My fabulous big sister came all the way from Sheffield to visit me the other weekend. We often laugh about how I’ve returned to our home county and now live just a few towns along the coast from where we spent the best part of our childhood – Herne Bay.
She was right when she said that as a teenager (after we’d moved from Kent when I was age 14) and adult I’d rarely recollected about my hometown and county, putting both firmly in the past and to the back of my mind. She left Kent when she was 18 so her defining teenage years were spent here, whereas mine were spent in Berkshire. Yet my childhood memories are full of happiness, warmth, a country cottage idyll in Wingham then the brilliant beach life at Herne Bay. I loved my house, my school, the sea etc etc. So there was really no reason for my non-plussed attitude.
Alas, sometimes fate has her own way of making you address your past, and so it has been since I moved back to Kent in August 2010. I’ve refound a love of my home county, the coast and all that that brings and drawn comfort from the wonderful childhood I had here.
That’s why sis and I thought it was a great idea to spend the day in Herne Bay, visiting our old haunts, seeing what’s changed, what hasn’t and everything inbetween.
It was a very grey day but we were bright and breezy, getting an earlyish train. We arrived, and it was like going back in time to 1993! Everything looked the same – the houses from the station to the town centre looked the same, though this time a little more disheveled. We walked through the park, which was much bigger than we remembered. We recounted many a summer night spent at the fair, sis revealed a few first kisses and we hunted for Mr Chips at the other end – it’s still a fish ‘n’ chip shop but the name has changed. We walked passed the swimming pool and cinema which we remember being built – we were so excited (I was a keen swimmer and I had my first date at the cinema aged 13!). Then we saw Mascots Bakery – the same bakery where Ma and Pa treated us to a cake most Saturdays. And to our delight they had our favourites! Mine was a frog cake and sis’s was a marshmallow cone. So we bought two of our fave each and later ate them on the beach!
We then saw the same greasy spoon next to the bakery that sis frequented regularly with her school chums. All was good.
But as the clouds got greyer, so the excitement of Herne Bay started to wean a little. We noticed that where there was once ‘proper’ looking shops there were now some odd gifty/charity/used computer places. We turned the corner onto the high street and everything looked as grey as the weather. Our child like view of the town where we grew up was fast becoming a rather sad reality in our adult eyes. There were a number of shops still hanging on by their 80s signs, such as New Look, the mini mart, the newsagent. But Herne Bay was lifeless. I wondered what visitors/tourists feel when arriving at the town.
I may be biased living in Margate, which as soon as you leave the station you’re confronted with the wonderful sandy beaches. The arcades leave much to be desired but there’s no denying that the recent investment in the town is paying off. And it has TC, which whether you love it or hate it, is a draw.
But what has Herne Bay got now?
After a rather redeeming nice lunch in Mortimers cafe we headed to the seafront for some light relief. Macari’s ice cream parlour, which I fondly remember as I went to school with the owner’s son, had been taken over by a cafe. The dilapidated pub opposite was a complete ruin having been burnt out and left to rot – quite an eyesore as the first thing you see when you approach the seafront.
But we settled on a bench and ate our lovely cakes, with the iconic Reculver towers behind us and in front of some impressive new seafront flats.
Next, a gentle stroll next along the very long harbour arm. SHOCK! The pier pavilion in mid demolishment!
In the 18 months I’ve been back in Kent not once have I heard about this. I knew the roller skating that used to go on inside the pavilion had been moved to a local secondary school, but I had no idea the pavilion was being callously crumpled.
I have to say, I felt utterly devastated. Sis and I strolled slowly along the harbour wall, as horror swept over us as we saw one of our favourite childhood memories being squashed before our eyes. It’s true that memories are just that and that time moves on, but I couldn’t see the point of the demolition.
It was an eerie, bizarre and harsh contrast to the very old pier left stranded out to sea in the background. The foreground now complete with a newer, now nearly non-existent, pier.
The old pier had always filled me with intrigue, Paps used to tell us about its history and growing up with it, I always wondered what it was like before it burnt down. I still wish we had at least one pier left along the Kent coast just to get the sensation of what it was like to arrive at the seaside in the nineteenth century. When I was 10 I was lucky enough to be taken by my friend’s dad around the end of the pier in his boat – I’ve never been so spooked in my life (ok, well apart from the York Ghost tour which my dad took me on when I was 12). This was the era of point horror books, ghost tale sleepovers etc. I’d love to do that again!
The seafront was desolate, just like the high street. we walked through the bandstand which I thought had been newly opened about 10 years ago but looked like that too had closed down. The only clue it hadn’t was a solitary figure supping a cup of tea, optimistically gazing out to sea.
Walking up to the demolition site, with the whirring sound of drills around us, was even more saddening. Aggressive signs seemed to screech at us ‘Pier Pavillion now closed’. Opposite was the Welcome to Herne Bay tourist notice board, cluttered with anti demolition and ‘what are we doing to save our town’ posters. It seems Herne Bay is struggling for its life.
An ironic poster advertising children’s beach games clung hungrily to a hut in front of the demolition, which prompted us to remember the many trampolines, games and bouncy castles that lined the beach and where we spent many an hour and pocket money enjoying. I have no idea whether these still come along in summer time, but there was no sign of such vibrancy and colour on this particular day.
I felt more saddened than my sis, mainly because I always thought it was super cool that we had skating on the pier, but also because I was struggling to see what the children and young people today would find as inspiration here, apart from the sea itself of course.
Just like Margate, it was a joyous, long era of abundance, pleasure and dedication to make these seaside towns brilliant and definite destinations. Yet it seems it’s taken no time at all to neglect them, tear down their assets and with them fond memories and reasons for visitors to return.
I’m sure I’m being over emotional about it and it’s more likely the surprise of the scenario that’s got the better of me. But I guess, time has to move on. I’m just glad my memories will never change.
The Herne Bay Pier Trust was set up in 2009 to try and reopen the pier, though it is not funded by the council, so no idea if it will generate enough money to realise its dream. Read a history of Herne Bay’s three piers here.