Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Walk 32 -- Birchington-on-Sea, via Reculver Towers, to Herne Bay

Ages: Colin was 59 years and 127 days. Rosemary was 56 years and 269 days.
Weather: Cloudy with a brisk wind. Cool.
Location: Birchington-on-Sea to Herne Bay.
Distance: 9½ miles.
Total distance: 194½ miles.
Terrain: A tarmacked sea wall, concrete proms and grass over cliff tops. We also walked through an interesting little wood at one point, to cross a creek.
Tide: Out, coming in.
Rivers to cross: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: No.10 at Herne Bay, but most of it was washed away in 1978 and only the two ends are left!
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: No.10 at Reculver Towers.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: No.15 as we approached Herne Bay where men were working on cliff erosion with diggers.
How we got there and back: We drove from Dover Youth Hostel to Herne Bay. We parked the car in a road which was by some shops, also near the station and the beach. We bought some pies and cakes for our lunch, walked to the station and caught a train to Birchington-on-Sea.
At the end, we walked up from the beach to the car. We had a cup of tea from the flask, and then drove home to Bognor via the motorways in pouring rain – deadly!

We started today’s walk in a very solemn mood, which wasn’t helped by the grey sky. We couldn’t help thinking of all those thousands of ordinary people in New York just going about their normal daily business when – Wham! – they were blasted into oblivion! I mean, just how desperate do you have to be to jump out of a window seventy floors up?
We decided to continue our walk along the bottom of the cliffs from Birchington, hoping that we would be told, as we were in Westgate-on-Sea, of any dead ends on the lower promenade. There were none, and after rounding a couple of points we cleared the houses for the first time since entering Ramsgate. The cliffs also disappeared, and we could see the railway line we had just travelled along to get to Birchington. The path continued along the top of the sea wall. It was quite breezy, but not cold, and fortunately it didn’t rain because it was very exposed. The path was well maintained as a cycleway, so it was easy walking and we made good time.
Inland, it was flat wetlands with a railway line running through it – not particularly interesting. We tried looking for wildlife, but a cormorant or two was all we managed to spy.
We crossed the Wantsum Channel and thereby walked off the Isle of Thanet. Two thousand years ago the Channel was half a mile wide at this point, but has since silted up and been drained so that an insignificant ditch is all that remains. The sea wall runs straight across it, in fact we wouldn’t even have noticed the channel if there hadn’t been an information board on the spot.
We had seen Reculver Towers in the distance ever since Westgate-on-Sea. We planned to stop there for lunch, but we seemed to take ages getting there. I think it was because we had seen the Towers from several miles away -- in actual fact, we were making very good time. They certainly are a landmark.
Reculver Towers are in the middle of nowhere, despite the fact that there have been buildings on the site for two thousand years. First the Romans built a fort to protect the northern end of the Wantsum Channel, and it ‘matched’ Richborough Fort which had been erected at the southern end. Almost half of the original Roman complex at Reculver has fallen over the cliff, though traces can still be found of the outer wall, the eastern gate and the bath-house. In Saxon times, a monastery was put up within the boundaries of the redundant fort – this was in the wake of St Augustine’s preaching. By medieval times, the monastery had fallen into disuse but the ground was still considered consecrated, so the stone was used to build a typical church of the period.
By the early 19th century this church, with its twin towers, was also a ruin due to subsidence and cliff erosion. It was bought by the local church elders for use as a burial ground, but shortly after, the remaining building was destroyed by fire – (vandals?) The twin towers were immediately rebuilt ‘as a navigational aid’ – how times have changed! (It is believed that smugglers found them more useful for this purpose than bona-fide sailors!) We sat amongst the ruins, protected from the wind by the old stone walls, and ate our lunch looking out to sea. We could see some structures in the water about a mile off the coast, and speculated that they were NapolĂ©onic forts similar to the ones in the Solent. We found out later that they were much more recent, they were constructed in the Second World War to house guns for the protection of the Thames Estuary.
To bring us completely up to date on matters of Defence, we watched several aeroplanes fly over while we were there. Not commercial airliners, you understand, because not a single passenger plane has been allowed to cross the Atlantic since yesterday lunchtime, and all airports in the USA are closed. Colin recognised them as A.W.A.C.S., used for airborne radar surveillance, because he worked on systems for them when he was with Plessey. They were flying north, towards the Greater London area. Everyone is very edgy. The City of London was evacuated for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon as a precaution – it is strongly suspected that many more terrorist attacks are planned on the Western World.
Near the Towers is a millennium Celtic-style cross, less than two years old. It was put up to celebrate two thousand years of history on this one spot. We walked across the car park to the new visitor centre, and on its end wall is a comic-strip type mural giving the whole two-thousand year history of Reculver Towers (with the exception of the A.W.A.C.S., which is a 21st century concern!) The main problem they have to contend with nowadays is how to stop the towers toppling over the edge of the cliff as it is pounded by the sea underneath, but then erosion has always been a problem here. The medieval church was probably built some distance from the clifftop; now it is teetering on the edge!
The visitor centre is new and has only just been refurbished. There are a lot of wall paintings inside which are lovely, explaining the geology and the wildlife as well as the history. It is bright and fresh, and clearly explained. The custodian was very friendly and welcoming, but he could talk the hind leg off a donkey and we were well aware that we had a lot of walking still to do followed by a three hour drive home. Fortunately, some other visitors arrived with questions, and we were able to quietly make our escape!
Beyond the Towers we had to walk on top of low sandy crumbly cliffs because the cycleway had turned inland and there was no more sea wall. But it was pleasant walking on grass, and we could see the Towers behind us for a good many miles.
Nearing population again, we had to divert inland through a little wood because the clifftop path had disappeared! There was a lot of that ugly orange plastic fencing blocking our way and dire notices about the danger. Work was in progress on the collapse, every so often we could see the bucket of a digger stretch out from behind bushes and dump its load over the cliff. They seemed to be taking down all the loose sand from the cliff face, probably to avert another landslide. As soon as we had passed that, the proper path diverted inland because a tiny stream cuts down through the soft cliffs. It is a lovely walk through a wood, with an attractive footbridge where we crossed the creek. We were joined by a young family apparently on their way home from school. (“Is it that late already?”)
We returned to the clifftop once again where the houses of Herne Bay started. The obvious path looked as if it followed the road westwards in front of them, and we almost made the mistake of following it. We were just expressing our amazement that people would buy houses at the top of cliffs as soft as these clearly are, when I felt we were going wrong. Another very careful look at the map – aided by the magnifying glass which I always keep in my rucksack – confirmed that we had to turn slightly back on ourselves and descend a steep slope to the prom. This we did, and walked into Herne Bay.
Neither of us have ever been to Herne Bay before. I expect it is really a very nice place; but the sky had turned a slate grey, we were both tired from walking twenty-three miles in three days, we were still in shock about the atrocity in America, Colin was thinking ahead to the long drive home on motorways and I had a mild stomach-ache – probably due to the excess of tinned food we tend to eat when we’re hostelling. We passed a number of local children, still wearing the untidy remains of their school uniforms, playing on the prom and the beach. They all seemed excessively loud, perhaps because they had been cooped up indoors all day. They just reminded me that I shall have to return to supply teaching very shortly because we need the money, and I do so wish that someone would give me about thirty thousand pounds so that I can retire properly and comfortably now! Wishful thinking!
We were getting morose, which isn’t fair to Herne Bay. We walked along the harbour wall which is long and very modern. At its end we climbed a little ironwork tower to look at the view. At first we thought it was another Second World War platform we could see about half a mile out to sea, but then we realised that it was directly in line with Herne Bay’s very short pier. It looked like the end of a pier, and we gradually realised that that was exactly what it was! What had happened to the middle bit? We retraced our steps along the harbour wall, not many boats there either but more than in Margate’s little harbour.
The building on the shore end of Herne Bay’s pier is an eyesore! It is a huge silvery thing and looks as if it is made of aluminium. The pier is shorter than Bognor’s – and that is short! Even so, we couldn’t get past the ugly monstrosity to the end, so we asked the girl in a First Aid hut about it. She confirmed that the platform we could see out in the water is the end of the pier which, until 1972, was the second longest in Britain being half a mile in length! Then it collapsed in a storm, and some lunatic set fire to the remainder. By the time they had doused the flames, the few remaining ruins were a safety hazard, so they were removed leaving just the ends half a mile apart. The ghastly building on the shore bit has only been there a short time, and none of the locals like it either.

This girl told us that they are hoping for a lottery grant to completely restore the whole pier – we wished her luck but didn’t hold out much hope. We told her about Bognor’s bid which was unsuccessful before the most recent collapse that has still left more of the pier than there is at Herne Bay. Brighton was successful with its bid to restore its West Pier, but that was almost two years ago and work has yet to start. These Victorian piers round our shores were not really built to stand the battering of the sea for ever! We walked on about a hundred yards until we were at the end of the road where we had parked our car earlier in the day.

That ended Walk no.32, we shall pick up Walk no.33 next time in Herne Bay just west of the remains of the pier. We walked up from the beach to the car and had a cup of tea from the flask. I bought a paper so we could read in more detail of the dreadful events in America. We both felt very saddened about it even though we don’t know anyone personally involved, making today’s walk quite a sombre one. As we got into the car to drive home, it started to rain! Not a spot for all the three days walking – we couldn’t have timed it better!

No comments: