A recent piece in the Guardian reported that Pegwell Bay, near the town of Ramsgate in Kent, is now regarded as the most likely site of Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain. Excavators and archaeologists discovered the remains of a defensive base in the nearby hamlet of Ebbsfleet, dating back to the first century AD. If you look at the landscape, consider the maps and the routes across the waters, it does make sense. An isolated place, and site of massive historical importance, once part of the connective tissue that allows us to travel with ease to the mainland and back.
There is a sense of corroded history hanging heavy over Pegwell Bay. It is a place of invasion and amnesia, where you once could take a hovercraft to France, crossing the channel in as little as twenty-two minutes. Roman soldiers took their first steps into an alien land here. Vikings are commemorated for landing here. People sift the geological strata for signs the past, as they have done for generations. Once, just without reach of my own lifetime, it must have been a happy place, of arrivals and departures, holidaymakers and couples taking their first trips out of England.
Ben and I, walking to the ruins of the hoverport from his flat in Ramsgate, pass a detectorist on the chalky cliffs above the bay. We'd just been talking about the recently concluded BBC series, about how Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones clearly understand the concepts of folklore and hauntology and psychogeography. Crook was in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, Jones playing John Clare in Andrew Kotting's By Our Selves. A lightness of touch, daft and human humour mixed with concepts of deep time and an awareness of the skull beneath the skin– it is something to be admired. It reflects reality too; as we walk and talk we make dumb jokes, recall funny anecdotes from our younger days, talk about the layers of history of the bay, serious things, stupid things, lightweight and heavy, all jumbled together.
The remains of the hoverport are like mana to anyone with an interest in landscape and all the corresponding disciplines. Un-sign-posted, not even fenced off, it's just there. The ghosts of lettering directing vehicles to the carpark; the reeds that grow now through the concrete and tarmac; the curlews flying overhead on their way to the nature reserve that butts up onto the ruins. It's irresistible, almost a cliche in how it represents everything I am interested in.
You can almost take comfort in a place like this. Mark Fisher talks about the emotions and feelings engendered by ruins in The Weird and the Eerie – when we are presented with symbols shorn of their meaning and context, when we stand in the ruins of human endeavour, we can't help think of the future decay of our society. That one day our homes or places of work may have reeds growing from the cracks, the explorers of the future wandering the remains taking photographs and writing essays like this one.
I wrote a short story, 'The Hollow Shore', about a man's unraveling among the marshes and strange waterways of this coast. William Dyce's painting of Pegwell Bay, Donati's comet blazing faintly in the sky above Victorian fossil hunters, features in the story, helping usher in the strange events that beleaguer a protagonist much like myself. I think it's now time for the place to get a full story of it's own. The dog walkers and few other people out for a stroll that we see, all are crowded out by the ghosts here.
In the picnic area overlooking the bay, sits a gaudy replica of The Hugin, a replica of a Viking ship which sailed from Denmark to Thanet in 1949. The voyage was a celebration of the 1500th anniversary of the invasion of Britain, the traditional landing of Hengist and Horsa and the betrothal of Hengist's daughter, Rowena, to King Vortigen of Kent. We approached it by ascending rusted stairs and a metal platform, presumably once used to help pedestrian passengers down to the bay and into the hoverport. We clamber through thorn and bracken and over a stray strand of barbed wire.
Out of fifty-three crewmen only the navigator, Peter Jensen, was a pro. Viking conditions were faithfully observed and the only instrument carried was a sextant. The Hugin was offered as a gift to Ramsgate and Broadstairs by the Daily Mail in order to be preserved for centuries. Make what you will of that paper commemorating a foreign invasion.
We stood on the overgrown ramp that led into the bay, looking out over the sea and towards Ramsgate. Imagined wooden ships and craft once considered futuristic sliding in and out of the water, ferrying stories across the centuries.