A week of contemplation at the seaside
Broadstairs, on the coast of Kent, is located between the better-known Margate and Ramsgate, beach towns that summon to mind the antics of Carry On films, saucy postcards and imperturbable landladies
This little settlement by the sea is the quiet cousin, with its more genteel offerings and gentle coastal walks. It is where Charles Dickens first holidayed from London in 1837 just as he was completing The Pickwick Papers. He referred to Broadstairs as his English watering place.
After the bustle of metropolitan London I am in sore need of a slower pace and some quiet time. I am to stay with hospitable nuns who provide bed, board and spiritual sustenance, a B&B (bed and blessing) for the itinerant traveller. Their abode is situated not far from the coast, a breathy walk up the North Foreland Road to a clear, reaching view.
This is the most easterly point in the area known as the Isle of Thanet. It is where the Romans arrived in the first century AD and I gaze over the chalky cliffs and see the turbo-charged white wings of a hundred turbines, the world’s largest wind farm, looming a couple of kilometres away. Container ships bank impatiently on the horizon awaiting permission to enter the estuary where their loads will be unpacked and distributed across Britain. Pleasure craft bob and lap near the small town harbour and on Broadstairs’ own Botany Bay.
With no one to report to, I experience the unadulterated joy of being able to do exactly as I please. I walk around the town, poking my head into churches, peering into gardens, ambling down little connecting lanes and striding along wide roads. I pass Bleak House, where Dickens reputedly wrote in a front room and imagine him gazing over Viking Bay and inventing the next permutation of plot and interesting foible for his myriad cast of characters. It’s October and the end of the holiday season so the rotunda is empty and the ice cream kiosk is closed until March. A couple of souvenir shops are still trading hopefully.
Along the seafront I pop into the Charles Dickens Museum; I am a solitary visitor this windswept afternoon. The museum was once the home of the woman on whom the author based the character of Miss Betsey Trotwood (in David Copperfield) although he had the good sense to relocate her to Dover so she would not be readily recognisable.
Most excitingly of all for a child who was enamoured of English stories, I am staying near an estate that has another famous link to literary history. Here are the 39 steps made famous by John Buchan’s 1915 eponymous spy novel. The writer had come to Broadstairs to recover from illness and as his six-year-old daughter gambolled about the garden she counted the 39 steps to the private beach and proudly told her father. I gaze down through the closed gate and imagine scenes of surveillance, sorties and stiff-upper lips.
All over the coast there are tunnels and caves and steps hewn out of the cliffs. The nuns dug out a tunnel, their own catacomb, under the convent in World War 11 for escape and safety. And although not as colourful as the pirates of Penzance, the local brigands did a roaring trade smuggling tea, tobacco and spirits in the middle of the 18th century. Such is the restorative power of a week by the seaside where the worlds of fact and fiction merge happily in time well spent.
Broadstairs in Kent