8 coastal towns in Kent and their literary roots
PUBLISHED: 09:51 12 November 2019
Join us on a literary journey around the Kent coast to see how it has inspired writers over the centuries
With a 350-mile coastline, part estuary, part sea, Kent has long attracted artists drawn to its qualities of light and water; what painter JMW Turner called 'the loveliest skies in Europe'. But what about the written word? Has the coast inspired writers to put pen to paper?
From Gravesend to Dungeness we'll journey around the coast to find out about some of the books and writers who have drawn inspiration from our watery county.
It's not an exhaustive list (it misses out some of the big names, like Joseph Conrad and Ian Fleming) but a taster of writers and writing that have captured, in some way, what makes this coast unique.
- The Hoo Peninsula
We begin on the Hoo Peninsula. One night in May 1732, a group of five friends (including the artist William Hogarth) met in a London pub to begin their Five Days' Peregrination (1872) by boat and on foot around the North Kent coast. Part lads outing, part parody of the 'Grand Tour' (in which well-off young men toured cities like Venice to be edified by art and culture), their trip included breakfast in Gravesend, hopscotch outside Rochester town hall, dung flinging at Upnor and a 'comfort break' in the graveyard at Hoo St Werburgh.
Guided more by their stomachs than the sights, with descriptions of food and drink featuring heavily, the Crown Inn at the end of Rochester High Street fortified them with: "A dish of soles and flounders with crab sauce, a calf's heart stuffed and roasted, the liver fried and the other appurtenances minced, a leg of mutton roasted and some green peas."
Mention Rochester and the writer who first comes to mind is of course Charles Dickens. Though other counties might claim him (he was born in Portsmouth), his childhood near Chatham and the last 14 years of his life at Gads Hill have cemented his Kentish connection. The opening scenes of Great Expectations (1861), in which Pip meets Magwitch are thought to have been inspired by the churchyard at Cooling.
This description certainly appear to describe the flat, estuarine landscapes of North Kent: "The dark flat wilderness, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it...the low leaden line of the river...and the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, the sea…".
The long shadow cast by Dickens over this part of Kent is brilliantly conveyed in David Seabrook's study of the seedy stories that lurk beneath the surface of our county: All the Devils Are Here (2002).
For Seabrook, Rochester is a town still haunted by the ghost of Dickens 'striding among them', a town still in mourning for its most famous son. As a meditation on the Kent coast, Seabrook wouldn't be recommended by the local tourist board, but for conjuring a sense of place, albeit an uneasy one, it's a compelling, lyrical read.
- Isle of Sheppey
Another writer unafraid to excavate the bones of Kent is prizewinning novelist Nicola Barker. Wide Open, her novel of 1998, is set on the Isle of Sheppey, a place not many writers have dared to venture.
Against the backdrop of life on a remote, salt-blasted island where a mother and daughter tend their smallholding, she writes a coming-of-age novel peopled by a cast of oddball characters.
Wide Open is Part One of her Thames Gateway trilogy of novels, which she followed with Behindlings (2001) set on Canvey Island and Darkmans (2007), based in Ashford.
Sheppey's literary claim to fame is further boosted by its association with the German writer Uwe Johnson. Living through and documenting Nazi Germany, the Second World War and the Communist regime that followed, he was described by Gunter Grass as 'the poet of the divided Germany'.
For the last 10 years of his life he lived and wrote in a terraced house at Sheerness-on-Sea, where he completed his epic four-volume novel Anniversaries (1970).
Johnson became a local personality and in turn was fascinated by the people and the island he chose to call home. He had begun writing a book about the landscape and people of Sheppey but sadly it was never completed before his death at 49.
From Sheppey we journey round the coast to Faversham. The sinuous twists of Faversham Creek as it curves its way through the flat marshes out to the Swale can appear a bleak and barren landscape, but perhaps its very flatness opens up spaces for the writer to fill with their own stories.
The title of Gary Budden's short story collection Hollow Shores (2017) refers to Hollowshore on Ham Marshes, the nose of land where Faversham and Oare Creek meet at The Shipwright's Arms pub.
Having grown up in Faversham, Budden is well placed to excavate the stories hidden in the North Kent coast.
Many of his plots revolve around a character who journeys out from London only to become hypnotised by the creeks and marshes.
In one story, a character visits Deadman's Island near Queenborough. Like a modern-day trophy hunter, he is looking for prize relics, in this case the bones and skulls of convicts who died on floating prisons and were buried on the island.
Thanks to erosion, their bodies and coffins are rising up from the mud, and it's not good karma to go digging them up.
Moving further around the coast brings us to Margate. Poet T.S Eliot may have written the first lines of his modernist masterpiece The Wasteland (1922) in a shelter overlooking Margate Sands, but in Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders (1996), Margate becomes the final destination of a rambunctious road trip to scatter the ashes of a dead man.
Similarly to Hogarth and his friends 250 years earlier, the novel's characters journey from a pub in South London to the end of England (well, Margate), stopping along the way in Canterbury, Rochester and at Chatham war memorial to reminisce, laugh, drink and reveal buried secrets that challenge their friendships.
In the film version, made in 2001, Eastbourne pier had to stand in for Margate (its pier was destroyed by storms in 1978).
For fans of crime fiction, Margate also features as the backdrop in cult novel Scorpion Rising (1999). Its writer, Anthony Frewin, is perhaps best known for being personal assistant to director Stanley Kubrick for over 20 years.
Travelling west we pass Shakespeare Cliff, so named for the passage in King Lear (1605) where the fishermen below 'appear like mice', and on to Folkestone, a town caught somewhere between the genteel and the bohemian. Local author Jocelyn Brooke certainly saw it this way.
Little known these days, Brooke's novels evoke his Kentish childhood in and around Folkestone and the Elham Valley. Born and brought up in Folkestone which he described as a 'pompous Edwardian town…raffish forbidden territory with its fun fairs and winkle stalls', in contrast the Elham Valley, where his family had their holiday home, represented a wild, mysterious hinterland.
In his novel The Dog at ClamberCrown (1955), the young narrator is both terrified and fascinated by the eponymous pub there. Clambercrown, near Bossingham, is still marked on the map, but the pub has long gone. Brooke appears to have had a complex relationship with this part of Kent, describing Folkestone's Lower Leas as having 'an air of bogus rusticity' and Stelling Minnis as a place of 'sinister magic.'
Down to Dover, perhaps most associated with Matthew Arnold's well-known lyric poem Dover Beach (1867), in which the poet stands by the sea and contemplates time, love and religion.
The flipside of his experience is conveyed in the title poem of Daljit Nagra's collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! (2007) which shows us a very different vision of the 'Gateway to England'.
Narrated by a smuggled-in immigrant who imagines a better life of 'beeswaxed cars' and 'charged glasses', Dover's White Cliffs become an imposing border.
In this poem, the coast and the land beyond are hostile to immigrants whilst welcoming other 'cushy come-and-go tourists', inviting us to think about who is and isn't made welcome to our shores at a time in our history when questions over borders are become increasingly vexed.
If anywhere could be described in terms of sinister magic, it might well be Dungeness, a place that still exerts a magnetic pull.
I first experienced it on a school trip, and still remember the thrill as the tiny railway chugged its way through a landscape that felt more like Arizona than anywhere in Kent. Its associations with writer and filmmaker Derek Jarman are widely known and for many, a trip to Sun Cottage where he lived for years and in particular its famous garden, is part of the Dungeness experience.
Jarman wrote about living there in his wonderful diary published as Modern Nature (1991). The diary reveals that Jarman was a true plantsman, with a deep love of this salty, sun-bleached and wind-ravaged coast.
Much of the book documents his efforts to plant a lasting garden; to familiarise himself with the flowers that delighted him as a child and to create a lasting legacy under the shadow of an HIV diagnosis that would sadly kill him at just 52.
Derek Jarman once described the landscape of Dungeness as like 'the face of angel but with a naughty smile.'
Perhaps this description could equally stand in for the whole of the Kent coast; sometimes beautiful sometimes bleak, but always full of stories waiting to be told.