Broadstairs, Kent

On May 29th 1974 the Broadstairs and St Peter’s Mail reported on its front page that the charms of Broadstairs had at last reached the stars: ‘The actor Gregory Peck has promised to visit the town next time he is in England.’ But Peck never kept his promise and today Broadstairs remains in comfortable obscurity, sandwiched between its large, rumbustious neighbours, Ramsgate and Margate. Its beaches are wonderful – Botany Bay and Toss Bay have golden sands and chalk-white cliffs peppered with smugglers’ tunnel entrances, while the beach directly below the heart of town is sheltered and intimate.

BroadstairsThe Isle of Thanet juts out like a fist into the sea and, until the railways came, was a place apart – its glories accessible only to richer holidaymakers who could afford the travel costs. The advent of trains brought thousands of day-tripping Londoners, but of the three resorts Broadstairs was always the quietest and the most select.

It was misty and drizzling as I walked from the station down towards the front, but I felt at home. Beside the Albion Hotel an alley leads through to the first thrilling sight of the sea and, set high above it, the Parade, a satisfying curve of Georgian and Regency houses of disparate styles, with balconies and little iron-railed gardens stretching to the pavement and the balustrade above the beach. The absence of cars is luxurious. Apart from the sound of the sea, there is silence.

The first house on the Parade belonged to Mary Pearson Strong, upon whom Dickens based his character Betsey Trotwood. Dickens loved Broadstairs and stayed here every summer from 1837 until the late 1850s. He wrote David Copperfield in Fort House, a grand castellated villa high above the harbour. (Wilkie Collins subsequently rented it and found inspiration for The Woman in White from the handsome white lighthouse on North Foreland point.) ‘We must reluctantly admit,’ Dickens wrote in Our English Watering-Place, when he realised how the railways had brought a different class of visitor to Broadstairs, ‘that the time when this pretty little semi-circular sweep of houses … was a gay place, and when the lighthouse overlooking it shone at daybreak on company dispersing from public balls, is but dimly traditional now.’

At its northern end the Parade slopes down towards Harbour Street. Part of the original fishing community, it wanders below Fort House and flaunts a grand little knapped flint, pedimented cinema. Under a sixteenth-century flint arch, the way leads to what Dickens described as the ‘queer old wooden pier, fortunately without the slightest pretensions to architecture and very picturesque in consequence.’

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Colin Smith 

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