Weekend feast in Sandwich

Once the gateway to Europe, this medieval town has become something of a backwater. But Caroline Stacey has fond memories of her childhood holidays on the endless beach
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The Independent Travel

At low tide at Sandwich Bay, the sea seems to retreat as far as the horizon. The endless expanse of sand, smooth and firm at first, becomes more furrowed, and riddled with the phantom shapes of sandworms towards the water's edge. I do not remember the sea ever being blue. The little ripply waves take on the colour of the sand only inches underneath. The shallow water goes on for miles.

Sandwich, tucked between Ramsgate and Deal, isn't known as a seaside resort. The tourist information office in town barely refers to the Bay. There's nothing on the beach. No loos, litter bins, ice-cream vans, deck-chair attendants. Nada. Sandwich Bay is proof that in 1960s Britain, even more so than now, the seashore wasn't egalitarian.

The beach is on the private Sandwich Bay Estate and cars must pay a toll (£4 now) at the gate. The gatekeeper will warn you with some satisfaction that there are no facilities on the beach. You can park right in front of the shingle and spend the day there, but you'll have to be well equipped, and go swimming if you need a wee.

Back then, it seemed, only those staying in the exclusive enclave went on to the beach. A few daytrippers may have had the gall to bring their windbreaks, and - whisper it between gritted teeth - transistor radios, but outsiders were viewed suspiciously. Still are, if the number of "Private" signs marking out the boundaries of houses with dunes as their garden is anything to go by.

On a couple of roads leading up to the beach from the tollgate, past what is now a bird-watching centre, the estate consists of a handful of ostentatious houses, built as holiday homes for the English gentry from Edwardian times to the 1970s.

The rest of the land behind the dead-end road along the shore is devoted to golf. A fast golfing set (if that's not an oxymoron) hung out here. Nancy Astor had a fine Edwardian mansion; James Bond's creator Ian Fleming was a frequent visitor in the Fifties.

My grandparents had been going to Sandwich since the 1920s for the golf. They were insiders. For a week or two over several summers we joined them, staying in the Bay.

Strangely, as far as most of our relatives were concerned, we were living in south-east London and prided ourselves on bringing a little much-needed inner-city guttersnipery to snooty Sandwich Bay. We longed to be at Pontin's in Margate. But that, of course, was for people that my grandmother would call "common".

We could play safely on that infinite stretch of sand. Hopscotch, leapfrog, digging and shell-collecting were all very well. But there can be five hours to fill as the tide creeps back in across the half mile of sand and the water becomes deep enough for swimming.

My sister must have been old enough to write letters but not to know the meaning of four-letter words. I'd have been about nine. She was a willing helper, running a driftwood stick through the sand to form the letters B L O O D Y and S H I T. Long before the waves had licked the beach clean of dirty words, my mum turned up. She was famous for her bollockings, delivered at a run with fists clenched and lower jaw set. As the rest of us stood there sheepishly, my older and bolder cousin Kate took the rap.

That summer we stayed in one of a semicircle of 19th-century coastguard's cottages in the Bay. The dunes between them and the sea were a perfect play- and battleground.

The following year, in a just-built house round the corner, our hamster fell down the gap between pipe and lino and couldn't be rescued. My mum says she heard him scratching under the floorboards ever more faintly for the next couple of days. The bones are probably still under the bathroom floor. It was in this house that we came back from one of our regular bike rides to the nudist beach (we once startled a lone naturist lurking behind a dune) to find Britain's answer to Joan Baez, a folk singer in a shaggy Afghan coat, and a couple of hairy blokes, one of them her manager, hiding out at the holiday home. She'd had some drug-related difficulty at the airport and had come looking for her solicitor, who was playing a round of golf with my dad. My brother had to run round the course looking for them. See? Even Sandwich Bay had its little bit of hippie action in the summer of 1968.

Today, most people visiting Sandwich are golfers or on business, and the place to stay is still The Bell Hotel. When I was a child we ended up there one night after a day-trip that left us too tired to make the journey home to London. Up late after a long day on the beach, we ran amok along the floridly carpeted corridors.

Those carpets don't seem to have changed since. They will soon though. The Bell Hotel's new owners have form when it comes to improving seaside hotels. A couple of years ago they took over The Place on Camber Sands, and with its pared-down good looks and restaurant it's now booked up all year round.

They've already started work on The Bell, discovering original oak parquet flooring under the hideous foyer and restaurant carpet and buffing it up, and giving the walls transforming coats of Farrow & Ball. A new chef has been brought in to cook local produce - crab, salt marsh lamb, scallops, homemade burgers and wonderful salad leaves that include pea shoots - with flair, not frills. The staff are learning to pronounce prosecco.

Work on the rooms is just beginning, and the first four will be ready for August, by which time the chintzy bedspreads and pastel-shaded bathrooms will have been replaced with wanton amounts of white linen and towels. It should make The Bell, and Sandwich, the destination for style-conscious weekenders that it deserves to be.

The town has a long and bloody history, but can be uncannily quiet. Some shops close at lunchtime on Saturday. There is an Elizabethan Guildhall, countless pubs, three fabulous churches and an art deco cinema. Everything you could ever want is here, but there's hardly a national brand name to be found.

The independent shoe shop doesn't sell Nike (to my children's disgust). The Regal estate agents, in a 17th-century merchant's house opposite the Spar has elaborately swagged curtains. Neon, minimalism and high-street names haven't come to Sandwich shops. Yet between the 11th and 13th centuries this place was the gateway to Europe.

My parents feel no great affection for Sandwich (or perhaps for family holidays). But one generation removed and 35 years on, I think it's full of wonder. My children, of course, would rather go to Margate. I'll persuade them to spend a night at the new-look Bell first.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

South Eastern Trains (0845 000 2222; www.setrains.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

The Bell Hotel (01304 613388; www.bellhotelsandwich.co.uk), The Quay, Sandwich, Kent. Doubles start at £100 including breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Sandwich tourist information Centre (01304 613565; www.discoversandwich.co.uk).

Kent Tourism (01271 336020; www.kenttourism.co.uk).

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