Thursday, 13 June 2019

Ramsgate to Margate, Isle of Thanet, Kent - The Waning Beacon

In the southeastern corner of England, right at the end of the Kentish peninsula, the Isle of Thanet reaches out for Europe. Whether it means to shake its hand or wring its neck is another matter.

So near to the mainland and blessed with rich alluvial soils, these fertile marshes have been farmed and settled since time immemorial and still are today. If you seek a walk in the tranquillity of nature this is not necessarily the place to go. With much of this coastline overtaken by the towns of Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate, there is little chance of having much of it to yourself.

Instead it offers an immersion in physical and cultural landscapes shaped by Thanet’s distinct historical experience: sandy coves, chalky cliffs, lighthouses, cannons, ruins, and the harbours and holiday resorts of yesteryear petering on. Replica fire beacons attest to the Kent coast’s signal fire networks of old that are thought to give Thanet its name – from the Celtic root tan-, for ‘fire’, thereafter appearing as Toliatis in Ptolemy, Tanatos in Bede, and Tenet in the Domesday Book. This is a land of chalk and tar, bladder wrack, fish and chips and pink rock candy and dark clouds over a gunmetal sea, across which successive generations of the immigrants who became the English, ensconced beneath those flickering flames, have gazed out, proud and afraid, at whence they came.

Replica fire beacon in Margate
Map courtesy of Visit Thanet

This 11km route is straightforward enough – just follow the coast. There is usually a choice between soft-sand beaches, concrete promenades, or clifftop tarmac paths. Most walking is level apart from steep climbs up or down stairs when you switch between these. Two detours are of note:
a)       After Ramsgate and before Dumpton Bay, the clifftop King George VI Memorial Park may tempt you with its woods, spacious fields, coffee stalls and Italianate glasshouse. 
b)      There is an annoying stretch after Broadstairs where people with antisocial values and too much money have seized the clifftop for their private mansions, so till it erodes and dumps them in the sea a detour inland on roads is necessary.

More detailed route guidance is available here courtesy of Kent County Council.

VERY IMPORTANT: If you intend to do any walking along the beaches, be sure to check the tide tables (here) in advance. Many of the sands go completely underwater at high tide, which is extremely dangerous if it happens while you are on them.

Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate all have train stations and connecting buses with regular services, and there are many pubs, cafés and public toilets throughout the route.

High street and beach, Ramsgate

Though it retires in the shadow of the London colossal squid, Thanet’s significance in the English national story is considerable. Poking out of England’s southeastern extreme like an angry nose, its perpetual face-to-face encounter with Europe shapes its fate. It is closer to Calais and Dunkirk than to London. Its white cliffs, contiguous with Dover’s, are a counterpart to the Alabaster Coast across the Channel in Normandy – the same chalk ridge that stretches west along the Downs and east into Artois, a geological union broken only late in the day by the ice-age glacial floods that carved out the Channel. Britain was a European peninsula, and Kent was the way in.

Thanet was an island long before Britain was. For most of its inhabited life it has been cut off from the rest of Kent by what the Venerable Bede described in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 CE) as ‘a waterway about three furlongs broad called the Wantsum, which joins the sea at either end and is fordable only in two places’. This Wantsum Channel had silted up by the late Middle Ages, but Thanet’s older generations might remember when it temporarily came back with a vengeance during the great floods of 1953.

Kent around the mid-first millennium CE, with the island of Thanet and the Wantsum Channel clearly visible. Note the Roman fort towns of Richborough and Reculver.
The evidence of archaeology is that Kent has been inhabited since at least the early stone age by people migrating in from the mainland – a skull found at Swanscombe, to the northwest, has been dated back 400,000 years – and the emergence of recorded history found Thanet already well-established in its role of Britain’s front door. The Roman invasions – Caesar’s in 55-4 BCE, and Claudius’s in 43 CE – made landfall on the Kent coast, after which the Wantsum Channel became an essential shipping lane linking Roman Britannia into the imperial trade network; they planted forts to guard both ends of it. After Roman power collapsed, Thanet became the site of one of the principal legends of the Anglo-Saxon immigration, also reported by Bede: the story of the brothers Hengist and Horsa, who landed at Ebbsfleet (west of modern Ramsgate) on the invitation of the local king Vortigern to fight for him as mercenaries, only to turn on him and take over Thanet for themselves, followed by the rest of Kent and the land that ultimately became England.

Though this is likely semi-mythical at best, what is better attested is that the Kingdom of Kent was the first of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to rise as a major regional power, thanks largely to its close political and trading links with the European mainland. Though it would eventually decline into a satellite of the other kingdoms – Mercia, then Wessex – its influence on what would become the English nation proved enduring. Most notably it served as the initial cockpit of the island’s Christianization – that is, of a thousand years of the Roman Catholic church’s power in its politics and ways of life – when in 596 the monk Augustine, leading the famous mission from Pope Gregory, landed right here on Thanet, met the Kentish king, and was invited into the hospitality of his capital of Canterbury, where within a year Augustine had become its first Archbishop. Among other things that meant the rise of wealthy monasteries which made rich pickings for Viking raiders in the ninth century, who frequently targeted Thanet or wintered there on their way into the English interior.

Viking Bay, the main beach at Broadstairs. The name is modern and seems to have incorrectly commemorated the landing of the legendary Hengist, a Saxon or Jute.

What does all this add up to? They came to raid, they came to trade, they came to explore, they came to argue about whose gods were better; but in all cases, they came. Freedom of movement. For the people of Thanet, cross-Channel happenings from the Battle of Sluys to the Sangatte refugee camp were local concerns, while anything north or west of London might as well have been on the Moon. Were they not best positioned of all to understand that rivers and seas connect people, rather than divide them? That the idea of an invisible border down the Channel, unimagined through all its millennia of crossings save the most recent, is risible at best? Crossings which included the Norman invasion of 1066 and continued through a further thousand years of travellers, explorers, refugees, fishing fleets, trade ships, undersea power and internet cables, and of course, the smugglers who thrive in the nooks and caves of cliffs like these, for whose profession the reduction of borders to nothing is the very point. What sense is there in imagining a line across them, any more than that there should be one down the old Wantsum Channel to cut off from England a Thanet that at any rate still insists on calling itself an Isle?

Joss Bay, north of Broadstairs, named for the notorious smuggler Joss Snelling whose gang was active in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Smuggling was a massive, highly professionalised industry along this tunnel-riddled coastline.

It was upon the treasures of the sea that emerged the three towns on this route. Ramsgate, Margate and Broadstairs are all old fishing and farming settlements which go back at least some eight hundred years, but as England took shape they grew into maritime hubs of national significance before blossoming with the coming of railways and steamships. The -gate in Ramsgate and Margate refers to their position in convenient gaps in the cliffs, while Broadstairs, literally enough, got its name by building a set of broad stairs up them in the fourteenth century to connect the bay with an old sailors’ shrine.

In those days, with the emerging English state ruled together with much of France as a single Norman French-speaking territory, Ramsgate and Margate were extensions of the Cinque Ports, a royally-mandated confederation of military and trading hubs along this continent-facing coastline with special duties and privileges. But as the English lost their conflicts on the continent and thenceforth built a new identity as an island nation, seaworthy Thanet participated proud in the experience. In 1387 during the Hundred Years’ War, an English naval force attacked a French supply convoy out of Margate and captured an enormous quantity of wine. Over six centuries later Broadstairs would supposedly be the first place in England to hear the news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, cueing construction of another special stairway for the victorious British force to march up with their seized French eagle standard. Ramsgate Harbour was a pivotal embarkation point for that war, and would be again in 1940 for the evacuation of Dunkirk in World War II. This is to say nothing of the narrative charge infused into the white cliffs themselves as they ward off the stricken Spanish Armada while Spitfires roar overhead.

The ruined Neptune Towers, not an old fort but a 1760s folly that now ornaments a golf course. Perhaps the decision to build a folly to look like a fort however reflects a certain perception of Thanet's visual identity.

Here we come face to face with a different Thanet: a defiant, defensive coastline, armed to the teeth behind its fortifications, bristling with imperial nostalgia and arrogantly intent on being the first and last to draw a line against the marauding hordes across the strait. And while its lookouts kept their vigil beneath their burning braziers, the civilians built a way of life that tethered their isle-at-the-edge to the very heart of English cultural identity. Made suddenly popular by steamboats, railways and a newfound passion for bathing in the sea, these towns transformed into thriving coastal resorts for the escapees of a mushrooming London. Crowded beaches and donkey rides, holiday houses and rejuvenating sea air – here was the living picture-postcard of the English seaside romance, its waves immortalised in Turner watercolours while a brooding Dickens trod literary gravitas into their sands.

The Turner Contemporary Art Gallery (grey, centre left) in Margate was opened in 2011 and commemorates the town's connection with J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), namesake of the Tate gallery's Turner Prize.
Bleak House, on the cliffs at Broadstairs, where Charles Dickens (1812-70) is said to have written David Copperfield. Originally named Fort House, it was later enlarged and renamed after Dickens's later novel in his honour.

Alas, as coastal resort towns up and down the English shores know well, this romance was not to last. As globalisation and air travel raised the popularity of overseas holidays at their expense, the tourist economies of the Thanet coast and their supporting landscapes lurched into decline. They survive, yet their efforts to make a lively show of it only heighten the contrast with what they once were. Rust and peeling paint, boarded-up shops, derelict lidos, the subsidence of surplus chunks of resort into wildernesses of graffiti and stagnant water – a curtain of gloom drapes across these towns, a veil of yesterdays which for all its frays they still cling fierce to. 

A piece of Margate, lost to yesterday.
Margate Dreamland. From outside one is induced to wonder if it still exists, but go in and you find a still impressively functional and popular theme park and amusement arcade.

It feels like a diorama of England’s current struggles at the national level, for it is not as though the area lacks means. Adjacent to Thanet’s faded jewels there are strings of conspicuous clifftop mansions and manicured parks, which along with the area’s consistent votes for the Conservative Party suggest established monied interests hereabouts. It is not lack of resources that has caused the decline of English public spaces; it is that political choices have sent those resources violently elsewhere.

Kingsgate Castle, a 1760s affair once held by a Whig politician, now converted to luxury private apartments instead of a public facility with access to the coastal path.
Elsewhere on the cliffs, the monied interests no longer reach.
So much about Thanet in fact seems a microcosm of England’s deeper conflicts with itself. In that light it is not ironic that this corner of it, at once its most English and its most European, has got its name bound up in the national nervous breakdown that even now ignites its island-country nationalism, lays waste to its hopes and dreams and demolishes its standing in the world.

In the General Election of 2015, Thanet gained totemic significance in the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) when its leader, Nigel Farage, staked his position on winning the South Thanet parliamentary seat. He lost, but UKIP did manage to seize control of the Thanet District Council in Margate. When UKIP’s project came to fruition in the Brexit referendum of 2016, Thanet voted 63.8% to leave. In the turmoil that has ensued, reported hate crimes in Thanet against people perceived as foreign have rocketed. Meanwhile the possibility was raised of re-opening Ramsgate as a ferry terminal in the event of a no-deal Brexit to reduce pressure on the main port at Dover; the plan was axed when it got caught up in the scandal over Seaborne Freight, the firm given a £13.8 million government contract to run the ferry service despite having no ferries nor experience operating them.

It is in this climate of xenophobia and farce that Thanet has had a window seat over one of that climate's darkest outcomes: the suffering of refugees and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Channel, a journey which despite its unprecedented ease in terms of transport technology, has been made more perilous now than at any point in the thousands of years that people have been making it. Such is the chilling power of the racist brutality of immigration authorities on both sides of this narrow strip of water in an age where imaginary borders are valued higher than real human beings.

UKIP itself has fizzled, reduced by the loss of its talismanic leader and internal squabbles to little more than an ethno-nationalist hate group. Yet still its influence persists.
'BLOCK BREXIT' displayed from the windows of Arlington House, Margate. 36.2% of Thanet voted to remain in the EU. Democracy is not the majority forcing its will upon the minority, but the ability to take decisions together and still feel a sense of shared belonging.
But do not let that scare you off this walk. No part of this route should feel particularly dangerous so long as you keep your wits about you as you would in any territory. People will greet you warmly in the local dialect and chuckle as their dogs bound up to you to say hello, with the same refreshing friendliness as is liable to improve the day of anyone who has spent too long in big cities. Statistically speaking a great number of these people must have cast their votes in nationalist directions. But common humanity is easier to feel when looking at faces than numbers, and the English will have to rediscover it if their current crisis is to be resolved.

Thanet’s fire beacons no longer burn, but if they one day do so again, will it be in warning, or in welcome? Is it too much to dream that the dilapidated installations thrown off by its holiday industry could one day reawaken as some kind of welcome centre for all who cross the Channel in distress – a place they might find shelter, nourishment, support and community as they recover from their ordeals, learn about this country, and seek opportunities to build new lives within the story of England or Britain? A ludicrous thought in the current political atmosphere perhaps, but if this country is to one day emerge from its nightmares, then what more triumphant future could there be for the coast whose story was ever written in the waves?

They have always come. They always will.


  1. nice 1 chao u done ur homework great blog m8 :)))

  2. Very nice piece Chaobang! Never heard of this Island before, but indeed a great example of the state of the world in general as well!
    (Which reminds my that I still have 'The edge of the World by Michael Pye on my reading list)