Seaside Special - In search of Theroux: South-east Kent

Buying a ticket for the new(ish) fast-line out to the Kent coast wasn’t as straight forward as it once was. And not just because the ticket vendor couldn’t stop looking at the purple pimple nestled angrily on my chin. No, there were other less skin-deep factors to consider, such as travel with or without the high-speed option; in or out of peak hours; including or excluding a promotional offer; having carefully pre-planned or simply succumbing to reckless spontaneity.

My purchase, negotiated without any further scenario exploration, afforded me the right to traverse those gilded HS1 tracks. I settled into my Javelin train. ‘Britain’s Fastest’ it said on the cab. This one was named in honour of bullet Paralympic sprinter, Jonny Peacock.

Rushed into service prior to the 2012 London Olympics, the Javelins’ have split open commuting times to Kent for those that can afford them. Stratford, Ashford and Ebbsfleet comprise the ‘International’ stations on the fast line out the other International, that at St Pancras. Stations beyond have seen journeys more than halved: Faversham, Folkestone, Deal, Margate.

I mention Margate because that is where Paul Theroux began his travels for ‘The Kingdom By The Sea’, a round-trip of the edges of England, Scotland, Wales and a sliver of Northern Ireland. The book that in many ways inspired this blog series. Indeed, I’ve used a quote from this book in the intro to these ramblings.

Theroux’s book was researched in a three-month period of 1982 during the Falklands Conflict. The author aimed to capture the mood of the times as well as the characteristics of his journey around the coast. I was often in his footsteps and rail track-bed on my coastal adventure, albeit on a journey dragged out over a decade and more.

His ill-humoured style divides opinion. The books are popular, but grumpy. ‘The Kingdom By The Sea’ is typical of the approach. Almost defining. It is unrelentingly acerbic about our seaside. The central theme was to characterise a land where its inhabitants were defiantly proud but busy ruining everything around them by bad planning, disregard and self-interest.

In a Guardian interview, he once said, "I think of my writing as good-tempered, humorous, forgiving on the whole. I have always been on pretty good terms with the human race. But you can't be on such good terms with it that you don't see it. When it's all forgiveness, there's no writing."

I’m not sure how much the forgiving nature came through. Theroux dwelt so much on the negative that it appeared as though the book was deliberately contrary. A rose-tinted travel guide cop-out would have been a surprise, but for such an accomplished writer he seemed to eschew evoking the sense of place in favour of painting a thoroughly drab and unpleasant set of experiences.

Then again, I’ve not been afraid of lobbing a few sarcasm bombs and grizzling some grumpy bellyaches in these posts. So maybe I shouldn’t worry about Theroux’s sustained attack upon the general ugliness of holiday parks, caravan sites and seaside campsites. I can feel the dark spectre of hypocrisy rising. Hopefully, though, I am stepping back from line way before some of Theroux’s overplayed and patronising terms, like the derisory ‘shally’ for seaside chalets which he likes to think is a mash up of alley and chalet.

Theroux’s journey to Margate was much less serene than my Kentish adventure. In a calculated move to provide material for his stroppy book, he started his travels on the 11:33 train on a May Day. Surprise, surprise the carriages were livid with rowdy youths on their way to their ritualistic Margate seafront shenanigans.

Folkestone would provide me with slightly less controversial material. I stepped onto the platform at Folkestone Central 55 minutes after departing St Pancras and 19 years almost to the day since I had last been there.

On that occasion, my mate Nick and I had visited Folkestone for a Sunday game of cricket. Nick’s brother James had organised a team in the name of the boozer run by his father-in-law. The opposition was a rival pub across town. The game took place on a pitch adjacent to the racecourse. We got hammered: losing both the game and our sobriety. At one crucial point of the game, James was multi-tasking at square leg - fielding for the opposition who were a man down, filling in the scorebook and drinking cans of Stella balanced by his feet. The day became progressively more messy. We missed the last train home, had to stay with James and caught the 6am train back to London on a work day.  

Since then, tragically - almost unbelievably - James had passed away in the blink of an eye and at a shockingly young age. Desperate stuff. I don’t think I’d thought about that game in all the intervening years. Boarding the Folkestone-bound train in the Summer of 2018 brought strong doses of nostalgia and sorrow that hit me like a twin-bore shotgun.  

The trains had improved, but not the terminus. If HS1 had sparked regeneration and investment in this part of Kent and in Folkestone in particular, it had not yet reached the neglected, tired, vaguely hostile part of town between the station and the seafront. Just a mention of Theroux and look what it’s done to me.

This was emphasised by a young woman of about 19 or 20 walking down the pavement in front of me, sporting multiple piercings and long ginger hair, wearing skimpy animal-print clothing and shuffling along in broken-backed slippers. She halted her mobile phone conversation to bark “Whachoo lookin’ at, mug?” at a bloke who overtook her and couldn’t resist a peak over his shoulder at this vision. Busted.

Further down the road, lairy, bare-chested kids were skittering around the pavement bouncing a football erratically, with their parents lagging behind having a griping argument about a Twitter post.

But it was a different world on the cliff top path. Suddenly I could breathe. Over a giant cup of coffee and the crumbliest chocolate cookie ever baked, I reflected on the structural shift in atmosphere and architecture between the town and the esplanade. I was sat on the terrace café of the Leas Cliff Pavilion. The venue used to be a regular stop for middle ranking bands on the rock and metal circuit back in the late 80’s. I watched a stream of liners entering and exiting Dover Harbour on the horizon and made a mental note not to come back on 4th October to see the Joe Pasquali show. How times have changed. Survivors of Hawkwind, Blue Oyster Cult and Motorhead would be mortified.

More inconsistencies were in evidence as I strolled along Leas Cliffs Gardens above the coast. Benches were placed every few yards. Some facing the sea, some facing the lawns, others arranged around the bandstand. Wooden, concrete, metal… all suggesting the town is filled with people who like to rest, relax, take a break. But not so. My walk to the end of the esplanade was spent dodging joggers of all shapes and sizes: solitary runners, hunter-packs or chatting duos, all clad in clinging hi-viz lycra.

A pair of fine hotels dominated the headland hereabouts: The Grand and The Metropole. The latter was completed first, around 1895. The story goes that a local builder, Daniel Baker was peeved because he didn't get the contract to build it and was determined to build a better one next door. Hence we have The Grand, built between 1899 and 1903. Both have a roll call of important guests ranging from reigning monarchs to politicians and celebrities. Though mostly apartments now, the buildings have stood the test of time well and I stood back to admire their stature. That’s when I noticed a lamp flashing in the bell tower of The Metropole. As if signalling to a ship out at sea. I scanned the horizon, but of course I couldn’t pick up anything. Clearly a Belgian beer smuggling operation was going down before the EU borders slammed shut. Or a signal to a waiting cruiser to whisk away Jacob Rees-Mogg as the nation turned on him. Oh how we wish.   

My path wound down the cliff and I landed on Mermaid beach. Pretty, but surprisingly bolted and locked up beach huts fringed the wide path. There was greater evidence of activity on this lovely Summer evening at the man-made bathing zone fed by the tide. Sculpted from stone breakwaters and boulders to anchor the shingle, the gentle shelving was still busy with swimmers and paddlers at half-six.

Heading back to the town, the gardens above the beach were crammed with Muslim families setting up barbecues, causing gulls to wheel and scream above them. This was the end of Ramadan and, extrapolating from evidence of coaches in the harbour car park with Southall and Ealing addresses, families had hit the coast to celebrate the breaking of the fast.

The harbour area is another bunch of physical contradictions. There were some truly ugly buildings on the cliff top, but the travesty that is the Grand Burstin Hotel at the edge of the old town surely takes the prize. Designed with misguided zeal in the 80’s to look like a cruise liner, the multi-story building is impossible to miss, sitting in unsplendid isolation on the harbour road, with its formerly white façade faded grey and dark drips of weathered concrete smearing down from windows and broken gutterings.

Worse, the former Royal Pavilion and Hotel was knocked down to make way for this brute of a building. I now sound like one of the conservationists I was poking gently fun at in Norfolk and Suffolk. I’ll take that on the chin as I examine old photos of the Royal Pavilion, built in 1843, which reveal an elegant red brick façade studded with overhanging ledges, surmounted with flamboyant parapets and finished in extravagant details. The St Pancras Hotel of the south coast, if you will. I can see that such a smart building would require enormous upkeep, especially once such buildings temporarily fell out of fashion. But still. Corporate vandalism. Me and Paul Theroux, eh?

Better things were happening over by the harbour. The station closed to regular passenger services in 2001, although the tracks were used by the Venice-Simplon Orient Express until 2009. An occasional inspection train used the line until it was officially closed on 31 May 2014. The length of the platforms hinted at the size of trains that used to roll up here, laden with goods for the continent. Keeping the international theme, the platforms were now becoming homes to pitches for French café-bars, Spanish paella stalls, Italian ice-cream parlours and, er, Egyptian fallafal vans. The sinuous line of former dock offices would soon be craft spaces, art studios and fashion boutiques. Disused tracks would become part of an embedded walkway along the harbour to the pier head. A traditional seaside enclave, 21st Century style.

In the loading bay underneath my feet on the Harbour Arm, an Antony Gormley statue was visible for three hours a day at low tide and submerged again as the sea came in. Part of his Another Time commission: 100 cast-iron statues spread around the world designed to ‘bear witness to what it is like to be alive and alone in space and time’. Two others were close by – one on Coronation Parade in the town a third round the coast in Margate. The unexpected location was part of the experience. It was never intended to be a permanent fixture and I don’t know if it is still there.

Later I passed a ‘quirky’ (I could see the tourist Instagram feed in my head) art quarter in narrow lanes up the hill on my circuitous trip back the station. Every notice board and shop window seemed to be advertising local galleries, design festivals and pop-up craft fairs. Art was re-inventing the town.

I’d been inadvertently following an elderly woman ever since I hit the railway sleeper walkway across the beach and now I was tracking her towards the pier head. She was cutting out a mean pace in her hiking sandals. At the light house, where I was enjoying elevated views of the Channel, she came up to me and said, “Oh hello. I saw you’d walked across the cliff top and then along the prom like me. It’s lovely here isn’t it?” We chatted about the changes in the town and agreed that what they were trying to do was encouraging. Even a little bit inspiring. Regeneration can be done with respect and consideration (and on the back of a good few quid, admittedly).

She said she had seen the last ever passenger train to terminate at the harbour station. She described a moving experience where the whole town turned out to mark the event and where a brass band accompanied the train’s arrival. It was a lovely story and I was unexpectedly touched. On my way back, I noticed the harbour wall foundation stone which gave its date of construction as 1904. Another Time indeed.

Series navigation - introduction: Excursions the the coast 

Previous chapter - North Kent

Next chapter, Lockdown dodging in Peacehaven and Hastings




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