To East Kent for the Bank Holiday. I have often been to places whose landscape was formed by ice, for example Norway, or most of northern Britain. Or (more rarely) by other forces such as desertification. But beyond the Medway, the Kent landscape has been formed by another force entirely: the armed forces. The whole region is shaped and structured for battle, more so than anywhere else I have seen.
We started at Reculver, once a Roman fort and later an abbey and church. Now there are some low Roman walls and some restored church towers, preserved as a sea mark. Then on to Richborough. Here you can see many phases of Roman occupation, at one of the most iconic sites of Roman Britain. Less obvious than the rest, but in a way most evocative, are some excavated ditches, the first defensive works scratched in these islands by the first Roman soldiers to land in AD43. Then came a bigger fort and a massive triumphal arch, set up as the prestige entrance to Roman Britain. Then a little later, heftier fortifications to fight off the Saxon invader, the same purpose for which Reculver was built. Did it work? See the work of Edward Gibbons for the answer.
So, two lots of actual or potential invaders already. Next stop: Deal Castle, one of a sequence along the coast put up by Henry VIII to fight possible French attackers, and built to adapt to the new reality of serious artillery power. Then to see the White Cliffs – look at the unmarked and unremarked holes cut in the cliff face to allow guns to cover the beach, probably for World War 2.
And that’s just day 1. Next day’s walk is mainly along the Military Canal, a massive structure built to facilitate resistance to a possible Napoleonic invasion. Even Sainsbury’s has a plaque saying it is on the site of the old musketry school. Above the canal is a remarkable sound mirror, looking like a derelict concrete radion telescope, part of a pre-World War II experiment in detecting sound from incoming aircraft. How well would it have worked? Hard to say, as radar put it out of business. Below this great spot, Hythe Ranges are still audibly in use by soldiers practising their shooting skills.
Day 3: Dover Castle, a hillfort in the Iron Age, then a Roman lighthouse, then a Norman castle, and rebuilt for military needs for every era up to World War II, with towers, tunnels and gun emplacements from every era. Those naughty French did besiege it with no success. This has got to be one of the nation’s top monuments, built to defend, to impress and to be the base for offensive action.
Then back via Rochester, home to a castle built to stop invaders reaching London, but also to a Cathedral that is, if anything, more military than the castle, wall to wall with memorials of one-time servicemen and some women. The Royal Engineers are especially well-represented. And why is there a submarine in the Medway nearby?
If these martial constructions are not enough for your tastes, try looking at the monuments and memorials. There are dozens, for everything from the Battle of Britain to far more minor warlike events. Perhaps one of the most memorable remembers the Dover Patrol of WWI – now forgotten, its members lost 2000 people keeping the Channel open. Oddly, that war is one of the least visible in the local landscape.
Now it is impossible to imagine M Hollande’s forces massing to strike the Kent coast, except maybe for a spot of shopping. Lucky us.
But if they do try, there are still plenty of nearby armed forces, including the Gurkhas. Best not to tangle with them.
Next trip, maybe somewhere a little more tranquil on the history front.