Coastal siren - Maritime Kent
For as long as I can remember I have gazed across the wide expanse of the Thames Estuary at it; the low hills and green fields beckoning, the lights of Whitstable twinkling at twilight just beyond Sheppey's eastern edge, and on clear days the twin towers of Reculver's ancient church visible in the far distance.
I even cut my teeth on that view. As a lad we lived on Southend seafront, and while looking out across the Thames one day I slipped and chipped my front teeth on the pebbledashed window ledge.
Essex born and bred I may be, but Kent, and particularly its coast, has always filled me with fascination. And, OK, envy. Whenever winter brings snow off the North Sea, the clouds always seem to skirt my little corner of East Anglia and dump their load on Kent, piling it high on fields and roads while all we get is sleety or snowy drizzle - what we call snizzle. Conversely, in summer, the sea breezes keep us cool while over in Kent they bask in tropical heat.
My first visits were back in the days of the paddle steamers from Southend Pier, which took day trippers to Herne Bay, Ramsgate and Margate. On school trips I sailed across to the Medway, marvelling at Rochester's castle. The Medway towns still draw me back. Urban sprawl may have grown around Chatham, Gillingham and Rochester, but there are still hidden gems to discover.
On a recent visit south of the Dartford Crossing (why isn't it the Thurrock Crossing?) I spent a delightful evening exploring the pretty village of Upnor. It is only just downstream from Chatham across the Medway as it sweeps round in a huge arc, but it felt a world away as I sat with my pint in a pub garden by the sea wall and watched the warm sunset glow light up the moored boats bobbing on the river.
At the bottom of the cobbled High Street is Upnor Castle, a well-preserved Elizabethan artillery fortress which is open from April to October. Its guns failed to stop the Dutch sailing up the Medway in 1667 and attacking the British fleet at anchor off Chatham.
With its 113ft (34m) high keep, the tallest in England, Rochester Castle is even more impressive. Its gardens and moat area host events throughout the year, including open-air concerts. Both castles are run by English Heritage (www.english-heritage.org.uk), as is Temple Manor, a 13th century Knights Templar house in nearby Strood. Rochester Cathedral is England's second-oldest, with 1,400 years of history.
No longer a working naval port, Chatham's maritime heritage is preserved in the Historic Dockyard (www.thedockyard.co.uk), which marked its 25th anniversary in 2009. Set in 80 acres of Georgian and Victorian architecture, costumed guides help brings its 400 years of maritime history alive for visitors.
Attractions include the three-masted sloop, HMS Gannet, built downriver at Sheerness in 1878, as well as a submarine and the destroyer, HMS Cavalier, which is berthed where Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, was built.You can also see how rope was made, watch steam engines and sail on venerable paddle steamer Kingswear Castle (www.kingswearcastle.co.uk), which operates Medway cruises and even occasionally visits Southend.
Shopaholics have bags of choice at the Dockside Outlet Centre (www.docksideshopping.co.uk) at Chatham Maritime, next to the dockyard, with more than 40 brand-name shops offering discounts.
Charles Dickens spent part of his childhood in Chatham and the last 13 years of his life living near Rochester, and he is celebrated at DickensWorld (www.dickensworld.co.uk), also alongside the dockyard. This indoor complex is based around the life, books and times of Dickens, taking visitors on a journey back to the streets, sounds and smells of the 19th century. More Dickens history can be seen at the free Guildhall Museum in Rochester (www.medway.gov.uk/tourism).
Hop across to market town Faversham to tour Britain's oldest brewer, Shepherd Neame, which has been brewing since 1698 (www.shepherd-neame.co.uk). You can go sailing for a day on the veteran, 1892-built Thames Barge, Greta (www.greta1892.co.uk), from Faversham.
Whitstable, on the North Kent coast, is famous for its oysters (it has the country's largest commercial hatcery) and you can sample them on the beachfront at the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company (www.oysterfishery.co.uk). On balmy summer days, nothing beats a picnic on the beach looking across to Essex followed by a promenade stroll and a pint at the Old Neptune pub (www.theoldneptune.co.uk) or a local brew from a seafront kiosk. Buy fresh oysters and fish at the harbourside fish market and browse the work of local artists at the next-door harbour market.
You can also walk or cycle the Crab & Winkle Way; it traces the route of the world's first regular steam passenger railway, which linked Whitstable Harbour with Canterbury between 1830 and 1952 and was engineered by George Stephenson and his son, Robert.
Beyond Herne Bay and Reculver lies Thanet, the sticky-out corner of Kent that takes in the county's three top seaside resorts - Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate. Between them, they offer 15 sandy beaches and bays, 10 of the beaches holding the European Blue Flag award, as well as the longest continuous stretch of chalk cliffs and the only Royal Harbour (at Ramsgate) in Britain. Explore quaint streets, hunt out boutique bargains and laze over coffee at seafront cafes.
Just south of Ramsgate is one of Britain's most important, yet unsung, historic sites. Almost 100 years after Julius Caesar's first expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54BC, the Romans invaded in AD43 on the orders of emperor Claudius.
They landed at a site called Rutupiae (now Richborough), on the Wantsum Channel which then cut the Isle of Thanet from the rest of Kent and linked to theThames Estuary at Reculver. Forts were built at both. Two miles from the sea today, Richborough was the gateway to the new Roman province of Britannia and was the starting point ofWatling Street. It became a busy town and port, built around a massive triumphal arch clad in white marble which was erected in AD85. But by AD275 the town had been cleared and the arch pulled down to incorporate into the walls of the fort, and by the early 5th century troops were no longer stationed there.
Today, the thick fort walls, foundations and ditches are all that remains of this once-vital link in the Roman Empire. It is managed by English Heritage.
Sandwich also owes its existence to the Wantsum Channel, which created the natural harbour that helped it become a major port, notably between the 11th and 13th centuries. It was one of the five Cinque Ports, along with Dover, Romney, Hythe and Hastings. They wielded power and wealth third only to the Crown and the Church. Sandwich later became a weaving centre and market town. Its rich heritage includes remnants of the Old Town Wall, Fisher Gate and its Elizabethan-era Guildhall. A stroll through its narrow, medieval streets yields delights such as Holy Ghost Alley.You can also take a cruise from the quay.
Nearby Royal St George's Golf Course is one of England's premier courses and hosts The Open for the 14th time in 2011. Also close by is the Rare Species Conservation Centre (www.rarespeciesconservationcentre.org), home to a unique collection of rare and endangered animals.
Deal and Walmer castles were built by Henry VIII in the shape of a Tudor rose, as was Sandown Castle north of Deal - now all but gone. Visit Dover Castle and explore secret wartime tunnels deep in the cliffs below. All the castles are English Heritage. This part of the Kent coast is White Cliffs Country (www.whitecliffscountry.org.uk), and Dover's famous cliffs offer wonderful walks on the National Trust-managed clifftop chalk grasslands. St Margaret's Bay, where Noel Coward and Ian Fleming both lived, hides an enchanting little treasure at the foot of the towering cliffs.Watch the ferries bustling in and out of Dover as you feast on exquisite local food at the Coastguard pub restaurant (www.thecoastguard.co.uk). But leave space for the cheese platter.
Beyond Dover lies Folkestone, Hythe and Lympne, where the Port LympneWild Animal Park (www.totallywild.net) has the largest herd of captive-bred black rhinos outside Africa.
Then there is the flat expanse of Romney Marsh, best enjoyed from the miniature carriages on the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway (www.rhdr.org.uk). It runs to Dungeness, where you can climb the Grade II-listed Old Lighthouse (www.dungenesslighthouse.com) for glorious views of the Channel and countryside.
I'm not sure what it is about this coastal siren that keeps drawing me back, but I know one thing; from where I sit, the grass is definitely greener over in Kent.
maritime kent facts
Rail: Southeastern trains serve the Medway towns, north and east Kent coasts from London. High-speed trains also now link Medway with London's St Pancras International station. www.southeasternrailway.co.uk
Road: The Kent coast has easy access via the M2/A2 and M20 motorways. National Express coaches run from London Victoria to the region. www.nationalexpress.com
A car is easiest way for getting around, but you can explore the Medway area on Arriva's Medway Mainline bus services with the Arriva Inner Medway Ticket allowing you to hop on and off at various places. Tickets can be bought from bus drivers or at the Medway Visitor Information Centre in Rochester. www.medwaymainline.co.uk
Kent's coast has accommodation to fit every budget, from luxury hotels to seaside B&Bs and self-catering. Get a real local flavour by staying in a pub. Just outside Sandwich in the pretty village of Worth is the St Crispin Inn, a traditional 15th century pub offering four-star B&B accommodation in six rooms and home-cooked food. www.stcrispininn.com
There are many festivals and other events around Kent's coastal region. Rochester (www.medway.gov.uk) stages an annual Sweeps Festival (May 1-3 this year), celebrating chimney sweeps' traditional May Day holiday, and an annual Dickens Festival (June 4-6).The Sandwich Festival (www.sandwichfestival.org.uk) is a week of cultural, music, sporty and fun events in August (2010 dates tba).
Find out more information on Maritime Kent from Visit Kent
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