It’s Christmas, which means that lots of people from small towns and villages across the country will be heading home to the places that their city friends forget exist. Trading the lively lights of London – it’s usually London – for the countryside, seaside or whatever other sort of sticks, the pilgrimage back to where you’re from is usually a mixed bag. It’s a weird balancing act between the warmth of nostalgia and the reminders of why you left.
For me, that comes on the Isle of Thanet, which comprises the seaside towns of Ramsgate, Margate and Broadstairs, as well as several smaller villages, and is Kent’s most easterly point. It was formerly separated from the main land by the 600m-wide Wantsum Channel, but over the course of the last millennium the channel became filled up with sediment from the River Stour and the shingle that was collected along its coast helped to attach Thanet to the rest of England. The name, though, has stuck.
And there’s something so fitting about it. Thanet has an island mentality: fiercely proud and protective of its local culture and history, while simultaneously suspicious of the world beyond its borders. Multiple generations of Thanesian families attend the same schools, drink in the same pubs and live in the same neighbourhoods as their parents. Those who do leave the Isle – for work or university – rarely venture very far, visit regularly, and often come back to settle down in the long term.
Though aspects of the Isle represent the quintessence of Kent – grammar schools, leafy suburbs and easy commutability to London– Thanet has enough patches of poverty and teen pregnancies to qualify as a Home Counties black sheep.
The Isle’s claims to fame, or infamy, depending on your disposition, include: Charles Dickens writing his novel David Copperfield while holidaying in Broadstairs, Margate artist Tracy Emin making the shortlist for the Turner Prize, Margate providing the setting for an episode of Only Fools and Horses, former prime minister Sir Edward Heath attending Chatham House Grammar School in Ramsgate, and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage trying, and failing, to be elected as South Thanet’s member of parliament twice. In 2017, Ramsgate’s old Royal Victoria Pavilion casino was converted into the biggest Wetherspoon pub in the country, and by extension, the world.
Growing up on the Isle, my own feelings towards Thanet went through phases. I loved the beaches, parks and promenades. I loved the enduring pride and presence of local businesses – my first part-time job was at the butcher J.C. Rook and Son’s – and I was lucky enough to go to a very well-run school in Chatham House, which gave me opportunities I probably wouldn’t have got elsewhere.
But for all those perks, Thanet came with caveats too. The Isle, which has an overwhelmingly white-British population, is nonetheless convinced that immigrants are taking over and that political correctness has gone too far. As an ethnic minority from Thanet, let me say that nothing stings quite like being told to “go home” when you already are.
That’s not to say that everyone from Thanet is a racist, but is to say that Thanet is home to a lot of racists, who take tabloid headlines at face value, and treat immigrants as a convenient scapegoat for the area’s wider problems. Margate’s Cliftonville neighbourhood, one pub pundit told me during my last visit home, is a “no-go zone” due to its large number of refugees. It’s really not.
Thanet’s more liberal-minded youth – who do exist – tend to flee to the city if they get chance, but even then there’s a strange magnetism that keeps us going back. I have plenty of gripes about the Isle, yet I can’t imagine going more than a few months without visiting. Family ties play a big part in that, of course, but even independent of those, there’s still something addictive about the area. I’ve been going to Broadstairs arcades since I was ten and still haven’t won on the crane machine.
When I was in sixth form, first getting to grips with Thanet’s spectacularly poor nightlife, which is characterised by pubs which think turning the volume up on their music makes them clubs, or a few cans down one of the bays, I remember making plans with my friends to leave this all behind us. But none of us have, and over the Christmas break, we’ll be back on the same beaches, in the same bars, ruing how the mega Spoons has ruined Ramsgate harbour trade, most likely before heading to the mega Spoons ourselves.
The Isle of Thanet is not, as the Daily Telegraph once described it, “The Kent Riviera”. It’s not an island, either, but the beaches are lovely, and it is home.