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Ramsgate’s difficult relationship with Europe The history of this corner of England has always been coloured by its proximity to the continent

Credit: Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images Images)

Credit: Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images Images)


August 13, 2020   7 mins

It’s just over an hour from London by high-speed train, but the isle of Thanet in East Kent feels very distant from the capital. This is marginal country: a flat and watery Saxon landscape so visually distinct from the Kentish hills and orchards it borders that it might be a part of East Anglia, or Jutland, eroded and washed ashore, far from home. Though the Wantsum Channel, the narrow waterway which once separated the isle from the British mainland, has long since silted up, the sense of apartness — of a “Planet Thanet” somehow removed from the affairs of the rest of the country — endures. 

Viewed on a clear day from the chalk cliffs of Ramsgate, the matching white cliffs of France’s Cap Blanc Nez, our isle’s separated geological twin, shimmer on the horizon. In 1940 newsreels, Goering was famously shown peering at a defiant Britain from over there, no doubt picking out the town’s landmarks — the tall church spires that guided ships into harbour, the gaps and folds between the dazzling cliffs — through his binoculars. Heavily bombed in World War Two, and the marshalling point for the Little Ships of the Dunkirk evacuation, Ramsgate and Thanet’s proximity to continental Europe, source of both threat and promise, has shaped the region from the beginning of Britain’s recorded history. Perched on the edge of England, surrounded on three sides by the North Sea, the Isle of Thanet is simultaneously both marginal and central to our island’s story. Wherever it was finished, the first draft of the nation’s history was always written here.

‘Ramsgate’, c1895. (Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Joined to Ramsgate by the village of Pegwell — a series of flint-walled cottages perched precariously on chalk cliffs concealing tunnels that lead to long-disused smugglers’ caves — sweeps the broad expanse of Pegwell Bay. For thousands of years the bay’s sombre mudflats, quaking bogs and salt marshes, patrolled by long-legged wading birds and basking seals, have served as the first beachhead for migrants and adventurers, missionaries and invaders making their way to this island.

It was here, in 2017, that archaeologists discovered the expeditionary fort built by Julius Caesar in 54 BC to defend his newly-landed legions from the hostile Celtic tribesmen, and here that the legions of Claudius returned in 43 AD, this time to stay. Here, too, were the great oyster beds of Ritupiae, singled out by Roman gourmets like the poet Juvenal for special praise, part of the network of trade and empire linking this lonely shoreline to the great hub of Mediterranean civilisation.

On the other side of the bay, the great flint fort of Richborough, built half a millennium of Roman rule after Caesar splashed ashore, failed to dissuade Saxon raiders from seizing the island for their own.

The ruins of Richborough Castle. Credit: Arcaid/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to legend, the Jutish brothers Hengist and Horsa, summoned by the Romano-British king Vortigern as mercenaries, first came ashore right here, beginning the process that carved out Saxon England from Celtic Britain. A wooden longship, a gift of the Danish government, commemorates this turning point, its dragon-headed prow looking fiercely out across the North Sea towards its distant homeland.

‘The Hugin’, a viking longship in Pegwell Bay. Credit: YouTube

Under the later Saxon king Ethelbert, Pegwell’s lonely mudflats welcomed more peaceful continental migrants in the guise of St Augustine and his retinue of monks, sent wading ashore here on a mission to civilise the northern barbarians, an effort culminating in the great church of Canterbury and the beginning of England’s 1700-year Christian story. Even today, a fragment of the missionary saint’s bone is still revered in my local church, Pugin’s wondrous neo-Gothic confection of St Augustine’s, a dream in incense-clouded stone of England’s lost High Middle Ages. The England we live in now was birthed on this lonely stretch of low chalk cliffs and brown and squelching shore.

Where England ends, Europe begins, a geographic fact that built Ramsgate, the town where I live and write this. Still a modest fishing village wedged in a gap between the chalk cliffs, Ramsgate boomed as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. So many regiments passed through the town, so many warships and troop transports hugged the harbour for shelter, that ranks of Regency villas, handsome in brick and stucco, formed up along the cliffs to house the colonels and admirals, sea captains and majors quartered here.

By the war’s end, Ramsgate had played host to so many eligible officers that, in a fit of “scarlet fever” (named after their red uniforms), the town had become an extension of the London season, with fashionable debutantes and anxious spinsters alike hurrying down in flocks to bathe in the North Sea’s chill green waters and marry well. Ramsgate’s street names — Wellington Crescent, Plains of Waterloo, La Belle Alliance Square — still bear witness to this brief moment of Regency glamour, when hussars and dragoons clip-clopped along the fishing port’s cobblestones to board the ships that would take them to death or glory in the continent’s wars. 

The postwar peace cemented Ramsgate’s status as England’s fashionable resort of choice. Lords Canning and Liverpool strolled the town’s leafy squares discussing the business of government. King George IV and Princess Victoria holidayed here, splashing in the brisk North Sea, and delighting the local burghers with their regal presence. Wilkie Collins summered here, as did Dickens before he settled on the more firmly genteel charms of Broadstairs, just along the coast. Karl Marx, too, would holiday here with his long-suffering family, putting aside his lifetime’s work of global revolution for a week or two to enjoy the minstrel bands on the seafront promenades, dashing off brief notes on Europe’s political convulsions to his fellow revolutionaries while Mrs Marx and the children picnicked on the sands with Engels. 

Along with kings and revolutionaries, statesmen and writers, the town attracted artists in its heyday. William Powell Friths’s 1854 painting Ramsgate Sands — bought by Queen Victoria to remind herself of her childhood holidays — captures the crowds of mid-Victorian holidaymakers down from London by train, paddling, fully-clothed, in the lapping water, sheltering under umbrellas from the sun in their top hats and hooped skirts. The French painter James Tissot sketched fashionable ladies in crinoline taking tea overlooking the mast-filled harbour, while an impoverished Vincent Van Gogh taught art in a squalid school here for his room and board while admiring the “harbour full of all kinds of ships, closed in by stone jetties running into the sea on which one can walk,” where “further out one sees the sea in its natural state, and that’s beautiful.” Writing to his brother Theo, praising the shafts of light that burst through the black clouds after a squall, Van Gogh observed “this town has something very singular; one notices the sea in everything.” 

Reading at the Table by James Tissot (1876). Credit: Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Turner, a regular visitor to neighbouring Margate, famously remarked in a similar vein to Ruskin that “the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe,” a quality given to them by the North Sea, which forms the clouds that reflect the dying sun’s most lurid moods. Still the violent drama of their sunsets — the livid reds and golds, oranges and pinks — make the sea and sky seem more real and vivid than the ground you stand on. Indeed, living here feels, at times, more like living out at sea than on land. 

All through the year, sudden sea mists drift ashore and blanket the town in white cloud. The lights of fishing boats blink out at sea through the chill fog even as the road in front of you is swallowed by the gloom. In winter, the North Sea winds make the town’s Victorian houses list and creak like wooden ships in high swell, as waves of rain lash against their window glass. Cars and fixtures rust quickly here, wooden doorframes and windows peel and warp in the harsh salt air. The trees along the seafront are bent sideways by the wind; the salt sea air smells sharp, and fresh, like a living thing caught wriggling in a net.

As far back as 1536, the essayist William Camden remarked that Thanet’s locals were “as it were amphibious creatures, and get their living both by sea and land; for they deal in both elements, and are both fishers and ploughmen; for the same hand that holds the plough, steers the ship likewise.” Smugglers and wreckers as well as fishermen, the locals were viewed with some disfavour by the Customs men sent down by Whitehall to disrupt their illicit trade with the continent. “The seamen here are generally reputed excellent sailors, and shew themselves very dextrous and bold in going off to succour ships in distress,” stated an early 19th century visitor, “but they are too apt to pilfer stranded ships, and ruin those who have already suffered so much.”

The sudden winter storms still disgorge many treasures for Thanet’s dog walkers and beachcombers. Every year, cannon balls and human bones, hunks of amber and painted porcelain are washed ashore from the vast ships’ graveyards lying out at sea, onto the treacherous and shifting sandbanks that reveal themselves, like the smuggler’s tunnels in the chalk, only at low tide.

A local economy based on smuggling, tourism, fishing and European war has not prospered from the modern era. Like the rest of Thanet, Ramsgate is one of the most deprived areas of the country, sharing little of Southeast England’s wealth. Unemployment is high, life expectancy is low, and better times seem always, like France, barely visible on the horizon. The crumbling Regency and Victorian townhouses, no longer home to scarlet-coated officers or holidaying revolutionaries, have recently attracted another wave of invaders — middle-class London families like my own, priced out of the capital and displacing locals in turn. 

Thanet’s locals and its new army of DFLs — Down From Londoners — still live not-quite integrated lives. Like the rest of Britain, only somewhat more so, in Ramsgate the Somewheres and the Anywheres live jostled side by side. Home, until recently, to the only Ukip-run council in the UK, Thanet’s relationship with the European continent is still an ambiguous thing, and the vote for Brexit here, at 64%, was among the highest in the country.

These tensions find expression in micro-local culture wars, like the battle to re-open the old RAF Manston airfield as a commercial hub. An anti-airport poster in a window here, like an EU flag or BLM placard, is an almost certain signpost of a Londoner-in-exile, as much a marker of gentrification as doors and windows in the sombrest Farrow and Ball shades.

Proximity to the continent is writing Thanet’s history still. An RAF A-400 plane is, as I write, flying back and forth, skimming low above the sea outside my office window, scanning for the migrant boats which are landing in ever-increasing numbers. It is a strange and troubling vision of modern Britain to paddle in the sea with your children while a grey Border Force cutter patrols just offshore, searching for the latest boatloads from the coast of France. Distant past and present still collide here, peace and war, Britain and Europe and the wider world beyond still meshing in strange and unexpected ways as, perhaps, they always have and always will.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

arisroussinos

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Trevor Q
Trevor Q
3 years ago

Enjoyable and perceptive. This is proving to be an excellent series. Keep them coming.

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
3 years ago

Fine article. Nice change from the doom & gloom of war on the horizon.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Goodhand

Precisely. ” this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England !”

Laura Marks
Laura Marks
3 years ago

Thanet and Ramsgate has so much to offer but this article is brimming with tedious stereotypes. Manston isn’t a local micro culture war, this is incorrect.

Manston is a threat to our environment, health, well being, tourist economy and many other factors. The campaign for Judicial Review has national and global reach as people of every political persuasion, and from all geographies, scratch their heads and wonder why only the UK government would OPEN a new airport given the Paris Agreement, Covid and the seeming meltdown of the aviation industry in front of our eyes.

More than this, they wonder why a Government would think doing so at 300 feet over parts of Ramsgate is a good idea, despite their experts in the planning inspectorate also recommending a resounding no. Going from a few military or commercial flights a week to the monstrous volumes needed to turn a profit is hardly continuation of our aviation heritage. Our past and our future are not, and cannot be, the same.

Planes low enough for the sound to be over 100Db, low enough you can wave at the pilot and make your house shake. Low enough to wake up your children. Low enough for aviation fumes to fall upon us as jet engines scream over our heads every 15 minutes if the flight volumes in the DCO application are to be believed.

Hardly a micro culture war n’est pas?

christabelsmith99
christabelsmith99
3 years ago
Reply to  Laura Marks

Sad but 100% true

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

A splendid account of this charming little Thanet town.

Its Regency architecture makes it a real gem, a sort of seaside mini-Bath! Although brick and stucco, its bow fronted house in Liverpool Lawn and Spencer Square are a delight, as are both the four storied Royal Crescent and nearby Nelson
Crescent.

The fact that Caesar landed nearby on his two “smash and grab” raids, adds yet another attraction.

.

christabelsmith99
christabelsmith99
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Fact: More Georgian houses in Ramsgate than Bath!

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Thank you.

christabelsmith99
christabelsmith99
3 years ago

I very much enjoyed the evocative description of ‘gaps and folds of dazzling cliffs’ and the romance of smugglers’ caves and seals. As Aris clearly connects with the beauty of our town, it’s sad he doesn’t feel fully ‘integrated’ as this is most definitely not the experience of all. There’s an enviable sense of community and a rich mix of people who’ve been here for generations and those who’ve recently arrived, not just from London. Lazy labels and the assumptions they carry are never helpful and ‘DfL’, with its xenophobic undertone, is particularly divisive. It doesn’t reflect the way people rub along in Ramsgate – a snapshot of the harbour pubs, Friday market or supermarket queue would reveal a healthy combination of ancient and modern Thanetians in all their guises. A cargo airport at Manston would see 5 planes an hour coming into land less than 1000feet overhead, day and night, making houses shake. Knowing what this would do to a unique royal harbour, let alone its seals and bird life, people have risen in opposition, to back one resident’s judicial review. Those people include pensioners who once worked in the harbour, construction workers worried about the polluting impact on their kids and small businesses in the harbour, aware their patrons won’t be back for that beer or coffee when they’re deafened every 15 minutes. Please keep writing about the town’s history – eyes and ears fully open!

a_nixey
a_nixey
3 years ago

Whilst I enjoyed the history aspect of the article I’m a little taken aback at some of the comments within it, and the assumptions they make. As a person that moved here several years ago you could class me as a dfl, what decisive language! This is my home, where I love, the place I don’t want to leave. Where I mix with everyone down here, am on the Town Council (Labour controlled since May 2019)to try and improve the area for all and am busy fighting a cargo hub that will be less than a mile away from a Georgian seaside location, with more traffic to it than East Midlands Airport!

Am I alone in doing so? Are all people that worry about the climate, their children’s schooling being interrupted 5 times an hour, noise pollution etc all because a company headed up by a struck off solicitor, who ran the airport into failure two times before, from London? As a Councillor, who got elected on promising to fight the threat, that’s a resounding no.

Ramsgate is a beautiful, warm, charming town with a strong community feel. Volunteer groups help garden, litter pick, hand out food parcels. New people into the area, join in and feel welcome. By all means, anyone reading this join us, stay in our many hotels, enjoy the sandy beaches, we’d welcome you wherever you come from. There’s a lot on offer.

christabelsmith99
christabelsmith99
3 years ago
Reply to  a_nixey

ĂąÂÂ€ĂŻÂžÂ

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

Went to a pawn brokers/second hand shop in Ramsgate.
Stocked with bongs and massive knives, says it all about Ramsgate

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

But you would probably find the same goods in any such establishment anywhere in the land.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Would it be any ‘better’ in say, salubrious Hull?

christabelsmith99
christabelsmith99
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Nothing ‘says it all’ about Ramsgate or anywhere else

Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

There’s a pawnbroker shop in Hammersmith, Chelsea end, that sells flick knives and drug paraphernalia. I guess that says it all about that area of West London, non?

David J
David J
3 years ago

Not quite Ramsgate I know, but Pegwell Bay was once a base for SRN-4 hovercraft that roared back and forth across the Channel.
The route crossed the Goodwin Sands, so at lowish tides we would zoom along over dry land, the nearest ships way off in the distance.
Happy Days!

Clare Haven
Clare Haven
3 years ago

Fantastic article, Aris.

Randall Peaslee
Randall Peaslee
3 years ago

I really enjoy this series on British towns and this article in particular. It is very well written. Now I’ve watched a couple of YouTube videos on Ramsgate & Thanet and would love to visit.

christabelsmith99
christabelsmith99
3 years ago

Come on down, the water’s lovely!

Eugene Norman
Eugene Norman
3 years ago

Excellent writer, this guy.

toasttu
toasttu
3 years ago

Very interesting article, I’ve lived in Thanet all my life, and it has changed, some good some bad. It would be nice to have manston back to create jobs, and to push up wages, as although in the rich South Thanet is a deprived area with real poverty. The dfls, in some ways help in other hinder, houses are being built to service people from London, pushing pricing out of the means of local people. We have drug problems,crime, anti social behaviour, like any area, to few police to deal with it. But that’s the same as most places.

christabelsmith99
christabelsmith99
3 years ago
Reply to  toasttu

Sadly, as the Planning Inspectorate pointed out after their exhaustive research, the job forecast is overblown as cargo is largely automated. The area undoubtedly needs employment, but this is a false wrecker’s light.

Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
3 years ago

I lived in Ramsgate for a few lovely years. as a visitor from Luton said “it’s something different”. The sea the light and the very different micro climate, (Thanet is one of the few places that grow brussle sprouts on account of the climate) make it a magical place. However as a local friend said, it is almost impossible to earn a living there.

Ramsgate has a serious problem. It is all but impossible to trade with tye rest of the economy on account if the transport layout.. A one hour drive from Ramsgate gets you 60 miles to the traffic jams on the M20 and the M25. From there it is another hour in a traffic jam to get to the Dartford crossing or Sevenoaks. Heading south west the road effectively stops at Folkestone. (The road from Folkestone to Eastbourne is a winding single carriage country lane full of sharp bends that take expensive time to negotiate). Trade and links with the South coast are simply not possible on the existing London centred transport network. Trade with Essex and the Midlands is equally constrained. Especially when you have to drive past your competitors to get to a customer. They, of course are ahead of you. The only competitive edge you can use is to be cheap. That means cheap labour and low property costs. Both of which contribute to poverty not riches.

Like most seaside towns it is isolated at the end of a dead-end road surrounded on three sides by fish. The improved railway link will simply allow more DFL’s to buy second homes causing more social division between London money and local earnings.

The only real cure is investment in new infrastructure to allow trade around the coast instead of towards London. But it won’t happen because no one has the vision. In another half a century, there will still be poverty, drugs, deprivation alongside London riches. We can chalk that one up to the failed public sector who do not have the imagination to do anything apart from what was done before and simply repeat the failures of their previous incumbents.

christabelsmith99
christabelsmith99
3 years ago
christabelsmith99
christabelsmith99
3 years ago

I’m interested in the romantic reference to ‘trees along the seafront being bent by the wind’ – there are a few palms in pots by the beach (which get removed in winter) but otherwise Ramsgate’s seafront is regrettably treeless.