Broadstairs? Why Didn't I Think of That!?
The Town that Time Forgot
Broadstairs: Why Didn’t I think of That!
“…a grunt, a heave, window’s down.
Smell of cabbage: Westgate, Margate,
Good old Broadstairs!
Excerpt from “Near Hometown.“
From “Charged Particles”
By Robert Challen de Mercer.
It’s extraordinary to me, having been born in the town many moons ago, why more people don’t go to Broadstairs for their hols, a week-end break, or even to live. One of the reason is, to me at least, is the picture is downgraded by its frame, the towns of Ramsgate to the south and Margate to the north, crowding Broadstairs like a pair of ugly sisters. (Here we go with the hate mail, folks!). Situated in the once island of Thanet, in Southeast Kent, the weather can often get a bit tasty in the winter, Not a lot of rain, it’s one of the driest places in Britain, unless you include the spume being driven over the harbour wall by the constant north- east wind and the tides!
Broadstairs has had a long history as a holiday resort and place to convalesce. Folks with lung disease used to be sent here by the droves in the latter two centuries when TB was rife, as was horrors like black-lung from the mines. Broadstairs has also had many orphanages and other refuges for children over the same period: those escaping the grinding poverty of London’s East End, or the bombs and doodle-bugs of the last world war. Many stayed on and made homes here; others immigrated to the New World, but, according to the many posts on websites such as Stella Maris, they still hold a soft spot for Broadstairs in their hearts.
Broadstairs is almost unrivalled in the UK as a holiday resort. Many studies have confirmed this. One, done a couple of years ago, put Broadstairs second only to one other, posh, resort. No, I’m not naming it, one of its own native sons can sing its praises. Another, done 30 years ago by National Geographic, called Broadstairs the most charming place in Britain.
But still, its glories remain largely unsung. This, of course, is mainly due to the fact that the Brits have, understandably, taken advantage of cheap airfares and headed like snowbirds for the sunshine of the costas, the Greek islands, Cyprus and other torrid zones. We find in 2009, a lot of them are creeping back to good old British fish-‘n‘-chips, winkles and the glum landladies of the local resorts. Spanish properties, in their thousands, stand sere and alone in the blinding sunshine, while dad’s back in his braces paddling with the kids in…Blackpool, Southend…Brighton…but not, I was told by several owners of guest houses, Broadstairs.
And I am at a dead loss to understand why. For me, you can keep the cobbles and faux charm of the South Coast resorts of Sussex and further south. Devon and Cornwall are ok, but none I have found have just the right combination of lovely, sandy - often deserted - beaches backed by gorgeous chalk cliffs, miles of seaweedy rocks at low tide for kids to shrimp and crab; lots of bays at high tide to paddle and take a dip. There are seven beaches like this in Broadstairs. I have included snaps of four of them. Three of these beaches are in town proper and can be examined as you walk along the Western and Eastern Esplanades. Lovely word that “Esplanade” Sounds like “Splendour,” doesn’t it? Of course, Broadstairs was a favourite of the Victorians, including the good old Queen herself. Most of the infrastructure from this ornate period still stands along the Western promenade. Not quite of that vintage is one of Britain’s oldest beach cafes. Morelli’s Some have said Morelli’s is so kitsch, it’s cool! First opened in 1932, it contains much of the original décor, with pink seating, wicker chairs, a juke box and a soda fountain, with this weird cut-out suspended from the ceiling. If the ice-cream sundaes lack a little of the munificence of yesteryear, they are still the best anywhere today and many people return, year after year, to sample them. The Morelli family took this idea to the country, becoming one of the largest café chains a few years ago. Sadly, many have started to close recently due, I suspect, to the two surviving brothers having had enough of the rat-race in today’s economy and with competition by international chains such as Starbucks.
Broadstairs has a snug little harbour, called by locals, “The Jetty.” Few boats moor there these days: the pleasure, day-tripper boats, like the “Perseverance,” have long gone. This leaves the jetty with a sort of timeless feeling about it. Every time I recall my countless visits there, I hear the sound of herring gulls keening in a stiff breeze and the smell of tar from the breakwater along the middle, mixed with the smell of brine from the sea. And in my mind’s eye, I can see my grandpa, Doc Mercer, heaving a burlap sack of fresh-caught fish off the “Patience,“ our old fishing launch.
Columbus was yet to discover America when the first harbour was built in Broadstairs, there was a wooden structure in place here from 1440 and the original arch in Harbour street dates back to this time.
Doubtlessly the most famous man to live here for a while was Charles Dickens, and his name appears everywhere in the town. Forbiddingly, his old manse, the aptly named Bleak House, looks down from its location at the start of the Eastern Esplanade. Showing deplorable short-sightedness, the council did not acquire the house when it was available so it could be opened to the public as it once was. It lies in private hands and there is no access to the fans of the great author. Utterly inexcusable.
Particular members of the public would definitely find Broadstairs to their taste in the long winter months. They are the nation’s dog owners. The beaches are closed to dogs at most times during the tourist season, but at other times (please check with tourist bureau) dogs think they are in heaven on these beaches at low tide, with the wide and long hard-packed stretches of sand, full of delicious smelly things like cuttle fish, dead bloated fish and ripe, sun-dried seaweed.
I have lived away from Broadstairs since I was 23. That is more than…well, it’s a long time! What IS it about this place that gives it this indelible quality in old resident’s minds? I can’t say, but it is true and we will keep going back there in reality or in flights of fancy as long as we shall live.