Monday, March 08, 2010

Saturday in Kent

Parenthood has made me a man of modest ambitions. Once, a birthday would have involved a trip to Chile or a weekend in Paris, but these days I feel lucky if I can spend a whole day without having to repair something, look after children or take things to the local recycling centre.

When my wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday last week, I said that I wanted to spend a day exploring Kent (it's come to that). I only had one destination in mind. The rest of the day would be spent wandering aimlessly, allowing serendipity to take its course.

It all seemed simple enough. Little did I know that I'd end up almost being arrested under the anti-terrorist laws.

I began the day in Aylesford, a Medway village where nothing of any significance has happened since the year 455. In the summer, Aylesford can look like a traditional, picture postcard English village, but today it was eerily quiet.

I had come here to visit the church. Generations of my ancestors had been christened, married and buried at St Peter's Church. I wanted to visit the church and have my Kunta Kinte (or Kunta Kente) moment. It never occured to me that St Peter's would be locked.

I rattled the door, hoping that there would be somebody inside, but there were no lights on in the church. I wandered round the graveyard, wondering if I might be able to pick out a familar name, but the older stones were too badly weathered. It was bitterly cold and after two circuits of the graveyard I decided to leave.

Suddenly, the church bell started to ring and I began counting: 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13... Why hadn't the ringing stopped at twelve? Assuming that someone must now be inside the church, I walked over to the door and saw that it was still locked and no lights were on. The bell rang 47 times.

Standing in a cold, windswept graveyard, listening to a bell ringing in an empty church, made me feel as if I was in an M. R. James short story.

A mile to the north of Aylesford, there are the remains of a Neolithic burial chamber. Kit's Coty is very hard to find. There are no brown heritage signs pointing the way and I wasted the best part of an hour before I managed to find the site, but it was worth the effort:

The confusingly named Kit's Coty House may not be Stonehenge, but does it deserve its current status, unvisited by all but a few, surrounded by an ugly fence?

Kit's Coty was originally covered by a mound of earth and a 50-foot tunnel led to a burial chamber. Despite its primitive appearance, it was a considerable feat of engineering to lift the huge capstone over eight feet off the ground. Who knows, perhaps my ancestors helped to build it.

The stones are pockmarked with small holes:

These holes have become very popular with the local snails:

Kit's Coty definitely had a presence and I found myself agreeing with Samuel Pepys:

"Three great stones standing upright and a great round one lying on them, of great bigness, although not so big as those on Salisbury Plain. But certainly it is a thing of great antiquity, and I am mightily glad to see it."

My next visit was to another forgotten place: the Isle of Sheppey. Formerly home to a Royal Naval dockyard and passenger-ferry terminal, Sheppey is now an economically depressed area, with cheap, badly built housing estates, scattered across a desolate landscape of mudflats and electricity pylons.

The Isle of Sheppey is less than 40 miles from London, but I felt as if I had travelled to some rather unpleasant part of Eastern Europe in the 1970s.

The main town, Sheerness appears to be almost exclusively populated by shabbily dressed people with a BMI of over 35 and, although the town centre had an Aldi and a Superdrug, most retail chains had decided to give the place a miss. I felt that if I got out of my car, a zombie-style mob would chase after me, albeit rather slowly.

Once I was safely away from the crowds of pasty-faced, dull-eyed locals, I followed these signs and parked the car. I was completely unprepared for what was around the corner:

It looked as if a chunk of Regency London had been picked up and dropped in the middle of Sheerness. Everything around was unremittingly hideous, so how did these buildings come to be here? On closer inspection, it didn't look as if the church would be around for much longer:

Apparently, this was once part of a bustling Royal Navy base, built after Sheppey became the only part of mainland Britain to have been invaded since 1066.

In 1667, a fleet of Dutch warships arrived at Sheerness and met with some very half-hearted resistance from the ill-fed, underpaid local garrison. Sheppey was only occupied for three days - I don't think the Dutch could stand being there any longer - but it was enough to convince Samuel Pepys to establish a Royal Naval dockyard in the town.

The church in the photo was built during the Regency period. This is what it looked like a century ago:

Sadly, when the Royal Navy abandoned Sheerness in 1960, over 5o historic buildings were quietly destroyed, including these:

I tried to take a photo of the hideous container port that has replaced the dockyard, but within seconds a security guard walked up to me and told me that I couldn't take any pictures, as it was a high security area. He made it quite clear that the matter was non-negotiable. I nodded and started to walk away.

I don't like being told what to do, particularly by private security guards, so I developed an ingenious plan: I'd pretend to walk away, hide around the corner, pop out from behind a tree and take a shot. They'd never rumble that.

I found my tree, disabled the flash and quickly took a photo. It wasn't quick enough. A loud "Oi!" was followed by the sound of someone running. My car was just around the corner and I started to speed up my pace, whilst trying to create the impression that I wasn't really running away and always walked like Quentin Crisp.

I had visions of being pursued across the island, all for the sake of one stupid, dull photo of a freight terminal. There was only one bridge to the mainland and I didn't know the roads. The situation was hopeless. I slowed down and waited for the guard to arrive.

It was a different man; younger and more amenable. He soon accepted that I wasn't a potential terrorist, but seemed to think that I was a container port enthusiast, which was far worse. I tried to explain why I was there, but I wasn't quite sure myself. One thing was clear: I wanted to leave and was grateful that the guard gave me the opportunity to delete the picture without taking things any further.

I decided to head back to the mainland and felt a palpable sense of relief when I left Sheppey behind me. I don't think I'll ever go back.

At this point I could have happily driven home, but there were still a few hours of daylight left. I decided to follow the next road sign I saw. It said Faversham

I knew nothing about Faversham. It was a name that nestled somewhere in my subconscious, next to Miss Havisham and evoked an olde worlde, genteel town full of Daily Telegraph readers. Amazingly, that's exactly what it was:

These attractive almshouses are probably home to several Miss Havishams, although the real Miss Havisham would probably be more at home in the building across the road:

I liked Faversham straight away. The best towns have an ecclectic mixture of buildings from different periods and because they have developed organically over time, they work far better than planned communities. The other important ingredient in a sucessful town is a social mix and although Faversham appeared solidly middle class, I felt that it still was a working town with a broad cross-section of people:

However, this was probably the nearest the Faversham got to having any mean streets. The rest of the town centre was more like this:

Kent is a strange place. Parts of it conform to its "Garden of England" image, with historic towns, beautiful villages and a countryside dotted with oasthouses, but there are also other areas that are blighted by bad housing, overdevelopment and poor transport links.

I'm particularly interested in the darker side of Kent. Canterbury and Whitstable may have their charms but I'm attracted to the forgotten places that are barely acknowledged in guide books and tourist brochures, like this tower that I discovered last year.

The journey home seemed to take forever and when I finally passed the sign that marked the beginning of East Sussex, I felt that this was my home. Sod the ancestors.


Brian Busby said...

Forgive my ignorance, but a licensed sex shop? Really? I dare not ask what sort of process is involved.

With Pierre Trudeau's "there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation" and all that, I suddenly feel like I'm living in some sort of sexual playground.

Alienne said...

I have been lurking for some time, just reading your posts but I had to comment on this one!

I have spent a lot of time in Aylesford in the past - that is the bridge Tommy Steele is singing on at the beginning of Half a Sixpence. If you go there again try the Little Gem in the main street - it is supposed to be one of the oldest, as well as smallest pubs in England. Just mind your head on the Minstrels' Gallery. It was so nice to see the picture of Kits Coty - I pass close to it everytime I go to visit my mother and everytime I think I must stop and see it again. I will now. And Sheerness!! All the bleak days I spent there as a child came flooding back - we always used to look for the wreck of the ship (can't remember the name) carrying gelignite that went down in the estuary in the war - you can see one end of it sticking out of the water. I have only driven through Faversham but must stop there too, it looks lovely.

I followed the link to your previous post which was also fascinating - I am a native of the Medway towns though I now live in Tunbridge Wells so I knew everything you were talking about (including Grain and Hadlow).

Thanks for the memories.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Well you still seem to manage to have just as many adventures trekking round Kent for a day as Chile for a week.

Wonderful pictures. How sad re the Isle of Sheppey. Sounds like the sex shop is the last entertainment they have left.

I imagine the freight depot guards were too ashamed of its sheer awfulness to permit photographs. I do hope so.

Rob Spence said...

Lovely pictures, and fascinating to see these unregarded corners. You might like the blog of my colleague Roy Bayfield, which is about his walks around similarly obscure places. He's currently having a little hiatus whilst waiting for his heart to be bypassed.

Caroline said...

Believe me, we Dutch have our very own horrible places. Proof of that is, that I actually go to Kent to spend holidays there.

Brett said...

A marvelous and funny post. I love the M. R. James moment in the graveyard, the zombies of Sheerness, and the lewd arrow on the sex shop sign.

I've read about those Kentish oasthouses in several novels with scenes of the hop harvest.

Regarding your "tower" link, yes, Hodgson's "The House on the Borderland" is well known in the U.S. among fans of the Cthulhu Mythos.

You have a talent for travel writing, Steerforth. I bet you could get published.

Hannah Stoneham said...

A great and very funny post - thank you very much. I know what you mean by the dark side of Kent - I always think of this when I read Charles Dickens and it is still there today - despite the "garden of England" ideas churned out by the tourist authority. Sounds like you found plenty to do anyway -

thanks indeed for sharing


Steerforth said...

Brian - I'm not an expert on this, but I think the licensed sex shop is a hangover from pre-internet days, when Britain's obscenity laws meant that access to pornography could be limited to specific outlets. It's an odd idea, I know.

Alienne - I'll try the Little Gem - I walked past it and was very tempted to go in.

I've never seen "Half a Sixpence", but I'll make a point of watching it next time it's on.

Thanks for commenting. I know that the blog gets a certain number of hits per day, but I never know how many of these are from readers, rather than someone in Lithuania searching for an image of Bonnie Tyler.

Laura, you're right and in its own way, the Isle of Sheppey felt more like the other side of the world than Chile ever did.

Rob - Thanks for pointing me to Roy's blog - I really liked it.

Caroline - I know what you mean. I remember a drive from Rotterdam to Hoek van Holland and was amazed at the amount of industry. I wanted to see some historic towns, but the people I was staying with wanted to show me oil refineries and the delta works.

Brett - Thanks for your kind words. I would love to write something that was good enough to be published - I just hope that practice makes perfect.

Hannah - Yes, I'm always reminded of Dickens when I'm in certain parts of Kent - and not the Dickens that the tourist boards would like to promote.

Resolute Reader said...

I'm not sure that you're correct that it is the only part of the mainland to be invaded since 1066. I'm fairly sure that there were a number of short lived invasions of English coastal towns (such as Rye) during the 100 years war. I shall look up Barbara Tuchman when I get home this evening.

Thomas at My Porch said...

What an interesting post. I enjoyed living vicariously through your day of exploration. The remains of Sheerness looked fascinating. I work in Historic Preservation on large abandoned government installations so I know the charm and sadness they can embody.

Planet Me said...

My one abiding memory of Sheppy is arriving at the city centre to be confronted with a sign bearing three words : "DHSS", "Prison" and "Beach".

Is the weather vane on the Sheerness tower still crooked? It was listing at a 45 degree angle last time I saw it.

Steerforth said...

Yes, it's still at an angle. A sad sight.