The forecast is for a breezy, sun filled, blue sky day with a temperature of about 10 degrees. Why is this almost perfect? Because the breeze will scud up the waves of the Channel, it’s been grey lately and a blue sky with a hint of sun will be welcome. And the temperature for a long walk is not too cold and not too hot.
St Martin’s church is discovered which looks as if the tower – almost Italian Renaissance in a strange sort of way – might be made of concrete. I hope it is as it can be a versatile and interesting building material.
Up and out of the town, up on to the Downs, a long steep ascend over scrubby grass and bits of chalk where the grass has been worn away. There is a thick covering of brambles in places, a pill box almost hidden in the undergrowth. And then along the side of a field and out into what feels like open countryside. The tops of the white cliffs are on the other side of the valley where the road to Folkestone has been cut through. And beyond that the petroleum smell, dirt and noise of the A20. All sorts of stuff going along there. UHT milk, plastic toys, cheap nylon socks, ‘gifts’ and so on. Does the planet really need to be destroyed for the endless distribution of so much junk?
A man with an SUV pick up truck ignores my good morning as he padlocks up a gate. I therefore will ignore him. But a woman holding the lead which is attached to a dog, and another woman who is holding the reins which are attached to a horse wish me a hearty good morning. We chat and they explain that I need to look out for the sign for the church. The woman with the horse explains how to cross the dual carriageway, ‘there is an underpass’, she explains, ‘I go riding up there quite often’.
‘It must be fantastic’, I suggest
‘It is,’ she answers, and laughs. I do hesitate to ask if she has read Cobbett’s Rural Rides because he rode through this area. I will check the route later in the book.
Ah, the penny drops. The rather grand spire of the church of St Lawrence at Hougham is that which can be seen from the tops of the cliffs. Just as I am about to go in to the church yard a large estate car pulls up and stops.
‘The church is open’, the driver says, getting out of his car.
‘We’ve got seventeenth century stained glass in the window in the tower’, he pauses. ‘And if you look carefully, it looks as if he’s holding a cricket bat. So we have told all the local kids that St Lawrence is the patron saint of cricket’. This is a good story.
‘And there thirteen grave stones marked with skull and crossbones. All of them pirates’.
‘Seriously?’ I ask rather naively.
‘No. They were all plague victims from Dover. They were buried here in mass graves’.
He gets back in the car and drives off. But he’s been a good welcome and introduction to the church itself.
Some churches have just got it, and others do not. I have been in to some which are cold and barren, as if something indifferent happened every week. And others which have had a strange, supernatural ambiance, as if there is the presence of something other within, beyond good and evil, that sort of stuff. And then some which are magically still and peaceful but with the sense of great spirit. St Laurence is very much the latter and it’s rather good.
Up on the wall is a monument to the Hannington Family. One of the sons, Henry, was vicar of Hougham from 1616 to 1675 a somewhat unsettling age. Charles I was executed, the English Revolution took place, the New Model Army, Levellers and Diggers appeared and then the monarchy was restored. And that was just in Britain. In Europe both the Thirty Years War and the Eighty Years War finally came to an end. It must have been somewhat taxing to trim one’s sails accordingly but he obviously managed it successfully to survive. There is a plaque on the wall to the ‘Memory of Mary wife of….Merchant by which ….death …1648…aged…’ And that was all I could make out. But 1648 was one of those years were history really could be described as ‘one thing after another’.
The church experienced some restoration in the nineteenth century but has managed to retain some medieval graffiti. Some of it is now indeterminate, ships possibly? The church is within a mile or so of the coast. The rest is mainly crosses, often carved quite close to each other. There is also a rather fine organ built by James Corps in 1842. There is also a rather defiant looking wooden chest. What secrets might that hold, and is it locked to prevent something from the past whooshing out and taking the present by surprise?
By way of contrast from the church towards the cliff tops is a tall and slender communications mast which is owned by a company called arqiva. No, I had never heard of them either. The main business is broadcasting infrastructure, including the UK’s security and emergency communications. Arqiva is owned by Canada Pension Investment Board and Macquarie who operate private equity arrangements. Now the problem here is that infrastructure requires long term investment and planning while private equity wants much faster returns. So what happens in practice? Well in the case of infrastructure companies such as Thames Water which are owned by private companies, it means that millions of gallons of water is constantly lost because of lack of investment while the shareholders collected over £239.4 m between 2016 and 2017. It is a very unstable model on which to organise and manage infrastructure and it one of the reasons why energy, water and telecomms prices are so high. There is the usual toxic debt and loans taking place here too. An attempt to float arqiva in 2017 failed because of ‘debts of £5.2bn and negative net assets of £3.4bn’ (FT 17 June 18). Oh, and also because the future of broadcast TV is not as certain as it was fifty years ago when there were only two channels, both in black and white and the whole thing switched off at 10.30pm with a rousing burst of ‘God Save the Queen’. And quite right too.
While the medieval period had distinct patterns of open strip fields, modern capitalism also has patterns, but they are much harder to visualise. Perhaps with all this big data coming on stream someone will create some nice maps of who owns what. If it can be determined through all the fug and haze of off shore banking, shell companies and money laundering.
Now where was I? Oh yes, heading up towards the cliffs. And also thinking that whoever designed the mast with the wires should have put it on some sort of revolving platform so that it could be moved around in the wind to make increasingly esoteric and elaborate sounds. It was fair whistling and humming when I walked past but with a bit of tweaking it could surely produce something quite extraordinary.
I have just about finished reading Christian Wolmer’s book ‘Fire & Steam’ which is rather enjoyable. I do wish he had added some more general political context however, and I expect he knows this stuff as well. But what were the implications of the long discontents which lead to the Chartist demonstration in 1848? There were ‘disturbances’ all over the country for some time before that year itself. And in the years leading up to the 1848 revolutions in Europe, both Germany and France took part in what could be called a train race, to see who could build the most track (Germany by the way). The impact of the two world wars is rightly discussed, but one of the determinants in the development of the railways was surely the position of Britain as an imperial power, and the militarism and economic competition (and subjugation) which came with that. One thing I did enjoy about the book however was the early days and the arguments and positions as to where the lines should run, and the technical and engineering challenges. And I also wonder how the decision was made to run the Dover to Folkestone bit of track by blasting and digging tunnels and chopping its way through the Warren. From the top of Abbot’s cliff (just about) it’s not an obvious route to me.
Finally down the long and steep path to the shore. It’s fabulous down here but if you venture here watch the tides and be careful that boulders can fall from the White Cliffs themselves. There was no one on the shore but me, oh and plenty of plastic bottles and other rubbish. I picked up a very full bin bag of the stuff. I should have taken some before and after pictures – perhaps next time.
And then towards the Lord Warden Hotel. This was another fact-et learned from Wolmar’s book – the story of Colonel Holman Fred Stephens who build ‘light railways’ including the Kent and East Sussex Railway and East Kent Light Railway. He died there in 1931 at the age of 62. He has an interesting biography which will be returned to.
But I had to leg it because turning round to photograph Shakespeare’s Cliff I noticed that Dungeness nuclear power station had just blown up.