I don’t need a plan! no, I’m a free spirit, a make it up as you go along kind of guy. I’ll just go there and see what happens. I thought, before I ended up on the M2 for three and a half hours, crawling along heading for the coast and watching the sat nav on my phone slowly increase the journey time for what would normally be just over an hour. I’ve been watching the weather for a week and dodging a storm over the weekend, shifting my leave from work to attend a meeting with a new client. I’ve a habit of trying to do too many things at the same time and for some reason, my mind switched into a kind of mental paralysis every time I tried to consider the simple and oft repeated logistics of picking up my boat, putting it on the roof of the car and driving towards the sea. Since returning from the first leg of my overseas journey, I’ve been offered kind support from some well known brands (Kokatat, Werner paddles, Finisterre) and also have bought a new kayak with some help from Tiderace sea kayaks. I’m out of sync with all this new, untested kit and bundle enough into the car to last for a 3 month expedition (I end up paddling for two days) I’ve arranged to meet with Charlie Connelly, author of ‘Attention All Shipping’ a fellow fan and journeyer around the Shipping Forecast. I was given a well thumbed copy of the book whilst preparing for my fellowship interview and recovering from Meningitis. Charlie has been a friendly supporter ever since I got in contact with vague questions about places to avoid or not to miss. We’ve arranged to meet in the aptly named pub ‘The Ship’ I’m late and ready for a beer. I check into a hotel near the station. It smells of disinfectant and the room comes with a set of ear plugs (it was the cheapest option). I throw my bag onto the floor and head out into the night. The streets running parallel to the beach are narrow and meandering as the buildings jostle for position, it’s dark and the town is deserted (not surprising for a damp Tuesday evening in November) but I can see the distant warm glow of lights reflecting off the wet ground, through a light drizzle that’s set in. It feels Dickensian which seems appropriate too as I’m just down the coast from Broadstairs, Dickens’ favourite retreat and inspiration for several characters in his novels. I peer in through the steamed windows of the double fronted brick building. The red ensign of the merchant navy hangs above the door. I’m not surprised it’s raining as Charlie describes in his book ‘Hello Sunshine’ he is a magnet for precipitation and tells stories of being caught in the most freakish of downpours.
The pub is quiet and relaxed. there’s a small bar on the left with a few local beers and a cluster of wizened folk propped up around it. There’s no music but a gentle atmosphere fills the room. I recognise Charlie, who’s sitting in the corner at a punched copper topped table beneath a poster commemorating the heroes of the Goodwin Sands. He kindly offers me a drink and the anxiety of the journey starts to ebb away. It’s brilliant to share stories and I realise there are not many people that would have also been to the places I’d visited so far. The areas of the shipping forecast make for a relatively unlikely set of holiday destinations. A small sign by the bar says ‘Cash Only’ I panic at the idea and the realisation that I’ve thoughtlessly bought my contactless London ways to this small Kentish town. Despite this embarrassing oversight, conversation flows to a fourth beer, by the end of which it’s time to go home. It’s been a great evening and I’m happy to have been able to find someone who could laugh at my close encounter with the Norwegian exorcist, tasked with cleansing the school on the small island of Utsira, my near miss being storm bound in the dull Danish town of Hansholm that can no longer even boast a ferry terminal and hazy days in the sandy flats of German Bight. We chat briefly about the fascinating and tragic story of the under sung father of the forecast, Robert Fitzroy for whom inventing the worlds first storm warning system was just one of his many achievements and who we both hold in high regard. We laugh about the image of an odd group of travellers arriving on a desolate beach in Patagonia laden with crockery and trinkets from to good people of Walthamstow. I quiz him about the next stops on my journey, once the winter storms have passed. He tells me of the strange beauty and timeless stillness of Finisterre, a rugged headland on the coast of Galicia, marking the end of the world (as the name suggests) As the evening comes to an end, people leaving the pub stand near the door and say goodbye to the others in the room who bid them goodnight by name in return. Charlie points out the house of a former ‘Carry On’ star as we pass and part company.
I wake thinking about where to start my exploration of the Kent coast. I’ve noted ‘Viking Bay’ on the map and have also spotted the replica Viking ship just outside Ramsgate and this seems like a contender. There are large M.O.D firing ranges at Hythe and Dungeness and it turns out they’re scheduled to be firing all day from 8 in the morning to 11.30 at night over the next three days. Whilst this didn’t bother me too much whilst stringing my way along the Dutch Frisian Islands and throwing caution to the wind, I’m not going to take my chances on home turf. I’ve also lost the aerial to my VHF and crossing the busy ferry lanes at Dover requires constant contact with the Port Authority. On top of this, although equipped with some charts, I’m missing some maps for the area. I’m familiar with the coast here and have paddled much of it before, but I’ve recently read a story about a sailor who tried to follow the coast to circumnavigate the UK and ended up circling around and around the Isle of Sheppey. I’m not going to take my chances. It’s still relatively windy and my head is a little cloudy so I make it my mission to sort out these omissions before setting off. Admittedly a bit more planning wouldn’t have gone a miss. I fail on the VHF front although the HQ and factory of a large UK supplier are nearby in Kent their stock is mail order only. I am successful with the maps, always an exciting thing to buy and I take the opportunity to have a look around the harbour in Ramsgate. A series of colonnaded terraces step up the hill, the arches housing sailmakers, bike hire, galleries and cafes getting gradually smaller as the road above curves down to meet the quay. The chandlery that I’m looking for is closed, a large padlock ties together the port and starboard painted doors, shame as I love a good chandlery. Walking along ‘Military Road’ I get to the seafarers church, a three storey, red brick building with arched windows, its back wall forming the retaining structure to the cliff behind, holding up the terrace that now carries the road. Before I reach the church, I pass an adjoining building where tiled letters above the windows read ‘The Ramsgate Home for Smack Boys’ Smack obviously having a different meaning then to its more recent urban appropriation. The building provided shelter for young men working on the fishing smacks and later provided a home for those rescued from wrecks on the notorious Goodwin sands. A small door at the side leads into the church, set up in 1878 as a harbour mission and occupying the ground floor. It’s a simple room, with a high ceiling, painted white and with wooden pews in rows. It’s full of small model boats and paintings on the walls of ships, some are in glass cases and some are in full sail. There’s a stormy painting of the lightship ‘Kentish Knock’ being thrown around in rough waters. Models of the local lifeboats show changes in design over time but a steady sense of pride of the bravery of their crews. A cut out newspaper article recalls ‘The Tide of Timber’ spilt by a Russian ship sailing from Sweden to Egypt in 2009, its cargo strewn along this coast. Outside, the harbour is full with a mix of fishing and sailing boats, whisps of clouds whip across the otherwise blue sky and there’s a chill in the wind. A busker in the high street wears sunglasses whilst strumming the blues on an electric guitar, it’s a slow morning. This was the point from which, as a young child aboard a small boat with my dad at the helm, our family would start our crossings to France and Holland. Waved off by friendly customs officials who’d come aboard for a drink on the heavily loaded return leg, I had little idea at the time that hundreds of similar small ships had made that same journey but in very different circumstances as part of Operation Dynamo in 1940. There’s definitely more to discover in Ramsgate, not least the ornate tower of the massive St Georges church, which peaks majestically over the high street. I decide to leave that for another day and move on.
The sand on the beach at Broadstairs has been banked up to form a bund, peaking above the rows of beach huts behind, which hunker down in front of the steep cliffs. Boats are stacked up against the wall, tucked away from the waters edge and sheltered from the wind, there’s a sense of calm preparedness to the place, bracing itself for a battering from the winter storms. The old lifeboat station on the beach displays a map with the littering of shipwrecks on the Goodwin sands. A carved figurehead of a Scotsman, rescued from one of the wrecks stands tall above a jaunty corner. The building has relaxed on it’s old timber frame and the magnolia weatherboarded sides bulge and lean towards the few cars parked along the short arm of the harbour. A couple sit in the car next to me, staring intently out to sea in apparent silence, I wonder what they’re thinking. The tide is coming in. Waves intermittently crash against the small slipway leading to what’s left of the beach and sending spray up into the air. A few dog walkers mill around heading along the concrete pathway to the north which runs beneath the cliffs to the next beach. There is an almost painterly quality to the light, the wind has dropped slightly and the feint golden glow of the sun is appearing intermittently behind the grey clouds. A man wheels up on a bright orange, low rider pedal bike with huge, gleaming chrome handlebars that splay and curl upwards like a pair of shiny horns. He cruises around the car park showing it off, a confederate flag sticker signalling, I hope not much more than that he sees himself as a bit of a rebel. “It’s not really the weather for that is it?” He calls in my direction, looking at the kayak, looking at me and then out to sea. “It’s a bit rough” he adds, turning the handle bars to stop in front of me. It’s a fine ride he has, even if it would be more at home on Venice Beach than North Foreland. “Nice bike” I say, looking at it properly “I made it myself, I’m not sure about the colour” he looks at the shiny paintwork, it seems like a test ride “Impressive” I add. He eyes up my boat and wishes me luck before cruising off with a “rather you than me”. I’m hungry and walk up the hill, under the stone arch of York Gate on Harbour Street into the small town. A sign advertising the best chip shop in Kent, as voted for by the potato council, reels me in to buy a chip butty and momentarily plants the image of a gathering of Mr and Mrs potato heads assessing the other entries. After this athletes nutrition stop, I buy a bottle of water from the supermarket and I’m finally ready to go.
The tide is rising and has devoured the slipway and beach. Tied by the inconvenience of the car, I plan a short trip along the coast to Pegwell Bay, going against the tide as it washes in to the channel and then getting washed back along the low chalky cliffs with it. There’s still a light swell on the water and the low afternoon sun washes over it giving a golden sheen. Occasional houses teeter on the edges of the otherwise uninterrupted line of tufty grass sitting atop the white, wrinkled surface of the chalk. The straight, horizontal lines of flints are perfectly aligned, giving way to clumps of grass, holes and hidden caves. I pass Dumpton Gap, where concrete defences are set into the cliff. Many a cold winter trip has been spent with our club in these waters, huddling under a group shelter on the beach trying to warm up. Towards Ramsgate, there are a series of small white cliffs with more concrete structures securing the soft chalk. The rhythm of intermittent beach shelters inset into the base of the cliffs starts to break up and makes way for larger buildings and high arched concrete walls holding the chalk behind. The long harbour arm of Ramsgate comes into view and I pass through some patches of more lively, bouncy water. The arms are outstretched like a big hug for seafarers returning to the safety of land. The sea is choppy but gentle with the occasional unexpected slap. As I turn the corner into Pegwell Bay, the low, southwesterly afternoon sun hits the sea and shines through the green sloppy water as it peaks and then drops into a trough. I stop on the water to take a couple of photos in the sun and am washed back toward the harbour entrance. A small, high sided fishing boat turning in for the day chugs in behind me and I realise I should be paying more attention. Heading back, the sky becomes a perfect light show of emerging colours and shapes, the whispy clouds taking the hues of the setting sun. A pink haze grows above the water and brings our the turquoise green of the briny foreground. A gentle gradient washes up to the blue sky which is punctured by the bright white speck of the moon. It’s a beautiful experience and grows in intensity until the surface of the water takes on a fiery orangey red set against the silhouette of houses poking up over the cliffs. It sit and drift in it for a while bobbing around, immersed in the spectacle. The sun sets quickly and in failing light, I land the boat between crashing waves onto a slipway, haul it up over some metal railings and go in search of a curry at the local tandoori.
I wake early the next day and catch the sun rising over the abandoned hover port at Pegwell Bay. The buildings have all gone but a pedestrian bridge remains, stepping over brambles and shrubs that populate the once busy roadway. The apron of tarmac is still marked with arrows and lines which are being gradually claimed back by nature. It’s a clear morning and the sun grows quickly from a tiny line to a shimmering orb. The odd dog walker appears from the bushes and wading birds peep and pip around. There’s a sharp metallic smell in the air, the tide is out, exposing a mixture of mud and seaweed. I try to imagine the noise and scale of the operation when it was in full swing, the giant SRN4 hover crafts making the 30 minute crossing to France, killed mainly by changes to the law on duty free. I find some footage online later and they truly were mad contraptions, hailed as the future of passenger transport and invented by a man with a hairdryer and a tin can.
Above the now silent flats, with the backdrop of suburban semi detached homes and bus stops sits the Viking ship, Hugin. Gifted by the Danish government to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the Anglo Saxon invasion of these islands. It is silhouetted perfectly against the rising sun which brings out the gold decoration on the prominent lions head carving to the bow. A combination of good timing and luck align to let me photograph the sun perfectly surrounded by the swirling spiral of the tail on the carving to the stern. It’s an impressive sight. The long oars and shields lined up along the flanks giving it an energy which is contained by the mundane metal fence that now surrounds it. Hugin landed at Viking Bay, Broadstairs in 1949 crewed by 53 Danes navigating with just a sextant. The ship’s flag carried a raven, Huginn, meaning ‘thought’ who was one of two ravens, the other being Muninn (memory) that in Norse mythology, travelled the world and sat on the shoulders of Odin, informing him what was going on. The voyage was a project of the Danish Tourist board who had the replica longship crafted in a ship yard in Frederikssund near Copenhagen. After an advert in the national newspaper, a call went out via the Danish rowers union to all the rowing clubs in Denmark and after over 250 applications, the motley crew of Insurance brokers, prison wardens, booksellers, a police officer, fishermen, dentists, and an ambulance driver, amongst others, was formed. One stipulation being that all must be over 180cm tall, be willing to grow a beard and not cut their hair, for the true Viking look. The ship was sailed and rowed through the Limfjord via Thyborøn to the North Sea before setting off for the main voyage from Esbjerg to Broadstairs to the sound of the Danish and British National Anthems. The selected Viking crew ranged in age from 19 to 61 and had costumes on loan from the Danish Royal Opera which they proudly donned on reaching ports along the way. An account of the 10 day voyage sounds like it was by no means plain sailing or even rowing, the boat facing big seas off Terschelling on the the Dutch Frisian coast but kept a watchful eye on by a safety vessel. Despite this the recollection of the first few days by one of the Vikings, paints an enticing picture ‘It was a wonderfully fine evening with a sunset more magnificent that I remember ever having seen the like before. Phosphorescence lit up the twilight; it was as if we were sailing on liquid silver, the waves dancing around the bows and in our wake gleamed and sparkled in the darkness.’ It is said that the crew drank over 4000 bottles of beer on the journey which were donated by the Tuborg brewery. The weather seemingly calmed and warmed up for the crossing itself and press planes overhead snapped the sunburnt vikings naked, leading to the questioning of what happened to their pants In the morning papers. The ship anchored off the English coast, close to the North Goodwin Sands Lighthouse where it was met by navy vessels, a carrier pigeon and its escort ship, before being joined by hundreds of small ships for its triumphant arrival in Broadstairs. The ship and crew were met with huge celebrations on the beach and for several days following, including a trip up the Thames, escorted by kayakers from the special boats service and a banquet at the Guild Hall with the Major of London. The ship was later gifted to the towns of Ramsgate and Broadstairs by the Daily Mail, ironic given their general hysteria around immigration. Some brilliant British Pathe footage records the landing and celebrations with the comic juxtaposition of Viking costumes and the ceremonial garb of local dignitaries.
An orange topped patrol boat is running up and down the coast just within sight of the shingle beach and white cliffs. The morning news has reports of a stolen French fishing boat arriving in Dover with a group of migrants aboard. Over the course of the next months dozens of small boats have been stopped attempting to make the 21 mile crossing over the world’s busiest shipping lane. For me there is a strange pull as I gaze out to sea and the sun reflects off the light swell in the Channel. As an early morning sea swimmer, Charlie had told me the previous night that from the steeply shelving shingle beach it’s sometimes possible to see the sun glinting off the French cliffs. Being here reiterates to me how close this lower lip and chin of Kent and the hungry mouth of the Thames estuary are to mainland Europe. For millennia, this stretch of water has been crossed, fought over and contested, providing a vital connection to mainland Europe. Over the following few days around Dover, I see these reminders everywhere. Exploring the area on land, I ramble around the western heights, towering over the town and littered with military structures, sunken forts and impressive defences. The most interesting of these is the grand shaft staircase designed to take troops quickly from the cliff top to the street level. Three overlaid spiral staircases corkscrew into the rock around a central light well with arched openings onto the shaft giving it the quality of an impossible Escher drawing. Im lucky to be there on one of the monthly open days and enjoy seeing dogs loosing their owners as they run up and down the intertwined steps. Rambling on the chalk downland above, I also pass the remains of a knights templar church, built on the arrival of missionaries from Jerusalem in the 11th century. The foundations are all that remain of the walls which form a small circular area with a protruding rectangular part at the front making it like a key hole in plan. Just up from this is a sign to the Dover Immigration Removal Centre or DIRC. This ominously named facility occupies an old military citadel at the high point off the hill. From here you can clearly see Dover Castle which occupies the promontory on the other side of the valley. A grand castle with the keep and outer walls in tact, it would dominate the town completely were it not for the collection of other large structures that line the hillside and not least, the port itself. Below the castle is the cross channel swimmers pub, the White Horse. A dignified building with a well proportioned frontage, the walls and ceilings inside are literally covered in the signatures of teams and individuals who have completed the challenge. So much so that the barmaid tells me they’ve stopped it and now swimmers use the walls of the less elegant Fleur de Lys near the police station which has an altogether different vibe. I walk around as the sunlight streams in through the windows and marvel at the scrawls from as far away as India, Australia and Russia. A mural by the street artist Banksy adorns the end wall of a terrace in the town, a large EU flag with a workman chipping away at one of the stars. Brown tourist signs herald the ‘Bronze Age Boat’ and I decided to investigate further.
It is on the top floor of the town museum in a purpose built wing. Winding up the staircase, I pass a stuffed polar bear standing on its hind legs looking menacingly down at me. A large room full of models, maps, posters and artefacts charts the history of this settlement in the valley of the river Dour which forms a gap in the steep chalk cliffs either side. Walking along the descending ramp a set of glass doors opens into a dark room and it takes me a while to get my bearings. A large glass case in the middle of the room is lit by a series of small spotlights. The long, flat timbers of the boat sit on top of a steel cradle. There is a group of people sitting at a table in the corner discussing the design of the exhibition. My heart sinks when one of them mentions an interactive hologram display with buttons to press and pre recoded commentary. There is an interesting display showcasing some artefacts from a different lifetime and some replica sections of the boat made to trial traditional woodworking techniques. The meeting finishes and a man comes over to ask if I have any questions. He directs me to a short film about the discovery of the boat and it’s significance after telling me of the replica they’ve built and hope to cross to France in next year. I ask him if that’s permitted (knowing it’s not) ‘we’ve got friends on the other side’ he says, laughing. The film is interesting and I learn that the this is thought to be the oldest known sea going boat in the world. It was discovered during excavations for a link road in 1992 when there was a race against time to excavate the fragments against the ticking clock of a civil engineering programme. It’s thought to be over 3500 years old and is sewn together with threads of yew tree wood. The timbers were freeze dried to preserve them, a similar process to that used for the Mary Rose. The boat has a flat bottom a bit like a raft with low sides, a snubby upturned bow and an abruptly cut off aft. There’s speculation around how the stern would have looked and several theories are explained. It has the appearance of a large, dried fish fillet, the spine and ribs exposed and gnarled but adding enormously to the rich history of trade and cultural exchange with our closest neighbours.
Back in Deal, the beach is steep shingle, falling in steps towards the sea. By the time i drag the kayak down to the waters edge, the town and sea front has disappeared from view giving a sense of isolation. The yellow stones almost glow in the morning light set against the contrast of a rich, deep blue sky. The wind has dropped and there’s gentle movement on the water. Passing Walmer and Kingsdown, the chalk reappears as the cliffs pick up again. A series of detached villas are scattered around on the flat tops. Their turrets, pointy witches hat towers and verandas give them a spooky, haunted house feeling and a definite french air. These more distinct buildings give way to suburban homes. The cliffs pick up again before stepping down into the small collection of houses dotted around on the wooded hillside leading to the gravel beach at St Margaret’s Bay. Three well proportioned Art Deco villas sit under the cliff, white render and curved glass Crital windows sit aside semi circular gables in the centre. The sight of ferries on the horizon signals my arrival in Dover and I can see the end of the massive eastern harbour arm poking out from behind the cliffs. The tower of South Foreland lighthouse perches on the top with a number of other watch towers, aerials and previous signalling structures. I recall a story Charlie was telling me of a torchlit procession to the now disused tower on Remembrance Sunday a few years ago. Rounding the corner, the harbour swings into view and I sit and watch the constant movement of ships in and out. There is a cleft in the white cliff where a zig zagging path has been cut into the rock and crosses from side to side down the face. It stops around 30m above the beach and leads to a series of decaying walkways that have fallen into the sea. A series of holes look like raised caves in the rock with a rusty ladder leading up to one of them from the shore. At first glance it looks like an inviting welcome for anyone landing on this guarded part of the coast. On closer inspection it would make for a treacherous climb. Two figures in black stand beneath a watch tower on the cliff top observing my landing closely. I look up and give them a wave. I’m in a bright orange dry suit so if I was trying to be covert, this definitely wasn’t the way to do it. I clamber up the first ladder which is pretty much in tact. It leads to a flat level and what I can now see are bunkers cut into the chalk. A small stone bench has been made outside one of them, looking out to sea. I wonder about the hours spent here gazing at the horizon in search of enemy craft. The bunkers have curved fronts to them and slit windows. A pockmarked rusted metal screen to the front creates a shield to the winter sun. There are three of them built from concrete and brick, linked together by tunnels cut into the cliff, running parallel to the coast. The surface of the tunnels are indented with the small pitted hollows of a pick axe. In places green mould covers the surface which resembles a dried animal skin in the contrasting light. Boulders of chalk have tumbled into the end of the tunnel and there are archways formed in the concrete. I wonder how much further it would have extended. It’s a peaceful place with names and dates carved into the walls. I’m blinded as I turn from the dark tunnel and my dilated pupils are exposed to the full glare of the sun shining off the silvery sea. It’s a painful shock forcing me to turn away quickly and recondition myself more gradually. It’s a good lunch spot. Poking around on the beach, the low tide has exposed the rusted metal carcass of a ship, the wet chalk and seaweed making walking turn more to stumbling. Leaving the beach, a misty, low cloud rolls in and the sky turns white. The combination of white sky, white cliffs and underlying chalk turns the sea a milky turquoise green and picks out the impurities in the sheer rock face. The sun burns through the cloud as the afternoon progresses. In parallel the sea picks up slightly and turns a shiny, steely grey. It looks spectacular as the diffused rays of sunlight pick up the surface which stretches out as far as the eye can see. Once landed, Charlie and I go for a celebratory pint, chat sea stories, classic radio announcers and he kindly agrees to my request to record him reading the day’s forecast for Dover on the beach. Dover, south backing southeast later 4 or 5, mainly fair, moderate or good, occasionally poor.