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July 24, 2005 || 6:18 pm
A weekend in East Kent

The boy and I just escaped for another weekend in an unlikely holiday destination: east Kent. The Romney marshes, a room above a pub in Hythe. I guess we're quite strange in our choice of romantic hideaway. But it was utterly wonderful, and I'm going to just try to list the things we did and saw, so as not to forget.

12 year olds smoking in the carpark of the Aldi's supermarket. Deserted, beautiful seafront with nine cars full of old ladies eating soft-scoop icecream and sandwiches, watching the sea through the drizzle on their car windscreens. A couple with their grandchildren, making sandcastles in the rather surreal steely light, straight out of Martin Parr. The Imperial Hotel and its golf course, also well-populated by old ladies, despite the soft rain. A very beautiful and rather large, French-feeling cliff of a church where a small string band is rehearsing Tchaikovsky, and lovely little walled lanes running up and down the hill. Some nice old pubs with lots of WW2 memorabilia - maps of doodlebug crash locations and pictures of 'The Few'.

Hythe's odd means of transportation - the Royal Military Canal and the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. The former apparently a way to move troops around during the Napoleonic Wars when we were scared of the French invading this part of the coast. But seems like a lot of effort to go to just in order to move troops 20 miles or so. Very complex engineering, paid for by our first income tax. It's not very big, really rather domestic in scale, and now full of waterlilies, fat ducks and bordered by new EU-sponsored signage and 'youths' in tracksuits riding their bikes and smoking.

The Railway is a folly of a certain Captain Howey, built in 1927, but actually is an amazingly well-rounded business and even turns a profit. Running several steam and diesel engines on a 15" gauge line, its toy-like carriages (including superb 'first class' car with full bar service, for which you pay a 25p supplement) take holidaymakers up and down its 13 mile route, shoppers, locals and even runs a special school service, taking up to 200 children to school every day. In the winter a reduced service runs (with 'Santa specials' at weekends) but the line is used to train staff from the fullsized rail lines in Health and Safety, signalling, simulated emergencies and all other aspects of operation because, as our barman told us, 'we've got everything you need to demonstrate with here in only 13 miles.' We fell in love with it. I am in danger of becomeing a mad proselytizer for the virtues of small-gauge railways as the ideal form of local public transport. It also served a surreal military purpose - you can see bizarre photos of it carrying soldiers in armoured carriages with gun-mounts during WW2 - very Dad's Army.

It also has the most fantastic little context in Hythe - the railway greasy cafe, run by a middle-aged Italian couple, where we ate breakfast and noticed a steady stream of people going back and forth down an alley beside it, and emerging with shopping bags of produce. We investigated, and found the most wonderful, local farmers market taking place in the alley and in what looked like an old school hall (fading pale blue paint and a small proscenium stage, wooden floorboards) behind the cafe. A far cry from the middle-class contentment of a London farmers market, it was teeming with shoppers of all sorts and sold homemade bread, veg and fruit, eggs, cakes, gingerbread men, quiches, some cheese, Kent apple juice, olives and cheese and jam, all at cheap, local prices. It was everything you would hope a town's market to be - unpretentious, unfanciful, honest and eccentrically local, an extension of a WI cake sale - and totally unexpected, I must say, given the other shopping options that we had seen so far in Hythe.

Romney Sands holiday village with its tattooed young fathers taking their small children swimming in the pool, wrapped in West Ham towels. You felt that you might find Posh and Becks there, if they'd never make it big. The endless single row of bungalows facing the sea that goes on for miles all the way from Romney to Dungeness, sandwiched between a road and the little railway line. A sign in the Spar saying that due to incidents of eggs and flour being thrown at cars, they would no longer sell eggs or flour to children unless 'obviously part of a shopping list', and lots of St George's flags in the wind.

Dungeness was more populous than I had imagined. Busy railway end cafe and shop, lots of visitors. Two pubs at opposite ends of the village. Lots of houses. Two lighthouses. The huge hulking power station and the sense of the shingle going on forever in a rather dizzying way. Derek Jarman's garden, of course wonderful, and I didn't realise it has no fence around it, just melting into the landscape until you aren't sure if the rusting piece of something a dozen yards off was placed there by him or was always just there. We bought smoked sardines and prawns, and a dressed crab, from the little smokery to eat with the bread from the farmer's market on the beach.

Riding the motorbike through the rain around the coast to Whitstable. The redundant grandness of Folkestone, all four or five-storey Edwardian mansion blocks, and the strangeness and fragmentation of Dover. Seeing the ferries come in behind the lost terraced houses and B&Bs, cut off from the rest of the town by the big freight roads and some ugly 70s slabs - and round the corner, the cuteness of St Margaret's Bay with its village pubs and smuggler's hidey-holes. The Pfizer factory near Sandwich, an overgrown yellow brick office complex, a huge complex of factory and laboratories for sex masquerading as block of flats masquerading as a house. The Pfizer Sport and Social Club (part of their Section 106?) advertising Natasha Bedingfield, Amici Forever and Myleene Klass. Car boot sales and auto auctions, pick-your-own fruit and a deserted, romantic coal-fired power station which seemed transplanted from somewhere in Yorkshire.

Whitstable was bigger than I had imagined, and less trendy-feeling. We ate at the bar of the Oyster Company in our wet leathers before wending our way home throught hideous traffic around Dartford, and through my old stomping ground of Thurrock and the London Thames Gateway, back to Arsenal. It all got me in the road-trip mood, ready for going back to the States tomorrow and rejoining my jeep...



Bravo. Anyone who CHOOSES to go to a place called "Dungeness" deserves a warm round of applause.

By Blogger Gordon, at 9:21 am  

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