiest of the four bays; backed by a small field and golf course, it is a deeply indented sandy cove, surrounded by steep chalk cliffs and reached either by steps or a ramp.
In the grounds of Quex Park, about a mile south of the Canterbury Road, the Powell-Cotton Museum displays the dozens of animals shot by Major Percy Powell-Cotton (1866-1940) in a lifetime of big-game hunting. The exhibits are arranged in dioramas showing their natural habitats.
WESTGATE ON SEA
A resort of red-brick Victorian and Edwardian houses, Westgate is the sedate western suburb of Margate. It has plenty of green open spaces, and two bays separated by a promontory laid out with landscaped gardens. At Westgate Bay the cliffs dip sharply, forming a gentle beach with a launching ramp at the western end. St Mildred’s Bay is a lively bathing beach, with beach huts and a launching ramp at its eastern end.
In the middle of the wide, grass-covered promontory that divides Westgate from Margate is a delightful sunken garden, which in spring and autumn provides a resting-point for migrant birds.
For more than 200 years Margate has attracted Londoners to its superb crescent of sand – ever since Benjamin Beale, a Margate Quaker and glovemaker, invented the covered bathing machine in 1753. Before the arrival of the railway, visitors came to Margate from London by sea, in special boats, the ‘Margate Hoys’. Passengers came ashore at the stone jetty known as Margate Pier, which was built by John Rennie and curves protectingly round the harbour. It was completed in 1815, one month before the arrival of the first steamboat. Confusingly, Margate’s traditional seaside pier was known as the Jetty, but this was almost entirely destroyed by a storm in 1978; only the skeleton of the seaward end still juts forlornly from the sea.
Margate’s amusement arcades run along the main seafront of Marine Terrace in a procession of flashing lights and blaring pop music. At their centre is the vast funfair, founded in 1920 and known for 60 years as Dreamland but now renamed the Bembom Brothers Theme Park. Open daily in summer, it includes a big wheel climbing to 140 ft, a scenic railway, a water chute and picnic gardens.
Two other attractions of Margate are both underground. On Grotto Hill is the Shell Grotto, open daily in summer and decorated from floor to ceiling with intricate shell designs. Discovered last century, it is believed to be a temple of ancient but unknown origin. Margate Caves in Northdown Road were hewn out of chalk more than 1,000 years ago and have served as dungeon, church and smugglers’ hideout. The caves are open daily in summer.
Swimming is safe, and the gently sloping sands are ideal for children learning to swim. Lifeguards patrol every day throughout the summer. There are two slipways – one into the harbour, which dries out at low tide, the other on the seaward side of the pier.
On the outskirts of Margate, off College Road, stands Draper’s Windmill, the survivor of three mills built on the site about 1850 and restored to full working order by the Draper’s Mill Trust. It is open to visitors on Sunday afternoons all summer, and also on Thursday evenings in July and August.
At the eastern end of Margate, Cliftonville is built on a clifftop plateau set well back behind a broad expanse of grass. Its centre is a wide rectangular garden, known as The Oval. Cliftonville’s main beach is at Palm Bay, where a promenade runs along the foreshore above the beach. From Palm Bay Avenue a ramp leads under the clifftop Princes Walk down to the beach. Opposite the end of Palm Bay Avenue is a powerboat ramp leading to a water-ski channel.
The wide Princes Walk leads into other footpaths, making it possible to walk round Foreness Point to Kingsgate; motorists have to drive almost a mile inland.
On the cliff edge between the road and the sea stands Kingsgate Castle. Battlemented and vast, it was built around 1860 and at one time belonged to Lord Avebury, the Victorian politician who introduced Bank Holidays in 1871.
Botany Bay, at the end of Kingsgate Avenue, is reached by steps down to the beach. Kingsgate Bay, below the castle, has a sheltered sandy beach reached by steps. The nearest car park is at Joss Bay, below North Foreland lighthouse. Joss Bay is a centre for canoeing and surfboarding; there is also good swimming there.
NORTH FORELAND LIGHTHOUSE
There is said to have beenalightof some sort at this point since 1505, to warn ships away from the treacherous Goodwin Sands, 7 miles off the coast. The present lighthouse is 85 ft high, and its beam is visible at night for 20 miles. It is open to the public at weekends and on most weekday afternoons.
There are reminders of the novelist Charles Dickens at almost every corner of the narrow, twisting streets of Broadstairs. Bleak House, where he wrote David Copper-field, stands high on the north side of the town, looking down on the sands of Viking Bay. Known in Dickens’ time as Fort House, it is now the Dickens and Maritime Centre, and is open daily except in winter. Near by is the Dickens House Museum, open daily in summer, which once belonged to Miss Mary Strong, the model for the character of Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. Every year in June there is a week-long Dickens festival, when local people dress in Dickensian costume.
Swimming is safe from the ‘rare good sands’, as Dickens called them, since the little harbour is partly protected by a small pier, the successor to one built in the time of Henry VIII. A portcullis arch, known as York Gate, also dates from this period. A slipway can be reached from the car park beside the pier.
From Broadstairs, a road along the coast turns inland at Dumpton Gap, where a steep tarmac track leads down to a concrete ramp on to the sand. Except near high tide, it is possible to walk south along the foreshore to Ramsgate.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Fordwich. 10 miles SW of Birchington, off A28. Old-world village on Stour. once port for Canterbury. 16th-century town hall with museum, partly Norman church
Minster Abbey, 5 miles W of Ramsgate. off B2048 11th-century abbey, now nunnery. Grounds, cloisters and pans of building. Weekdays, mornings only in winter,