A visit to the ship swallower

It’s a dark and cold moonlit night as I stumble out of the car and into the King Ethelberg. A low mist hangs in the air and a security light above the door illuminates it rolling in curls and wisps. The shadowy figures of the two towers of the Roman fort at Reculver emerge, their black, looming silhouettes wrapped in the quilt of the sky. Flashing lights of planes are visible through the misty haze with the stars intermittently coming into sharp focus. I’ve narrowly avoided scraping the kayak on my roof rack on the low bar to the car park. There is a sense of isolation and strangeness to the place, accentuated by a sign advertising stuffed lambs hearts on the menu outside. Valentine’s Day has just been and what better way to celebrate than eating the heart of a sheep. The pub has a slow, warm feeling. A large wooden bar in the middle divides it into two spaces and a cluster of diners are finishing off their plates of offal before drifting off into the night. Dried hops hang over the bar, signaling that I’m in ale country. I order a pint of Ethelberg lager, standing at the bar next to a plastic lifeboat collection box as Fontella Bass‘s 1965 recording of ‘Rescue Me’ rolled onto the duke box. One of those moments when sound and vision collide together. Old black and white photos of caravan parks clustered around the coast and the towers signal a heyday of tourism that has now long gone. The kitchen closes and a trio of hooded youths appear, taking up what seem like regular positions slumped over the bar. The barmaid asks if I’m ok for a drink as she disappears down the trapdoor into the cellar. I’ve reached the end of the road and decide to call it a night. 

Outside, the sky has cleared. The tide is out and I can hear the gentle lapping if water against the shore. There is the occasional blast of a fast train on the high speed tracks nearby with lines of lights running out into the distance. A group of people are playing with some flying, flashing light sticks amongst the gravestones behind the towers. Orange lights of the car park project the shadows of trees into the mist. There is a crisp cold feeling in the air. As I surreptitiously pitch my tent, a bearded man with a hunched back and metal pots and pans strapped to it, appears over the hill, rattling and shambling past as if a lost time traveller from the Canterbury tales. I settle into the night and watch as the sky clears to show off the stars. A bright yellow glow develops to the east and little by little, the moon reveals itself as a glowing orb like the rising sun. It’s a spring tide and I’ve got an early start in the morning. The mist still hangs over the flat farmland when I wake. The tent is damp from the heavy dew overnight and the ground is frosty. I drive past a small cafe with a permanent sign saying ‘Open’, not at 5am, I think. The sky is pinky orange with the silhouettes of windmills, barns and trees floating through the low cloud. It’s a magical morning. As I approach the shingle beach in Deal, long strips of cloud are stretched out across the sky as if their only purpose is as a supporting cast to reflect the glowing orange of the sunrise, a treasure trove of silver and gold strands. 

I’m here to paddle out to Goodwin Sands, a notorious sandbank off the east Kent coast which has been the site of numerous shipwrecks and tragedies. I plan to get there at low tide with the spring tide bringing the lowest low of the monthly lunar cycle. It’s an early start but worth it. I slip away from the beach as the small town stirs quietly on this glorious Sunday morning. A few cardinal marks and channel buoys dot the way out to the sands and I use them for navigation checks until the low lying strand of land reveals itself from the sea. Seals lye basking in the sun and a few cargo ships seek shelter in the famous ‘Downs’. There is a light breeze (F2-3) blowing onshore and its cooling whisper is welcome in the low winter sun. The sand is picked up to form low ridges and mounds with pools and channels in between. These sands are known as the ‘ship swallower’ for their potential to subsume wrecks into a sandy grave. I step out onto the sand tentatively and find the surface to be hard and solid. It’s a different story below the water though and I quickly pull my foot from disappearing into a hole. I’m nervous to walk too far from the kayak and so attach a rope just in case and set off across this expansive desert. It’s a strange and beautiful wilderness from which I can see the white cliffs of Dover and a long vista stretching out past the East Goodwin Sands lightship into the Shipping channel and over to France beyond. The deep blue sky is reflected perfectly in the warm pools of water and the patterns of scaly furrows and wrinkles is repeated in miniature on the surface of the golden sand. The rising sun is just beginning to hold bit of warmth. Flocks of gulls gather and disperse but otherwise this temporary place has a sense of calm and stillness.  

My tentative explorations of the sands come to an end as the tide turns and starts to come in, reminding me of the famous Brambles cricket match that takes place on this emerging pitch every year. I launch back into the boat, avoiding the slurping, hungry grains beneath the water. Weaving between the channels, I can hear and feel the sea starting to rush back in. I skirt the edges where more seals languidly bask and birds rest their wings. The temptation of visiting the East Goodwin Sands lightship on the horizon is too much and although I know I’ll have strong tide against me decide to push towards it. The silhouette on the horizon stays defiantly the same size and I can see by a conical buoy to my right on the edge off the shipping lane that I’m fighting a loosing battle. Another time, I think. My idle thoughts drift to its partner vessel on the opposite side of the channel marking similar shoals and banks off the French coast, the Sandettie Lightvessel of Shipping Forecast fame. With the tide eventually winning I have s slog back to the disappearing sands. I land briefly for a rest and within minutes my kayak starts to wobble and bob on the rising sea. The water laps the edges of the mounds, splashing and jumping chaotically before forming a perfect circle of small waves eventually covering the sands. These spots of immersion are dotted around everywhere and the sound is incredible, rushing, jumping and sloshing water which even on this day of relative calm, creates a turbulent stretch of water. Without too much imagination, I can see why in strong winds and big swells, this place has earned its notoriety. It’s disorientating too as what was there has now gone and my position on the water is shifting with the tidal flow. The floating marker buoys peppered around help me gain my bearings, as does the compass on the front of the kayak, literally. I can start to pick out Ramsgate, Pegwell Bay and what must be the beach that I left from, through the haze that hangs on the horizon. 

Changing my course to head back in, I notice a large grey boat to my left which seems to be coming towards me at speed. I quicken my paddle stroke to get clear of it, waiting to see the flank appearing the other side of its bow signalling that I’ve passed but as I do so, it turns and aims towards me again. I stop paddling this time to let it pass but again it turns towards me. This game of cat and mouse continues until I am close enough to make out the words ‘Border Force’ written in large black letters along the side. I quickly recognise that this is the Royal Navy cutter, much talked about in the news, deployed by the UK Home Office to show that some action is being taken over the number of small boats approaching these shores. Over the relatively mild winter, over 150 migrants and asylum seekers have taken to the water in dangerously unseaworthy boats out of desperation for a better life. As I write this, the figure has increased to over 650 since November 2018. The cutter slows down and stops infant of me. Men in uniform appear on deck holding semi automatic riffles which is countered by a friendly ‘Hello’ from one of the officers ‘Nice morning for it’ he says and I agree, wondering if he means nice morning to be arrested off the coast of the UK with no ID and having my kayak impounded or if he just means nice morning to be out on the water. I go for the latter and answer their questions about where I’ve come from and what I am doing as if having a normal conversation. Satisfied that I’m not seeking asylum, they wave me off with a cheery goodbye but not before I’ve had chance to take some pictures of the odd encounter. Gradually the pier in Deal emerges into view and I aim to the end of it, aware that I have a tidal push to my side. The stepped shingle beach rises above me as I return to where I started  earlier in the morning. It’s mid afternoon and the promenade is busy with people walking amongst the fishing sheds, boats and cafes.  I negotiate my way through, as much as you can when carrying a five and a half meter long boat on your shoulder, trying to to spear anyone of inadvertently take them out with the stern as I turn around. Changed out of my dry suit and with my kit all packed up, I spend a lazy afternoon in the pub with the author of the brilliant book ‘Attention All Shipping’  Charlie Connelly and his wife Jude. We catch up on each other’s stories of the sea, his new book about the channel, moving house and the importance of a connection with nature, whilst eating huge pork scratching, drinking local beer and idly watching the Rugby World Cup in the background. A short but eventful trip, later that evening I turn to point the kayak westwards and take to the M2, happy to have visited this mysterious place.