Friday, August 25, 2017

7 Towns in 7 Days

There's an oft used cliche about southerners never venturing north of Watford, but there is, of course, the corollary to that, the northerners who've never ventured much further south than Euston. Take a look at the map of England and there are whole chunks at the edges, we're a geographically bulbous nation, and each of those bulges is a potentially unvisited land.

So it was, that I went to Kent for the first time last Friday. The initial impetus had come from my writer friend, Adrian Cross, who, alongside Richard Skinner, who runs Faber Academy, had been involved with the wonderfully named "Margate Bookie" - a literary festival taking place each August in the seaside town. He'd told me some time ago that they were hosting a Vanguard reading there, and I should come down. 

With this "hook" I decided to extend a weekend into a week and visit Kent - or at least as much of it as I could manage in the time, and via public transport. Growing up, our next door neighbour was from Kent, so it was a county which I had a vague idea about, if nothing more. Mike had a "posh" accent (though it might just have been southern) and God knows how he ever ended up in the rump end of Staffordshire. I'd read Canterbury Tales, and more recently Graham Swift's "Last Orders", and new Tracey Emin had grown up in Margate, but that was pretty much my mental mapping of the "garden of England." 

Independent travel is supposed to be easier these days, with the internet, but I struggled to find a room in Margate for this August weekend. Eventually a phone call to the Tourist Information got me a place, a rather delapitated but grand old hotel in the Cliftonville area of Margate, where for years London boroughs have been sending their asylum seekers. Margate is a town on the up, or trying to be, but it still has a nice mix of the seediness which Emin so graphically depicted, its historical role as a favoured seaside destination, and a newly arrived "hipster" class, opening art galleries and coffee shops. Yet, Swift's use of it in "Last Orders" still seems appropriate; it not quite East End on sea, mine was one of the few more northern accents, just as my trip to mid-Wales last years saw me surrounded by holidaying Midlanders. 

The weather was a little temperamental over the weekend, with the sun coming in and out as the clouds hovered in and out of the sea. The Turner Contemporary, the city's flagship arts venue, a beautifully realised building, so named because Turner was a frequent visitor and painter of the town (as was Paul Nash), looks out on the bay, and this weekend was a heavily used venue with a bookshop for the festival as well as hosting various events.  The gentrification of the place is a little overplayed - on the Friday night we stopped off in two small pizzerias only to find that both were fully booked, and ended up in an adequate but traditional curry house. A wonderfully named Wetherspoon's (The Mechanical Elephant) and two Costa coffees are the chains along the seafront. 

On the Saturday I caught the circular bus that runs between Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, and got off in Ramsgate. This is more harbour than seaside resort, though there's a small beach. It did the job however, as I managed to get a pot of seafood for £3.50, whilst watching the world go by. I also found, two stops off the bus, Michael's Books, a great little warren brilliantly priced, which was worth the delay in getting back to Margate. In the evening, in the Sands hotel, Vanguard readings saw six novelists present from their very different books, before a small literary quiz led by David Quantick, the music journalist, who now lives in Hastings, down the coast. Several of the writers were based in and around Margate, as it becomes, thanks to better train links easier to get to from London.

Finally going round the Turner Contemporary, the main gallery space is taken over by a Phylida Barlow exhibition. Barlow - who is representing England at the Venice Biennalle this year - is a sculptural artist of intense materiality. Her vast pieces made up of the found and reconstituted, often industrial materials, but there surrealism has an abstraction to it that seems particularly appropriate to our contemporary over-saturated world. I liked the work alot. 

In the afternoon I caught the train to Canterbury where I based myself for the next three days. The town was apparently badly bombed during the war, and there's a sense that the centre - all shopping centres and walkways, surrounded by a ringroad - could be anywhere in England. Whereas in York or Chester the Cathedral towers over the city, visible from everywhere, here the Cathedral is not immediately visible above the modern buildings, but go down an alleyway and into the winding streets around it, and there you are, able to enter one of the country's great religious buildings, and still home to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The cathedral is a marvel - both in terms of size, and its accumulated histories.  There are plenty of mentions of the murder in the cathedral, of Thomas a Beckett, by supporters of Henry II, and you can buy the Richard Burton film from the cathedral shop. So much history as well... its easy to see the brutality of Henry VIII towards the church as a one way street, but throughout Europe, non-Catholics were persecuted and sought refuge elsewhere. One group of French protestants ended up in Canterbury, and they still worship in the cathedral to this day. Yet, though this a working cathedral, at the centre of the life of the community and town, the marginaisation of the Church of England in our contemporary life, seems to find an echo in this immense monument - its daily cost ("we receive no government funding"), the ignored instruction in the Crypt, to "keep quiet", the £12.50 entrance charge - this is a draw for tourists, a must-visit building, yet as distant from our lives as Norman castle. Yet, there was a table set out where you could write a prayer that would be set on the altar during the following morning's prayer, and I wrote one down. It can't harm... after all, it is the superstition of churches that I like. My love for the metaphysicals is based upon them writing at a time when God and the devil felt like living presences, rather than abstracts - and that belief in actual ghosts it what I find compelling.

Canterbury has a range of other historic sites and a river running through it, but its an inland town, and I was craving the sea again, so the next day, with the Monday's overcast clouds shaken off, I headed to Herne Bay and Whitstable. Herne Bay is like a Victorian seaside resort from central casting, with a restored bandstand, and pier jutting out into the bay, with kids' crabbing, a Punch & Judy show, rides and stalls. Then on to the port of Whitstable. This was very different. The beaches were smaller, and the real business of the town is fishing - with restaurants next to the companies packing and selling the oysters. ,In the town itself, two streets wind round in a leisurely fashion, and are full of restaurants, coffee shops, gift shops and the like. Not far from the University of Kent, the town feels richer and more affluent (not just the £28 seafood platters!) than the other

On my last night in Kent I moved further along the coast to Folkestone, and met up with a friend who is from the area, in neighbouring Hythe. Hythe is another small port town. It was at the frontline during the Napoleonic wars, and a Military canal snakes elegantly through the town. It faces another threat now, from developers and gentrification as the traditional fisherman's beach is being targetted by developers wanting to build expensive beach side apartments. A light railway goes through the town, heading down the coast, and though it's a small town it has a distinctive feel to it. Folkestone is more spread out, and juts out from the cliffs that overlook France across the water. Just along from Dover, these cliffs are also white chalk. Grand buildings along the seafront speak of better days, and my friend showed me round the permanent artworks from various previous Triennials, Folkestone's signature art event which is taking place again in a couple of weeks. New artworks from Bob and Roberta Smith are appearing already, alongside past ones from luminaries such as Yoko Ono, Tracey Emin, Cornelia Parker and Mark Wallinger. 

The fast train to London takes less than an hour from Folkestone now, on the HS1 line. It's an interesting comparison with the under investment in the north. The distance is about the same as from Liverpool to Leeds, yet this part of the countryside, though no doubt needing more work and investment, has a much smaller population - what gentrification is taking place you can tell is an overspill of London's monied world. Yet its instructive as well - this part of the world - where I could previously have only mapped out "here be dragons" now feels real to me - I managed 7 towns, six along the coast and the county town of Canterbury, over a very busy week, and yet leaving Folkestone station at midday I was back at my flat in Didsbury by four o'clock. I hope it won't be my last visit. 

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