The plan had been to walk from Folkestone to Sandgate and explore the world which John Ruskin might have known when he lived at 2, Devonshire Terrace. But that will have to wait, because a mermaid was found instead. It is a rare event to find a mermaid in Sandgate. She was in a shop window. She might be made of brass or stone, I am stupidly ignorant of such things, or of how she might have got here, or where she once belonged. But she is not the first mermaid to land in Sandgate, that event was described by HG Wells in The Sea Lady. Perhaps this is a model someone made of her at the time. I had a pleasant chat to the proprietor of the shop, and her Irish friend. They were fascinated by the story of the mermaid and once it had been told, I realised I had talked myself in to making a purchase. But I still had to walk to Hythe, just to look, so would collect her on my return.
HG Wells lived in Sandgate from 1900 to 1909 in Spade House, designed by the architect Voysey. One of Voysey’s leit motifs was the use of a heart shape. But Wells did not want hearts. As he said in his autobiography:
‘ Voysey wanted to put a large heart-shaped letterplate on my front door, but I protested at wearing my heart so conspicuously outside and we compromised on a spade (an upside down heart). We called the house Spade House’.
It is a grand house with plenty of space to sit around and write books. Not that writing books is just about sitting around of course, and Wells’s working place was in the north east corner, with no distracting views of the sea. It is possible to take a photograph from one side of the house, but I guess permission would be needed to go and photograph the other side, which is worth doing, if one doesn’t have a copy of David Cole’s lovely book, ‘The Art and Architecture of C.F.A Voysey’. This has excellent photographs, elevations and plans and good descriptions and text. I didn’t realise that there is also a Voysey House at St Margaret’s at Cliffe called High Gaut. That can be the a destination for a future perambulation.
While at Spade House, Wells wrote The Sea Lady, The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth, Kipps, A Modern Utopia, In the Days of the Comet, The War in the Air, Tono-Bungay, Ann Veronica and The History of Mr Polly. There are many references to Folkestone, Sandgate and the surrounding area in Kipps and the History of Mr Polly and the books are greatly enhanced if one has some knowledge of the sea, and the Leas and the quirky character of parts of the town. The nearby village of Lympne is of course the location of the first rocket which goes to the moon. (There is a lot of rocket activity in east Kent – Ian Fleming’s Moonraker is set between Dover and Deal – but that’s another story). The first chapter of The First Men in the Moon is ‘Mr Bedford Meets Mr Cavor at Lympne’.
Wells was very familiar with the Leas and there are several mentions, incidents and situations in his books. It is a fabulous place to walk and one can look out for miles across the sea, even as far as France which can look magnificent on a clear day. In 1896 the Hotel Metropole was opened, but a local builder, Daniel Baker who failed to win the contract to build it, decided to construct a competitor right next door. This was the Hotel Grand. Built in 1899 it was constructed with a steel frame and concrete which enabled large amounts of glass to be used. Folkestone now had its own pink terracotta paradise and a private police force to keep out the working classes, an example of what is now described as a ‘gated community’, although this term is an abuse of the word ‘community’.
Wells was a socialist, a Fabian for some of the years he was in Sandgate, but had too much imagination to stay for long. He had ideas, and ideas about many things and sharp observations which are so good because they hit the mark so well. There are criticisms that he became more didactic as he aged. But he aged in to the Second World War – an event which not only did he predict but which filled him with horror. One only has to read a little of the concentration camps, the burning of cities,the atrocities committed to get a tiny glimpse of what horror was unleashed. We need more voices like Wells because all this horror and worse could be just around the corner.
A nice touch by the local library with the Wells picture and the ‘War of the Words’. But what would Wells have thought of the endless cars which drive through Sandgate? They dominate and divide as well as spewing out pollution and noise all the time. How was this allowed to happen? Oh, of course, the money power of the car industry and the oil companies. There was imperialism enough when Wells lived here, and his books are both subtle and overt criticisms of that imperialism. But monopoly capital has grown apace and now dominates much more than it did one hundred years ago.
I walked to Hythe by the side of the sea, the sound of the waves sometimes just about managing to drown out the sounds of the endless cars. But the closer to Hythe, the quieter it became and I walked around the town amazed at what I had found. I was not expecting this, but the light was fading out of the day and no time to visit the church, and there was a mermaid waiting so I turned around and discovered the wild strangeness of the Military Canal and so back to Sandgate.
It was one of those situations when it is not clear how long it will take to do all the tasks that must be done before the train can be caught. Due to some extraordinary timetabling there are two trains an hour from Folkestone towards Dover, Deal and Ramsgate. On a Saturday one leaves at 22 minutes past the hour, and the other at 30 minutes past. This gives the traveler a window of eight minutes, failing which, there will be a wait of almost an hour for the next train, but followed by only a few minutes wait by the train after that. It is not worth trying to work this out, that way madness lies.
But wait. What is this? A bookshop? Surely there will be time to have a quick look – just to get a brief measure of the place and still be able to get to Sainsbury’s for some shopping, and to catch at least one of those trains? The moment I step inside, I realise it was exactly the right decision. There are sometimes bookshops were one enters and quickly realises the mistake. There is nothing of any interest, but the owner is exerting an invisible moral pressure that now your in, you had better buy. Not at the marvelous Marrin’s Bookshop. The first book I see, propped up on the floor is Elisabeth Dhanens book on Van Eyck. I don’t even need to open it to know that this should be bought. One only has to look at the cover to know this is special. One can never have too many books on Van Eyck. I tell the man in the shop and the couple browsing that I have just bought a mermaid but realise this is so left field that they all mumble words that may be of alarm, encouragement or sympathy. The problem is that her tail is sticking out of the top of my rucksack, but it’s wrapped in thick plastic sheeting so while it is not visible, it is tricky to get in and out of the narrow space which is filled with books.
I should have taken more photographs. I never do. I get lost in thoughts and dreaming and speculation and plots for books and things I should be writing. And the light was becoming dense and heavy and they would have all come out too dull. And it is much more satisfying sometimes to be of the moment, when walking under the cliff edge between Sandgate and Folkestone and to be the only person there as the light disappears and the sea becomes grey and elemental, like one single entity, pulsating and moving as if alive; which in a sense it is.
I thought about Wells again later when I was doing some housework. He had advocated that houses should be built without L shaped corners. They should be round instead because otherwise they were hard to brush out properly. This is a good point I noted, as I tried to get the hand brush inside all the edges.