One final stage left of our great circle – the road from London to Folkestone. One last day on the English coast. We’re almost back to where we started, four months ago – in Kent.
In early October t’s looking a lot more the “Orchard of England” than it did back in June. The orchards are heaving with ripe fruit, the woods glimmer gold and amber in the sun. The weather is dreamy, warm but not hot, the air is clear and fresh. England is wearing her best to bid us farewell.
If it’s Kent and sea, it must be Whitstable; we used to visit here once in a while, as it’s a rather lovely little town (possibly the finest within commute reach) and easy to get to from London, and the shingle beach is nice too, in low tide.
We haven’t been here for a few years, though, and we’re in for a surprise: the town looks better than it ever did. The fishing harbour is cleaned up and full of activity; some of the typical black-paint fishermen huts and warehouses are rented out for accommodation, some host an art and crafts market, some house bars and restaurant – but most importantly, many are still in proper use, by the owners of a fleet of tiny fishing crafts crowding the busy harbour, This is not one of those dead, fake fishermen communities that can be seen in other parts of the coast.
It’s October, which means it’s the middle of oyster season, and Whitstable oysters are among the best in the world; we pass by a tiny black hut, which looks like a former smokehouse, just by the sea wall, surrounded by crowds of customers; this is the unlikely headquarters of the Whitstable Oyster Company. The sea wall itself is the bar of this establishment, and we sit there, enjoying expertly shucked native oysters, local organic ale, and listen to one of the employees explaining the business to a couple of impressable Americans.
The oysters of Whiststable – now protected by the PGI designation (unlike their northern brethren in Colchester, across the bay) grow uniquely big, old, and tasty; we learn that it’s due to the amount of calcium in the water – we are surrounded by chalk downs, and the Thames brings its share of nutrients and minerals into the mix. The oysters grow on beds that are built by hand from recycled shells – heaps of which lie all around the harbour in this high season. The resulting produce is – as we could have tasted – a delicate, almost sweet morsel of brine and muscle. Flash-frozen alive, the oysters are sent all over the world, including – where else – Japan.
Since we’ve been to Whitstable so many times, it may seem surprising that we’ve never been to nearby Canterbury. Well, now’s our chance. We don’t know much about the town – apart from its history as the cradle of English Christianity, of course – but we are agreed on one thing: no more cathedrals. Luckily, to even enter the gardens of Augustine’s cathedral it’s £9 per person, so we are glad to get by with just casting a glance at its famous towers through the gate.
The old town surrounding it, however, was more than enough to occupy us for the remainder of the afternoon. It turned out to be one of the prettiest old towns we’ve seen, comparable with that of Chester, with buildings from 15th and 16th century still in modern use; Canterbury may just have the most impressive Nero Cafe and Pret-a-Manger in England, both behind ancient, wood-carved facades.
Canterbury looks like a place worth spending a whole day in, and I regret a little we haven’t visited here before; beyond the old town walls there are even more ancient ruins, of the Abbey, established by St Augustine himself, and a Norman castle – begun as one of the first in England, even before William reached London after Hastings. But the true gems are within the finely preserved walls, on the pilgrim road just off the West Gate (itself a massive construction, the largest city gate in England): a 12th century Pilgrim Hospital, open to public, and the Weavers’ Houses along the River Stour. The Weavers were the Huguenots, escaping from France in 16th century, and the district they inhabit looks like carried over directly from a small town in Alsace, somewhere around Strasbourg: dainty black-and-white timber houses facing the canal, festooned with ivy and flowers.
The whole place has a cosmopolitan flavour; Kent, separated from the rest of Europe only by the narrowest of straits, has always prided itself on Continental connections – even Caesar writes about its good relationships with Gaul – and it remains the most Continental-looking part of England, not least because all the cafes and restaurants in Canterbury are either French or Belgian. We leave the city and head for Dover and Folkestone, with one small but important stop in the middle of the marshes near Sandwich. Here, visited only by rabbits and pheasants, stands a mighty Roman wall of a Saxon Shore fortress of Rutupiae; today’s Richborough.
We started this journey from another such fort, at Pevensey; that was a place where William the Conqueror had landed in 1066. We end the journey at Richborough: the site of an equally important landing, that of Emperor Claudius’s troops in 43 AD. This is where Britain’s written history begins (excluding Caesar’s little adventure, which also may have begun around Dean/Sandwich coast); this is the first Roman-built settlement, and for many years the chief port of Britannia (until overshadowed by Dover). The local oysters which we had so eagerly eaten, where known in Rome as Richborough Oysters, and favoured as an incomparable delicacy.
The site is, unfortunately, closed on Tuesdays, but it’s enough that we are here to see it, from beyond a wire fence; where all had started, we finish. What would the Roman soldiers have said about our journey? What would William’s knights? It took us four months to get to Ultima Thule of their geographers – Shetlands – and back; we didn’t have to fight any barbarian tribes along the way, although we did have to brace the same cold winds and rains that they would have on the journey north. We’ve been to the Hadrian’s Wall, and to the Legionnary fortresses of Caerleon and Chester; two thousand years have passed, and the walls still stand, and the names of the Emperors, generals and even common centurions still ring familiar in our ears. The Romans, the Saxons, the Normans, are all here to stay.
We drive through Dover, its gigantic castle casting a dark shadow in the setting sun; from a National Trust car park we climb half-way down the white cliffs – quite possibly the most famous cliffs in the world – towards the ferry harbour; we’ve never seen anywhere as busy as this. A never-ending snake of countless HGVs pours forth from the ferries, which pass each other in the narrow entrance without stopping. Easily a third of the trucks bear Polish signs and names; they had made the same long journey as we are about to endure – the final stage of the long holiday, getting back to Warsaw for winter. We’re talking it slowly – the journey that could be done in a day will take us about a week; but then that’s the most we can safely squeeze out of ourselves and the car. Brussels, Cologne, Hannover, Berlin… this is just a taste of what we hope to see next year. But that’s a long-term plan. For now, the short-term plan is: get to Folkestone in the morning and board the Chunnel shuttle…
It’s night now; the last night in Great Britain. The campsite is a fine one, in a gorge carved into the snow-white chalk cliffs; it overlooks the sea, and we can hear the waves churning against the shore below; the ships in the Channel glint and glimmer, and still further on the unseen horizon, the light of a French lighthouse peeps occasionally through low clouds. It’s warm and dry, and quiet, and the smell of sea lingers in the air. Somehow, at the very end, everything is just as it should be.