Planet Thanet (North East Kent)

The Small Green Island at the End of the World holds a special place in the history of England although there are some who might argue that its glory days lie more than a thousand years in the past. A Victorian taste for reinvention has left it with innumerable Saxon street names, Dane Parks and Viking Bays which almost overshadow the genuine evidence of ancient habitation. But the truth is that if you stick a spade in the ground you may well be disturbing a bronze age burial ground or a Roman midden for everyone who was anyone in the early history of Britain came to Thanet.

Drawn by the safe natural landing stages of Ebbsfleet and the well drained, fertile uplands of the Island, every type of invader passed through this strategic little outpost and left their calling card. Details in surviving contemporary accounts and illustrations suggest that no modern film recreation could do justice to the horrors experienced by the early residents of coastal England. Nor should they; the film makers are simply looking to entertain in a not dissimilar manner to Victorian revivalists while the real history of the region is probably the stuff of nightmares.

Today there are plenty of fairy nooks and crystal caves amongst the seaside souvenir shops, attesting to some romantic and delightfully eccentric traditions that have sprung up locally. There are some who believe that the Margate Shell Grotto was inspired by visiting Phoenician traders and yet others who trace the name to the Greek, Ynys Thanatos, Isle of the Dead. For this is Albion, the “white land” of the medieval chroniclers, pre-Raphaelite painters and countless quaint little tea shops. From the Dickens Festival via the Spitfire Museum to the Turner Contemporary it has a great deal to offer to visitors as I hope some of my favourite pictures will show.

Local people are likely to be a whole lot less enthusiastic, especially since the announced closure of the Pfizer Research Laboratories which brought a great deal of secondary employment to the region, to say nothing of a continuous round of road building and an endless supply of Viagra jokes. Thanet now boasts the largest offshore wind farm in the world. Well, “boasts” is probably the wrong word since the naysayers seem to be by far the more vociferous section of the population but then, East Kent people are world class complainers. When the Betteshanger Colliery finally closed in 1989, its exceptionally militant workers had taken part in every mining dispute to hit the country during the previous fifty years. They even went on strike during the Second World War.

Thanet Earth, claimed to be the largest and most up to date greenhouse in England, is so low-rise and well landscaped that it is difficult to make out from the surrounding countryside; it is projected to increase the whole of England’s crop of salad vegetables by fifteen percent and, so far, has had no detrimental effect on the production of the delicious local soft fruits. Add in the additional employment opportunities and it is difficult to find much to complain about here. Many counties have been called The Garden of England but Kent must surely be the winner. Last year I was stopped by American Customs for trying to take some of our best seasonal apples out to my friend in Texas. They really are that good.

I wish I could say that Molly had found the magnificent chunks of Thanet/Baltic amber that now grace my collection but she is just not the sort of dog to go for long coastal walks during the fierce equinoctial storms. Or maybe this has more to do with her mistress, who prefers to acquire these treasures from the warmth of the little gem and curio shop in Albion Street but at least the necklace is home made. The finding of amber along this part of the Kent coast seems to be a very recent phenomenon, with no historical references available. My theory, for what it is worth, is that shifting currents make this a periodic occurrence, something that has not been noted since ancient times when amber was associated with the sun and very highly prized. Might not the jewel so beloved of the Saxon Princesses of Kent have come from their very own shoreline? I don’t suppose we shall ever know but, like so many aspects of Thanet lore, the interpretation is fluid.


Categories: Britain, East of England


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