I’d been warned by my host that Planet Thanet was stuck in a 1970s time-warp. But nothing could have prepared me for the full reality of stepping off the train at Ramsgate.
The 1970s is often mockingly portrayed as a grim decade. This seems unfair. It was the decade of my teens and student years, so of course it was wonderful. Or, if not wonderful, then the time at least when everything was as it inevitably should be.
It was the last decade from which I can still remember every FA Cup Final. The last decade in which I knew, or cared, what was in the pop charts. And if it was also the Jimmy Savile era, we didn’t know then what he was up to off-camera.
It was the age of Led Zeppelin, of Ziggy Stardust, of Genesis when they still had Peter Gabriel, surreal creativity and street cred. The decade when my taste in most things was formed and when I saw most of the bands I’ve ever seen in my life.
They included the awful 101ers, whose lead singer Joe Strummer would just a few months later join The Clash and make them great. And the even worse Brewers Droop, whose lead guitarist Mark Knopfler was shortly to become the driving force of the fabulous Dire Straits. For music, as for me, it was a formative age.
But if it was the best of times, it was also the worst of times. And what I found hanging on in Ramsgate was not the creative energy, merely the grim and the grime.
I managed to avoid stepping in any dog mess, but it was a near thing. I did not avoid tripping, more than once, on the cracked and broken paving.
In many ways, this sad place is typical of so many seaside towns. The road sweeping down the cliff side is lined with once grand homes and guesthouses. Most are now surely “homes of multiple occupancy”, divided into flats let by private owners at inflated rents paid to them direct from the benefits office. The scandal of a land of too few jobs and too little social housing.
The paintwork is stained and peeling, the windowframes rotten, the once-elegant balconies sagging. Most of the people on the High Street looked similarly forlorn, dressed from charity shops that themselves appear to have seen better days.
In one apparently specialist store were used laptops and tablets at suspiciously low prices. I was half tempted until I noticed that the shop’s other window was full of assault rifles and other assorted firearms. These were not people I wanted to do business with.
The portable computers may not be very 1970s, but outside stood a couple of genuine throwbacks. Skinheads, complete with braces, bovver-boots and belts studded with bullet-shells.
Yes, this is Thanet, that out-of-time corner of Kent which is Nigel Farage’s natural constituency and where anti-European hearts beat strongest.
It won’t stay like this, of course. Gentrification is on its way. The poverty-trapped will be forced out by economic migrants.
Not the foreigners they have been taught to fear, but a flood of middle-class Londoners forced out of the capital to a place they can afford 70 minutes away by train.
And where the present tenants of those rundown seaside flats will go then, who knows?
My dad’s family were from Kent and he spent a lot of his youth there, yet it’s one of the parts of England I know least. The Port of Dover, and the roads to and from it, were about all I’d seen before an event in Canterbury drew me there.
Canterbury is a pretty town preserved in the shiny aspic of tourism. Most of the people on its streets the day I went were French teenagers.
At the cathedral gate I felt compelled to quote the Bible. My favourite story about Christ – his overturning of the money-changers’ tables in the temple.
I’ve visited every ancient cathedral in the land and in every one I was invited to make a donation. Only in Canterbury did I face an obligatory fee - £10.50 just to enter the grounds. I suppose it helps keep out the riff-raff.
And though it’s England’s head church, and full of history, I wouldn’t rank Canterbury in my Top Ten of English cathedrals. Norwich is much more beautiful, more gracious in its setting, and far richer in medieval art. Canterbury has some delightful details in its crypt, but nothing as unusual or attractive as Norwich’s painted ceiling-bosses. It’s nowhere near as enjoyable as the cathedrals of Lincoln, York, Gloucester or Wells. And nothing matches Durham for grandeur.
As for those French school parties, they have an abundant choice of greater gothic glories at home. Though, admittedly, without the Greggs pasties and Union Jack t-shirts.