Full speed ahead along Kent's coast
Herne Bay has thrown off its dowdy image with a tourist attraction that sends the brave hurtling down the Thames Estuary on inflatable boats. Kieran Falconer climbs aboard and steels himself for the speedy ride
Sunday 15 April 2007
While the north Kent coast is dominated by that Soho-by-the-Sea, Whitstable, its next-door neighbour, Herne Bay, has always been dismissed as God's waiting room.
When I studied in the area many years ago, Herne Bay offered the cheapest lodgings. It was so down-at-heel that it had a second-hand porn shop, while Whitstable (then pre-trendy) had the glamour of long-time resident Peter Cushing - "The Gentle Man of Horror" - who could be seen cycling or shopping in the high street. Herne Bay couldn't compete.
But a lively new company, Bayblast, has just grabbed HB by the scruff of the neck and threatened to overload its pacemaker. Started by Hayley Griffiths and John Harrison last year, Bayblast whizzes groups of 12 people along the Kent flats in 8.5 metre Tornado rigid-hulled inflatable boats at 55 knots (102 kph). Last year they took more than 2,500 people along for the ride.
As we push off from the Herne Bay slipway, an opalescent grey light turns the sea slate-green, though it was as calm as glass. Whatever the weather, wearing layers on these trips is important because the temperature changes when you're flying along.
Out of the harbour, we go full speed ahead, first passing the head of the Victorian Herne Bay Pier, its neck long given up to the sea. Spindly blots on the horizon become more recognisable as we speed towards them. They are the turbines of the Kentish Flats Wind Farm - 30 in total - providing electricity to 100,000 homes.
We speed up. Last summer, Bayblast took Tony Blair for a ride. Apparently they were speeding along nicely until his bodyguards on the coastguard boat told John to slow down. "Our boats are faster which is a good thing to know," he winks.
From the turbines, it's possible to see the stalks of the Shivering Sands Maunsell Towers. Constructed in 1942, the set of seven towers provided anti-aircraft fire in the Thames Estuary. There were walkways between the towers and about 30 men were stationed there to operate the spotlights and Bofors guns.
On their tall concrete stilts, they resemble giant, rusting tea caddies. The silence is eerie; the black eyes of little windows seem to stare. In the 1960s and 1970s these towers were used for a pirate radio station and you can still see the aerial and the painted legend "Radio City 299". The station, started by Screaming Lord Sutch in 1964, was powerful enough that it could be received in Birmingham and Southampton. Yet allegedly, the generator couldn't cope with too much demand and records slowed down if the kettle was on.
Seals provide the most important wildlife along this stretch of coast. Just two-and-a-half miles from Margate's seafront is a sandbank home to common seals. Another is Barrow Sands, a five-mile spit of sand in the estuary that is home to common and grey seals. The boat takes trips out there now and again but it is a sensitive area when the pups are young.
We head east to Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate. Although they got a little dowdy in the 1970s and 1980s, they are on the way up now. Glittering with cafés and downsizing Londoners buying up the Georgian houses, the most important assets are the golden beaches. Some have the whole Kiss-Me-Quick end-of-the-pier show atmosphere, while others offer nothing but the sea for entertainment.
It's time to return. A mist descends, and soon we are on the slipway again. The beauty of the landscape and the thrill of speed - Herne Bay has finally found a way to get the heart racing.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
Bayblast (01227 373372; 07800 745493; bayblast. co.uk) offers hour-long trips from £16 per person, £22 for one and a half hours or a three-hour seal tour for £32. It also provides jet-ski tours (from £25 per person) and this summer will commence regular day-trips to France.
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