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.