‘Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea…”
Thus Pip describes in ‘Great Expectations’, the salt marshes of North East Kent, where I found myself for several days, looking after some electronic equipment.
It’s not unusual on these contracts to have a day spare before things get going, so, as Ramsgate was on the doorstep and it was unlikely that I’d be coming this way again, this was an adventure not to be missed.
Apart from its proximity to Manston airfield which played a decisive role in operations conducted during the 1st and 2nd World Wars and the town’s part in the ‘little ships’ evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, I knew nothing of Ramsgate’s rich history. First recorded as a settlement sometime in the 13thC, along with Margate and Broadstairs, the town is situated in an area known as (because it once was but is no longer an island) the Isle of Thanet. The island saw quite a lot of invaders to-ing and fro-ing in ancient times, causing trouble and being beastly to the locals; a replica Viking ship presented by the Danes to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, stands just down the road in Pegwell Bay.
A wonderful mix of Regency and Victorian architecture (at least those buildings immediately adjacent to the sea front – there are some less attractive parts) gives the town a respectable, but convivial air.
This splendid lift, complete with Art Nouveau tiles, let me down from Wellington Crescent – Ramsgate’s answer to Bath’s Royal Crescent – to the harbour where the sharp-eyed would immediately recognise this very rare Edward VIII post box.
I walked straight past it but then I’m not yet a post box fancier; that may come with time of course but, possibly not.
In front of the marina and under the Royal Parade, the arches housed a mix of trades, among them cafés, a small motorcycle museum (yet to be investigated) and services for boating types supplying anchors, dodgy slip-on shoes and whatnot.
Then a brisk walk along the harbour wall in the steps of Van Gogh – a resident of the town in 1876 and who made a note of this walk in a letter to his brother Theo: “There’s a harbour full of all kinds of ships, closed in by stone jetties running into the sea on which one can walk. And further out one sees the sea in its natural state, and that’s beautiful.”
But regardless of all the wonderful architecture and all the other delights that Ramsgate had to offer, somehow it was Pip and the salt marshes that persisted in my imagination and that, despite the fact that Dickens set his story further inland and closer to Rochester, nearly 50 miles away. As I carefully picked my way through the marsh, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Magwitch had risen up in front of me – then again, even though in the film you knew he was coming, he still made you jump!