Sunday, 29 November 2009

Visits to the Sea: Kent and East Sussex

Since arriving in England in late August 2009, I've made a few visits to coastal towns. Margate and Whitstable are both on the northeast coast of Kent. Whitstable is north of Canterbury by about six miles. Margate is northeast of Canterbury by about 20 miles, give or take. Brighton is a coastal town in East Sussex, which is quite a bit southeast of Canterbury. For those of you who glaze over at too much geographical detail, just think southern England coastal towns.

Let's deal with Margate first. Margate is one of those towns that, on first glance, you might think was down and out for good. The seafront businesses nearest the train station look abandoned, except for the gents drinking a pint at 9am at one of the few open establishements. Maybe they work the night shift somewhere? Hmmmm. Don't listen to me. Perhaps I am only envious of their leisure, their morning-imbibing insouciance. Where was I? Oh, yes. The arcades, which look as if they were loads of fun for young seaside resort goers, have been shuttered for a while now. There are a great many shops with plywood over the windows. It has the look of a town that was once a destination. As I understand it, Londoners used to come down to Margate in droves to bathe in the sea. Granted, we were not there in the height of summer, but I had to wonder where have all the tourists gone?

I liked Margate. I like places that scream potential, and Margate surely does...loudly. If you look beyond the first impression of boarded up shops, there's a lot to be said for Margate. It's an affordable place to live according to locals. There is the Theatre Royal Margate, second oldest in the country, which is said to be the most haunted theatre in Britain. I went inside the theatre alone, in the dark, and found it to be lovely and peaceful. But I must say, I did not feel alone in there. And even though the jury is still out on whether the 'orbs' that sometimes appear in pictures are indeed paranormal or simply a phenomenon of particulate and flash, I can tell you I captured numerous of these orbs (and never have before), which in successive shots, taken within seconds of each other, disappeared. I doubt the photos will reproduce well on the blog, but I do have a couple of nice general shots of the theatre which I'll show you.

What else is nice about Margate? It has a lovely beach. It's big. It's sandy. It's clean. I think it's far superior to Waikiki. Then again the weather is preferable in Hawaii, but we won't go too deeply into that depressing subject. I think Margate just needs a few entreprenurial gay men who don't mind the cold and it could be dressed up and decorated as the Miami of south England.

Also near the beach is a place of special interest to me, the Nayland Rock Shelter. You might remember from my introduction to this blog, that this particular beach shelter is where the poet T.S. Eliot came to sit each day during his 1921 stay in Margate. He was recuperating from a breakdown and general exhaustion. Anyway, he composed part of The Wasteland at the shelter and even namechecks Margate in this passage:

On Margate Sands
I can connect
Nothing with nothing
The broken fingernails of dirty hands
My people humble people who expect

Um. Did I mention he was recovering from a nervous breakdown?

We visited the town of Whitstable, which even in a rainstorm was very charming. It bustles with activity even on a dreary day. Some of you may know Whitstable as it is referenced Sarah Waters' Tipping The Velvet. The BBC did a film adaptation of Tipping The Velvet and part of it was filmed on location in Whitstable. The main character of the story grew up in an oyster house there. Whitstable is famous for its oysters.

In keeping with our ghosty theme, I should mention that while visiting a small bookshop I bumped into...nothing. Well, what I mean is this. I went to back up to get a better view of the bottom shelf of books and my foot was stopped abruptly in mid-step. I thought I'd bumped into someone or something and turned to discover I was alone in the room save for the assistant behind the counter. There were no obstructions on the floor and I have no idea what it was I bumped. But I can tell you, it sure felt solid. The area has been inhabited since the paleolithic era, whatever that means, so perhaps it isn't surprising that there might be some unseen force there, an imprint of old times, a resonance of sorts.

It's easy to see that boating and fishing are still a big part of the goings on in Whitstable. We were there on a blustery day and enjoyed listening to the wind sing as it blew through the masts and rigging of the sailboats in one of the marinas. There are a lot of very sweet little beach cottages all perched together at the shore. Unfortunately, it's obvious that many of them are owned by what the locals call DFLs (Down From Londoners). The blinds were drawn and they looked sadly empty. I suppose if you live in the Big Smoke and could afford a cottage out of town, you wouldn't think anything of it. But it does tend to price locals out of the market and make for bleaker winter surroundings. That's probably an issue for any tourist town on the sea.
A few miles off the coast, you can see, if you look closely, the abandoned sea forts used as anti-aircraft gun towers during WWII. Condos anyone?

We took a nice train ride down to Brighton on the coast of East Sussex. It was an incredibly dramatic day for cloud cover, but luckily it didn't rain on us. Brighton is supposed to be the gay capital of England. I suppose it is. But it's not over the top like some districts in gay-friendly cities in the States. I think I saw a few rainbow flags or banners displayed. And we did wander into a gay shop which had a back room full of leathery things and many unmentionable objects of interest primarily to the men folk. All I could think was ouch! and no friggin' way! Um, let's move on shall we?

Brighton has several hundred thousand people living in and around the city. It is a major seaside destination on the south coast, boasting many corporate conventions and millions of visitors each year. I suppose most of them come in the summer, but there is something for everyone there all times of year. It has loads of shops, restaurants, pubs, and nightclubs. There is a pier with arcades and fun houses, which, except for the weather, rivals the Santa Monica pier.

Were there any interesting people, you might ask? Oh, my yes. I'm sorry to say I missed the photo op of one fellow who was strolling the beach in his pants and a T-shirt. At this point it's important to note that the term 'pants' in BritSpeak refers to underpants. So, back to the beach...this fellow was strolling along in his designer tighty-whities and T-shirt. And why not? Even though it wasn't exactly a warm day, he clearly didn't need to fear any shrinkage issues, if you get my drift. Curiously, he was walking along with girlfriend and mama, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. And even more curiously, his mama reached into a bag she was carrying and handed him his trousers. At this point he hid behind a nearby sculpture while dressing. Modest? Hmmmmmm.

There was a hotel called Queens Hotel visible from the beach. I thought that was funny for obvious reasons. The beach itself is lovely. It's a shale beach which looks pink or orange depending on the light. We looked for, and found, several holey stones. These are highly valued by wiccans and pagans. And anyone who likes beachcombing, I would think.

My favorite stop was a pub right on the beach. And what could be better after a day of looking at shops and beachcombing and dodging the kids on the pier? A pint of Stella at the seaside pub. Perfect.

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