“Thanet is an island in the Ocean in the Gallic channel, separated from Britannia by a narrow estuary, with fruitful fields and rich soil. It is name Thanet (tanatos) from the death of serpents. Although the island itself is unacquainted with serpents, if soil from it is carried away and brought to any other nation, it kills snakes there.”
That’s flipping brilliant that is. Imagine the soil where you live being capable of killing snakes. It beggars belief and fairly so, being the fanciful suggestion of one St Isidore of Seville. In fact, the whole description falls short these days: the Isle of Thanet (home to Ramsgate, Margate and Broadstairs) is in fact no such thing, the river Wantsum having receded in the last 500 years or so. Slightly more recently, the area was hamlets and villages and arable land, characterised by “people dirty, poor-looking, but particularly dirty” (so said William Cobbett). That all changed starting in 1749 when construction began on Britain’s only Royal Harbour – being the closest port to Europe, Ramsgate became a favoured departure point for grand tours and the like, and became particularly prominent when Napoleon was sticking his diddy French head above the parapet. When the Harbour was finally completed in 1850 the whole Northern Kent coastline became the great Victorian coastal destination, whether for convalescence (as in the huge sea-bathing hospital in Margate) or general tourism. Ramsgate’s beaches, harbour and railway became a magnet for hotels, magnificent Regency crescents and well-to-do Victorian types.
Today, the town is less select than once it was, though by no means run down. We stayed overnight looking out over the harbour at a disneyfied pirate ship and tinkling pleasure cruisers, then attacked the charity shops in the morning. The shopping district has taken on a less impressive air than the rest of the town would seem to suggest: while the backstreets are quaint, winding, narrow harbourside affairs with windowboxes and difficult parking, the pedestrianised high street is dominated by a windswept market and big, red-brick Wilkinsons-type shops.
Nevertheless: charity shops are here in abundance, and the first evidence is in the market itself, where a raggedy Cats in Crisis stall stands cheerfully between Debra and a large British Red Cross shop. These are located just off the central crossroads of Harbour, High, King and Queen Streets – on Harbour you’ll also find a small-ish Kidney Research Trust shop (when we entered, Dark Side of the Moon was bursting out of the little stereo – it’s fairly disconcerting to be greeted by the wobbly psychedelia of On The Run) and a vast British Heart Foundation that the wife had spotted the night before, filled with all sorts of tat over two shops worth of stuff. We got a shoe expander thing which looks like a medieval torture device.
Head up Queen Street, meanwhile, and you’ll find a Cancer Research discount store, no less (sadly, lacking in anything worth buying), then as you progress up the hill a plethora of tatty little shops: Sense, Shelter, an actual, physical Cats in Crisis shop which is the most hilariously tatty place in the town, and a big RSPCA. That’s… nine and a market stall? Not bad going.
Find: Ramsgate @ Google Maps
Get there: Ramsgate station
Consume with: pie and chips from Pete’s Fish Factory
Visit: a wander around the Harbour or to the beach is a good idea, or get out to Tracy Emin territory – Margate’s just up the road.
Overall rating: four wee teapots