Bays where Roman and Viking invaders stormed ashore
When Julius Caesar landed on the coast near Deal in 55 BC, he came, he saw, but he did not conquer, as the Britons drove him off. Conquest was left to the Emperor Claudius, who invaded in AD 43, and almost certainly assembled his troops at Richborough, where the walls of a Roman fort still stand in monumental splendour. In today’s more peaceful times, holidaymakers are the new invaders of this historic stretch of coast.
The third member of the trio of Thanet coast resorts, Ramsgate achieves a middle way between the bright lights of Margate and the quiet of Broadstairs. Geographically, it is better placed than either, since it faces due south and gets all the sun that is going. The town is built symmetrically round the harbour, with graceful early 19th-century terraces on either side. In 1981, the harbour took on a new lease of life with the introduction of cross-Channel ferries to Dunkirk.
The harbour is one of the busiest on the south coast, and is especially attractive at night when lights twinkle from the rows of moored yachts in the inner marina. An obelisk on the East Pier commemorates George IV’s landing at Ramsgate in 1822, since when the harbour has had the title of ‘Royal Harbour’. The local council has marked out a Historic Harbour Trail, with no fewer than 36 points to look out for, from the modern lifeboat to the dry-dock of 1791, now being restored. Ramsgate Harbour’s best known historical moment came in 1940, when 82,000 men evacuated from Dunkirk were landed there. A stained-glass window in the church of St George commemorates the event.
The main bathing beach is at Ramsgate Sands, north-east of the harbour. Swimming is safe except by the harbour wall, where the tide can produce dangerous currents. Lifeguards patrol every day throughout the summer. Boats can be launched from a ramp at the western end of the beach, reached by a narrow road from the end of the Royal Esplanade.
A small local museum in the public library, a model village on the clifftop promenade and a collection of historic cars in West Cliff Hall are open daily in summer. There is also a covered swimming pool.
Seagoing craft ancient and modern meet in this sandy bay, which is fringed on the north side by low chalk cliffs leading round to Ramsgate. The world’s first international hoverport was built there in 1968, and although flights to Calais have now been discontinued, there is still a maintenance department for hovercraft.
On a grassy slope above the hovercraft depot is the Hugin, a replica of a dragon-prowed Viking longship. In 1949 she was sailed across the Channel by a Danish crew to mark the 1,500th anniversary of the landing in Kent of Hengist and Horsa, the warrior leaders from Jutland. The traditional site of their landing was at Ebbsfleet, and they were followed 150 years later, in AD 597, by St Augustine, who landed there on his mission to convert the pagans of Kent to Christianity. St Augustine’s Cross, put up in 1884, is just outside the village of Cliffs End, down Foads Lane off the main road.
The three huge cooling towers of the
Richborough power station are the chief landmark of the flat countryside between
Sandwich and Thanet. There are guided tours of the power station on certain days in summer.
Across the road is Richborough Port, built during the First World War to ship men and munitions to France, and used again in the Second World War to construct part of the prefabricated Mulberry Harbour, towed across to Normandy after the D-Day landings.
When the Romans conquered Britain in the 1st century AD, the Isle of Thanet, on which Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate now stand, was a real island, separated from the mainland by the mile-wide Wantsum Channel. To guard this important waterway the Romans built two forts – Rutupiae (Richborough) at the south-east end, and Regulbium (Reculver) to the north-west.
The last and most powerful castle was built in about AD 285 as one of the chain of fortresses – the Forts of the Saxon Shore -built to deter sea-raiders from across the North Sea. Of the huge square outer wall, almost two complete sides and part of a third survive, together with the base of turrets and bastions. Also visible are the foundations of an enormous triumphal arch built about 200 years earlier. This would have served as a constant reminder to the British of the distant might of Rome, and also been visible for miles out to sea as a landmark for mariners. The museum on the site contains a collection of pottery, building materials, coins, lamps and ornaments.
The northernmost of the Cinque Ports, Sandwich is a delightful old town with a baffling medieval street plan of constant twists and turns, medieval gateways, and no fewer than three medieval churches. Though Sandwich is now almost 2 miles inland, the Stour is still navigable along a channel which winds for 5 miles or so to the open sea. In the Middle Ages Sandwich was as much a gateway to England as Dover, and kings, princes and merchants landed at its harbour. But its prosperity declined as the river silted up and ships became larger.
The entrance to the town is guarded by the twin-turreted Barbican Gate, built in 1539, which faces north across a narrow swing bridge over the Stour. Far older is the stone Fisher Gate, overlooking the Quay, built in 1384 at a time of savage raids on Sandwich by the French. In the bloodiest of these, which took place in 1457, 4,000 Frenchmen killed the Mayor and other leading citizens, and since then mayors of Sandwich have worn a black robe in memory of the slaughter.
Many Cinque Port treasures and other exhibits connected with the history of Sandwich are on show in the Guildhall Museum, in the town centre, which is open by appointment. On view in the Council Chamber and Court Room are the 16th-century Mayor’s chair, an old jury box which can be folded away when not in use, portraits of notable people connected with Sandwich, and processional maces and halberds, and the ‘Common Horn’ used to announce royal proclamations. History of another sort is in the dolls’ houses and Noah’s Arks of the Precinct Toy Collection in Harnet Street.
Sandwich added a word to the English language in the 18th century, when John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, unwilling to drag himself away from the gambling table for long enough to eat a proper meal, asked for a slice of beef between pieces of bread.
CABBAGE ON THE CLIFFS Wild cabbage, the ancestor of garden cabbage, grows on chalk and limestone cliffs. Though it has fleshy leaves and no heart it was once sold as a vegetable in Dover market, but its bitter leaves needed boiling for a long time before they could be eaten.
North of Deal the shingle gives way to sand dunes, which provide the setting for three championship golf links: Royal Cinque Ports, Royal St George’s, and Prince’s. A toll road from Sandwich leads to a large car park by the Prince’s clubhouse. From there it is possible to walk along the shingle foreshore to the Sandwich Bay Nature Reserve, administered by the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation, in conjunction with the National Trust and the RSPB.
The 700 acre reserve is the last untouched complex of beach and foreshore, together with a hinterland of dunes and salt-marsh, left in Kent. Plants that grow there include sea holly and marsh-orchids; and waders and wildfowl roost and feed in the estuary where the River Stour runs into Sandwich Bay.
There is safe swimming from the wide sands of Sandwich Flats.
A plaque in Marine Road, just south of Deal Castle, proclaims that this was the point where Julius Caesar landed in Britain on August 25, 55 BC. As the line of the coast was very different 2,000 years ago, the information cannot be taken literally, but certainly the galleys would have grounded on sloping shingle similar to the present-day beach.
It was the shingle that saved Deal from becoming a bucket-and-spade resort in Vic- torian times, as there is no sand to attract the holidaymaker with children. So Deal has remained much as it was in the 18th century, with hardly any Victorian seafront development.
The beach is steeply sloping, and is safe for swimmers close inshore, though children should always have an adult with them. A rescue boat patrols every day in summer, and red flags are flown from the pier when it is too rough to swim. The 1,000 ft long pier, which was opened in 1957, is popular with anglers. They catch a great variety of fish including cod, codling, whiting and flatfish.
In St George’s Road is a small museum full of exhibits concerning Deal’s maritime his- tory. They include several examples of the tough Deal ‘beach boats’ which were designed for launching off the shingle beach to carry pilots, passengers and stores to vessels anchored in The Downs – the stretch of water between Deal and the Goodwins where sailing ships awaited favourable winds to take them down the Channel or up to the Thames Estuary. The Maritime Museum is open every afternoon in summer.
Deal Castle, built by Henry VIII in 1540 and shaped like a Tudor rose, was in former times the residence of the Captain of the Cinque Ports, and is still a powerful-looking fortress. It is open to the public daily. Near by is the old Time Ball Tower, from which ships at anchor in The Downs can check their chronometers. At 1 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time each day the black ball on top of the tower, connected electrically to Greenwich, drops down the central shaft. The tower is a museum of naval communication, telling the story of the building and of the naval signalling system.
At Deal’s northern end are the ruins of Sandown Castle, of which only a buttress or two has survived 450 years of pounding by the sea.
This is the southernmost of three castles -the others are at Deal and Sandown – built in the 1530s by Henry VIII at a time of threatened invasion by the Roman Catholic powers. It is now the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. When it was built the sea came right up to the walls of the castle; but the shingle built up and the castle is now some way back from the sea, almost hidden behind trees and a thick growth of ivy on the walls.
Walmer Castle saw no action until the Civil War in 1642, when it fell easily to the Parliamentarians. It was recaptured briefly inl648 when a Kentish army rebelled against the rule of Parliament.
The castle and its gardens are open to the public daily except on Mondays. Inside, the stern military appearance gives way to an elegant 18th-century panelled interior, which has remained much as it was when
William Pitt, who became Prime Minister in 1783, was Lord Warden in the 1790s. There are numerous portraits and relics of the Duke of Wellington, who was Lord Warden at the time of his death in the castle in 1852.
Walmer merges into Deal a short way south of Deal Castle; the two places now form a single continuous built-up area.
Reached down a steep hill from Ringwould, the centre of this village consists of a cluster of old fishermen’s cottages above a shingle beach, dotted here and there with boats and small huts. The celebrated ‘white cliffs’ begin at Kingsdown, at the end of Under-cliffe Road. There are footpaths along the foreshore and up on to the cliffs; a notice board gives the firing times of the Marines rifle-range, and red flags fly when firing is in progress.
ST MARGARET’S BAY
Below the village of St Margaret’s at Cliffe, a narrow road zigzags sharply down to the sea, past the holiday homes of St Margaret’s Bay which are built on terraced lanes one above the other. The little cove of shingle and rocks, with towering chalk cliffs on either side, is the nearest point to France, about 21 miles away, and so it has become the traditional starting or finishing point for cross-Channel swimmers.
The beach is protected with groynes made of massive iron girders; swimming is safe close to the beach, except at high tide. At either end of the beach notices warn that the cliff face is unstable, and the foreshore below them should be avoided. There is a car park behind the beach, but the road is so twisting and narrow that in summer it is better to leave the car at the top of the hill and waLk down.
The mild climate produces some spectacular near-tropical gardens, full of brilliant fuchsias and other shrubs and plants. One public garden, The Pines, contains a powerful bronze statue, 9 ft tall, of Sir Winston Churchill, made in 1972 by the sculptor Oscar Nemon.
Above the cliffs and reached down Granville Road north-east of the village is the tall granite obelisk of the Dover Patrol Memorial, commemorating men of the Dover Patrol who died in the two world wars while patrolling the Channel and watching out for enemy warships. The rolling heathland on top of the cliffs, known as The Leas, belongs to the National Trust.
There are good clifftop walks to Dover in one direction and Kingsdown in the other, though in the Kingsdown direction walkers have to cross the Royal Marines rifle-range, where access is forbidden when red flags are flying.
THE GOODWIN SANDS:
OF SHIPS AND MEN
Four miles off Deal lies one of the world’s greatest hazards to shipping – a sand-bar measuring 12 miles long and 5 miles wide at its widest point. Countless vessels have foundered on the treacherous shifting sands and been sucked down, never to be seen again, giving the Goodwin Sands the gruesome nickname of The Ship Swallower’.
The name Goodwin is thought to be derived from the Saxon Earl Godwin, father of King Harold. According to one account the sands are the remains of a strip of land called Lomea and owned by Earl Godwin, which was buried under the waves after a storm. There is no evidence, however, that such a land existed, for the Goodwins are all sand, 80 ft deep and resting on a chalk bed.
The hazard is made more difficult by the fact that the sands are constantly moving and changing their shape. Despite the presence of three Trinity House lightships and ten warning buoys, ships still run aground when the sands are covered at high tide, and break their backs as the tide falls. At low tide the Goodwins reveal part of their grim haul: the masts of two American ships, the North Eastern Victory and Luray Victory, which foundered in 1946, jut from the sand like the bones of a sea monster’s victims. The crews of both vessels were rescued.
Between the Goodwin Sands and the shore is a safe channel called The Downs. It was once an anchorage, particularly for sailing ships waiting to move into the Thames. But the channel is narrowing; slowly the sands are shifting west, and may eventually join the mainland.
Despite modem aids such ns radar and echo sound-ers, ships slili founder on the Goodwins willi frightening regularity. and no fewer then seven lifeboat stations are on call to go to their aid. Nowhere in the world is there such extensive lifeboat coverage for a single area. Each station is located so thai am/ part of the sands can he reached as quickly as possible, for a ship on the Goodwins nan/ sink and disappear within hours.
The first lifeboat to be stationed in the Goodwins area was sited at Ramsgate in 1S52, followed by the Walmer lifeboat in 1S57. By 1S65 there were four lifeboats concentrated on 11 miles of coast, and more were added before the end of Hie century. The first of three lightships look station in 1795 al North Sand Head.
THE GREAT STORM In November 1703 the east const of England was hit by the worst storm the country had ever known -mid in The Downs channel a fleet of English men-o’-war caught the full force. Four ships were driven on to the Goodwins and 2,500 seamen died, including Admiral Beaumont. Along the rest of the coast the havoc continued, wrecking ships and harbours and carrying away the first Eddystone lighthouse.
CALAMITY CORNER When the trench ship Agen, laden with mahogany, broke in two on the eastern edge of the Goodwins in 1952 she followed two earlier victims at the spot, which became known as ‘Calamity Comer’.
BACK FROM THE GRAVE Sometimes the Goodwins give up their victims, but only for a short time. This German submarine, U-48, zoas sunk in 1917 and reappeared in 1921 and again in 1973.
CRICKET MATCHES AND GHOST SHIPS LAY In 1S54 a MrThompson and a Mr Hammond hit on the bizarre idea of holding a cricket match on the Goodwin Sands. The two teams played on a stretch of flat sand at low tide, returning at sunset. Since then several cricket matches have been played on the sands, often between teams of the Royal Nam/ dressed in 19th-century costume.
THE FIFTY-YEAR sum On February 13, 1748 the three-masted schooner Lady Lovibond went aground on the sands, steered there deliberately, it is said, by the mate who had been a rival for the captain’s wife. Exactly 50 years later the.’ghost ship’ zoas seen by two other vessels, and she has been reported as appearing every 50 years since.