THE GATEWAY TO ENGLAND

We’ve been in Kent for the past week in our caravan at Hythe. We enjoyed it although the weather was mixed – but as ever, on the bad days we weren’t having picnics so it was all fun. For Autumn, it was quite mild.

The site was very busy, but there was plenty of space allocated to each ’emplacement’, so you did not get irritated by your neighbour’s preoccupation with celebrities, or the fact that her husband spoke to the dog more than he did to her. (Given the drivel she would spout, the dog probably made more sense.)

We went in to Hythe, which was fascinating in that it was so old fashioned. It had draper’s shops with stuff in drawers served to you by women dressed entirely in black, and your purchases wrapped up in parcels tied with string.

While Kent was not unfriendly, I think it would be fair to say that it is reserved in the case of strangers and one can understand why. It is very flat (though it has some low hills) and perhaps because of that, the sea is not often a dominant presence, even though it surrounds the county on 3 sides. It has fertile soil, lighter than the heavy clay of Sussex, and is well wooded, and has many orchards; also there are fields of cabbages, potatoes, maize, and hops. The houses were mostly of brick; some were very old.

There appeared to be two main bodies of native peoples. There are some, descended one supposes from the Viking Normans, where the men are very tall, with thin faces, and fairish hair and while not perhaps handsome, are personable; and the woman of that type is beautiful. We had lunch in a small inn we chanced upon at St Mary’s in the Marsh, where we visited the local church which was surprisingly large for such a small village. In the church the vicar was attempting to reassure a young woman that the flower arrangements for her wedding that weekend would be fine. The bride, even in her jeans, was lovely, long blonde haired, very pale skinned, with an unblemished oval face, fine arching eyebrows, a long nose, blue eyes and a mouth that could have been painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I wondered if Joan, the fair maid of Kent, had looked like this. In the pub a local family of several generations was celebrating someone’s birthday, and the young women, while not as beautiful as the bride, were after the same fashion. Another type of face, seen mostly in men, was square and flat and dark.

Not by any stretch of the imagination could you describe Dover as an attractive town; but it is interesting. You become aware as you look at it that invaders have marched through it many times. There is a lovely bronze age boat in a museum which is well worth a visit. It is a large vessel – about the size of a Maori war canoe, made of oak, using the entire length of a trunk, split and tied together with yew withies. The joints of these were packed with moss and beeswax. There was no evidence of sails – no cavity to lodge the end of the mast in – and the part where the rudder had been (if there was one) was missing. But I thought it was moving, seeing how man has been resourceful and ingenious using what items were available to him throughout history. It was thought the boat had been used for trading with Europe, because of its size.

We also saw the remains of a Roman fort at Richborough, which was huge, and we supposed had been used as an administrative and store centre at the entry point of Britain.

Folkstone was not an attractive town but it had a grand hotel, lovely promenade on the upper levels of the cliff with beautiful gardens and views out to sea. The other areas of the town were rather shabby and there was no evidence of any ferries being active. Broadstairs was also an upmarket coastal town. We visited Tenterden, whch has nice buildings and shops.

We revisited Margate and Ramsgate. These towns which are very run down have beautiful Georgian architecture, and will be lovely after a period of gentrification which is already beginning to take shape. In Margate we went to the Turner, which is an attractive modern building – nice cafe and museum shop. But what a shame about the art (exhibition). Now everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but there were paintings of African atrocities which could have been executed in blood. I hurried past. There were ‘sculptures’ where I thought the artist – one Phyllida Barlow – was mocking us. One of her works for example was a large heap of broken pallets heaped on the and floor under a rusty length of pipe dangling overhead. It was untitled. We could have proposed a title: Useless junk sneers at our gullibility. This exhibition is described as ‘Bringing togther works by British sculptor Phyllida Barlow, British-Kenyan painter Michael Armitage, and J M W Turner. There were two representations by Turner, both the size of a postcard, and they looked to me to be the piece of paper on which one blots one’s brush. One felt they were rather taking liberties with the great man’s name.) Then on to Ramsgate (the Sands Hotel where we had a delicious lunch on a terrace looking out to sea. ) John had biscuits and cheese at the end of the meal. When we rose to go, a seagull who had been standing motionless on a lamppost for most of our meal, suddenly dive-bombed our table and made off with some cheese biscuits. I could feel the feathers of his wings against my hair.

We made an unsuccessful attempt on Canterbury (which we have visited before). We turned in to the old city where Disabled parking was promised but found it completely chaotic within, so crowded with pedestrians that we had difficulty proceeding through the streets. We decided to give Canterbury a miss (if only we could escape it! ) I have sometimes wondered why Canterbury is the first diocese of the Church of England, but being in Kent I realised it was because it was the nearest to Rome.

We visited Dover Castle (built by Henry II) which is very large and was used in various wars including of course the second World War. In Kent there are also several castles built in the time of Henry VIII who fortunately of course had plenty of money from plundering the wealth of the church. We visited Deal, and Walmer. They were a kind of rose shape and their guns could cover 360 degrees. Walmer was furnished, quite skilfully for the rounded ‘petals’ of the building were not standard in size, and the garden was lovely; full of roses, dahlias, and fruit and berry trees. The Queen Mother had been Warden of the Cinque ports and she had stayed here, but the principle Warden (and who died here) had been the Duke of Wellington.

Well, there’s an account of our Autumn holiday in the caravan in East Kent. The weather was mixed but we still enjoyed it. The food on the holiday was uniformly good. The houses were not particularly beautiful. I was not greatly impressed with the shopping although we ‘looked at’ one or two. But it has gentle village architecture…. lovely old farmhouses that look as though the farmer in residence could trace his ancestry back to the stone age, gardens, interesting and lovely houses, harbours ranging from the ‘smart’ to one where locals sat on the seawall, pint of (locally brewed and quite delicious our visitor got hopelessly lost and was as panic stricken as the boy being asked to skipper the bronze age boat across the Channel.

I almost forgot. Rory and Sarah and their children came down to Kent on our penultimate day and we went together on the little train to Dungeness. The train trundles along the bottom of people’s gardens; the countryside is whisking your face. Some gardens are delightfully planned and present  an elegant orderliness; others are just mess and disorder. You see into the charming domesticity of English villages. All in all, for a peaceful restful holiday, pleasant local villages, nice meals, it was all quite charming.

 

While peace lasts, Kent is a good place to visit.

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