A week of con­tem­pla­tion at the sea­side

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - ANN REN­NIE

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

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