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A Weekend in Kent: Family, JMW Turner & Wartime History

October 27, 2014
Whitstable Harbour, Kent

Whitstable Harbour, Kent

I always talk about being a Londoner and it is true that I’ve always lived in London, but for my most of my childhood I lived right on the borders, in the Greater London Borough of Bexley with a postal address of Kent. Thus Kent is also ‘home’ and it’s where my brother and his family live and where my paternal relations – aunt and cousins – live. Thus, as I left the M25 on my drive on Saturday morning and eased the car on to the M20 and then M2 towards Canterbury, I definitely felt as if I was coming home as fields stretched before me towards the sea, signs indicated hop farms and I remembered how the county of Kent is also known as the garden of England. I spent a lot of time down that way as a child, often staying with my uncle Joe, one of my dad’s older brothers (my dad was the youngest of six). I was on my way to see my aunt Arleen, who, Joe’s second wife, is far too young to be called ‘aunt’ by me. She’d kindly come up with some great suggestions of what we could do over the weekend and this included a visit to Turner Contemporary in Margate and tea at her youngest son’s – my cousin Jason’s – farm, a 20-minute drive from her house.

Arleen lives in Birchington which lies on the Kent coast between Margate and Whitstable, in Thanet – a semi-island, surrounded by the sea on three sides. Margate is famous for its JMW Turner connection and Whitstable for its oysters. I arrived in time for lunch and in the afternoon we set off in the car to visit Whitstable. On the way, Arleen indulged me in a nostalgic trip via the village of Chestfield where she and Joe used to live and where I spent time as a child. We stopped by the beautiful oast houses next to Chestfield Golf Club where they lived and did a loop round the edge of the golf course in the car. The connection to the golf course came right forward in time to my son’s childhood for my dad used to take Jonathan there for days out to play golf and have lunch together.

Whitstable has become a fashionable destination for holidays and day trips from London. There was a group of huts at the edge of the harbour with people selling crafts – paintings, jewellery, clothes, etc.; further on were shacks selling the famous local oysters. Moving away from the harbour and beach we made our way into the narrow streets behind, with their pretty houses, and which were full of visitors on this warm Saturday afternoon. There were bijoux little shops selling lovely things you might like but didn’t need to buy; cafes and restaurants. After a wander, we made our way back to the car for the short drive to Jason’s farm – Brook Farm in Denstroude, near Canterbury. It was a beautiful afternoon, the sun low in the winter sky promising a beautiful sunset. I’m afraid I didn’t take photos but was busy instead having tea with my family! The farm is lovely, laying in a hundred acres of beautiful Kent countryside. Jason is a farrier and people can stable their horses there; he and Francesca also have cottages and a converted barn which are let for holidays (click here for info).

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Sunday began with an early morning walk with Arleen and her dog Rosie: a beautiful rescue dog who is a cross between a Michon and a Maltese Terrier. Minnis Bay is within walking distance of Arleen’s house. It was quiet and lovely with the beach stretching miles; only other dog walkers about. After breakfast we set off to Margate but first visited the Spitfire & Hurricane Memorial Museum at Manston Airport on the way. Arleen wanted to show me the memorial to the famous The Channel Dash operation in World War II in which my dad’s and Joe’s older brother, Bill, took part and was sadly killed.

My Uncle Bill (left in photo) W.G. Smith; a Spitfire gunner

My Uncle Bill (left in photo) W.G. Smith; a Spitfire gunner

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On 12 February 1942, six fabric Swordfish Torpedo Bombers were sent to meet a fleet of German battleships making their way across the Channel. All were shot down and 18 young men – including Bill – died. The sad irony for the family was that he had come off duty and at the last moment volunteered to fill a space. It was great to see this because my dad had talked about his brother Bill so much and Arleen and I could see a strong family likeness in the photo.

We moved on to Margate and the Turner Contemporary, which opened in 2011 and was designed by architect David Chipperfield. It’s the largest contemporary art space in south-east England and is built on the site of a guesthouse where Turner used to stay.

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‘The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe,’ Turner wrote about the area. This, more remarkably, was where Turner first saw the sea, sent from London to school in Margate at the age of 11. Many of the local beaches and bays were inspirations to the painter and his great seascapes, and with the cloudier sky we had yesterday, and wonderful light coming through, it was easy to understand why.

Stone Bay, near Broadstairs, Kent

Stone Bay, near Broadstairs, Kent

The gallery is a minimalist building situated right by the sea, which you can look out on from the huge windows inside.

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I’ve read so much about it since its opening, it was great to actually go inside the gallery. Arleen said the singing group she’s part of rehearse there each week; what a fantastic venue. After a look round, we headed into the town and found a cafe for coffee in a pretty square. Again, this was a nostalgic and lovely outing for me as I used to be taken to Margate often as a child; an easy day trip from where we lived.

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Back in the car, we followed the coast round to Broadstairs in search of a late lunch.

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We were noticing the darkening of the sky and the difference putting the clocks back the night before, for the end of British Summer Time, was making to our day. However, we found a great restaurant – Restaurant 54 – offering a good Sunday roast meal.

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We received a friendly welcome; inside the style was stylish-simple and a comfortable and calm place to sit and enjoy a meal. The roast beef came with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and vegetables.

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The beef was delicious; perfectly cooked and melt-in-the mouth tender. We had an excellent glass of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon with it and then couldn’t resist dessert. I chose a spiced apple crumble tart with caramel custard and rhubarb & ginger ice cream. Definitely a Sunday indulgence and very delicious!

It was a full and lovely weekend. I woke to sunny skies and that made the return trip to London an easy and pleasant drive, but hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m back in Kent again.

 

3 Comments
  1. How nice to spend time with your Aunt…it sounds like she planned a pleasant weekend.

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  1. A Weekend in Kent: Sandwich & Canterbury | Travel Gourmet

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