One of the first questions asked by those visiting the Herne Bay and the Coastal Park for the first time is "What's that building?". They are, of course, referring to to the imposing remains of a 7th century Anglo Saxon monastery at Reculver which is visible from along almost all of the Coastal Park. Reculver has a rich and interesting history dating back to before Roman invasion of Britain by emperor Claudius in 43AD and continued to be an important Roman garrison all the way through until around 500AD. Modern day Reculver is home to a rich variety of flora and fauna and a great place for exploring, starting (or ending) a walk or cycle ride, bird watching and family fun!
To understand why the Romans built a garrison at Reculver in the first place, it is necessary to understand the topography of the coastline as it was in 43AD. The Roman invasion fleet under emperor Claudius had landed on the Kent cost close to Richborough (or as the Romans named it 'Rutupiae' meaning muddy estuary) and established a stronghold and heavily fortified garrison. A modern map of the area gives few clues as to why Richborough and Reculver were strategically important to the Romans but look at a map of how the map would have looked in 43AD and it becomes clearer.
From the adjacent maps we can see that in 43 AD and, in fact as late as the 16th Century, Thanet was truly an island being separated from the mainland by the Wantsum channel some 600m wide. Right up until around the year 1550 the channel was navigable and boats would pass through it en-route from the near continent to London and the Essex ports but by the late 16th century the channel had silted-up due to tidal erosion, the damaging effects of man-made salt flats (salt was a valuable commodity) and the drainage of nearby agricultural land.
In Roman times though the Wantsum channel provided access to the nearby 'port' of Canterbury via what is now the river Stour. What's more, Richborough was seen as the Roman gateway to Britain and was marked as such by the building of a 10 metre tall triumphal arch. It was natural then, given the strategic importance of the Wantsum channel, that they would want to guard and control access to it and through it, hence the garrisons and fortifications at Reculver and Richborough.
Friend or foe?
We typically call the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD an 'invasion' and that paints it in our minds as a bloody, hostile takeover but that may not be how it was, at least not in the South East of England. Modern archaeology has revealed that rather than our previous view of Iron age Britain as a barbaric, warring and un-cultured tribal nation, many Iron age tribes lived in quite advanced societies with a well structured hierarchy of king, nobles, tradespeople and, of course, peasants. Certainly Iron age tribes from around the coastal areas in the South would have been regularly trading with the Romans from Gaul (France) and even further afield into the Mediterranean and North Africa and, in doing so, would have recognised and admired Roman architecture, culture, engineering and social structure. In fact, it is very likely that local British tribes had been building trading and political alliances with the Romans since around 50 BC when the Roman occupation of Gaul and the near continent was complete so, rather than an unfamiliar, hostile Roman invasion in 43 AD, it is quite possible that the Romans arrived under the command of Emperor Claudius as more of an 'armed trade mission' at the invitation of the king of the Cantiaci people, Cunobeline. From their power-base in Canterbury, the Cantiaci tribe had ruled over much of South East England since around 55 BC, according to some references, and although they had been engaged in skirmishes with Roman troops during Ceaser's aborted attempts at invasion between 55 and 54 BC, the Cantiaci nobility were much more on 'diplomatic terms' with Rome by 43 AD.
Archaeology supports the theory of the 'benevolent invader' because finds in and around Kent from the period do not reveal the kind of artefacts you might expect to find had a pitched and bloody battle taken place. Politically also, it might have been advantageous for the Cantiaci to have friendly and powerful allies because, although the British tribal system of rule (11 Kings of regional areas) was relatively stable, there were still constant battles, false-alliances, more battles and scheming taking place between the tribes over land and territory. At the time just before the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD, the Cantiaci were under almost constant threat from their neighbours to the North; the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes tribes and even the Iceni from around what is now Norfolk, had eyes on the South Eastern lands because of its ports on the river Thames and coast which easy access to trade routes. It is not therefore impossible that in order to protect themselves from invasion from the North, King Cunobeline actually sought Roman support for his territories and welcomed his 'invaders' with open arms.
If further to support this speculation, the Romans were great keepers of records and much was written about Britain at the time and in later years. It's not conclusive by any means but some writings talk of 'a small body of men and equipment' landing in Kent and it certainly wasn't the massive invasion fleet which might have been expected, given the vast military resources the Romans had at their disposal just a few short miles away across the channel. It seems most likely that a mission of perhaps 6-10 Roman boats landed near Richborough under Claudius carrying architects, builders and military engineers with enough troops for their own protection. As was the Roman way, they would have immediately began constructing a wooden enclave and basic fortifications - a bridgehead - from which they could operate and which would be ready for further arrivals of men, horses and equipment as required. The Romans were more than capable of subduing native tribes through brutal force and military might but this doesn't seem to have been the case here in Kent.
Advent of the Dark Ages
After around 360 years of Roman settlement in Britain and in 410 AD, with the Roman Empire beginning to collapse around mainland Europe, due partly to pressure from barbarian tribes and also political unrest and poor leadership, the Romans left Britain to its own devices but this was not a sudden withdrawal. The Roman presence in Britain had been shrinking from the North and West for more than 100 years and even after 410 AD there is archaeological evidence to prove that the new 'Romano British' were continuing to live, work and build as they did under Roman rule. After over three centuries of Roman occupation, it was hard to tell who was of Roman decent and who wasn't. Roman and 'British' families had inter-married and merged giving rise to the Romano-British period. However, although for many Romano-British, life after Roman rule went on much the same for at least another 100 years in parts of the country, law and order began to fail until, arguably, Britain was less cultured and less well organised than it had been before the Roman arrival which is why this period is commonly called 'The Dark Ages'.
The latter years of Roman rule in Britain saw the arrival of increasing numbers of Germanic immigrants, Saxons, from present day Germany and the lowlands of Holland and Belgium making homes and settlements in the East and South East of England but it is widely accepted that without Roman military protection and poorly equipped to deal with a full-scale invasion, the Romano-British succumbed to a widespread Saxon invasion around 450 AD.
Anglo-Saxon Times at Reculver
Awaiting research results.
Wildlife and plants at Reculver
Awaiting research results.
The Reculver Foreshore
Awaiting research results.
10 things to do in Reculver
So you've learnt about the history, you've read about the environmental features - but what can you do when you visit Reculver?
A great place to start is the visitor centre, managed by Kent Wildlife Trust. It has a range of displays on the history and geology of the area and there is a cafe on site too. The centre is one of the most eco-friendly in the district with a log burner fuelled by logs from the Blean woodland, solar panels to heat water and photovoltaic panels to convert sunlight to electricity to power the centre.
The beach is not ideal for sunseekers hoping to stretch out on an expanse of sand - but if you want to explore rock pools and hunt fossils then it's perfect. Shark's teeth are a common find.
Get on your bike, or hire one if you don't have one. You can cycle around the coast to Thanet, or down into Herne Bay and on to Whitstable, or pick one of the other signposted trails on offer.
Take a walk; wherever you head you're guaranteed stunning views. Try Reculver to Bishopstone Glen for clifftops and coast or head inland for fields and lanes.
As one of the highest spots in Herne Bay, it's the perfect place to fly a kite. And if you pick the right spot there are vey few trees or other high-up hazards!
Bring the camera and experiment with light and shadow in photographs, using geological features as focal points. The Towers provide an interesting backdrop for any photo you can imagine, and the cliffs and the beach can be dramatically dark or beautifully tranquil. You'll find more tips here.
Indulge your secret twitcher and see what birds you can spot. There's a board at the information centre during the summer months detailing that day's sightings - see how many you can find. Butterflies are also great fun to find and identify.
Try a spot of fishing. The area is a popular spot for anglers and spiecies caught include flounder, dab, codling and whiting in winter, or dog fish and Dover sole in summer. Stingrays and thornback rays have also been caught frome the beach.
Explore the Towers - once a year, as part of the Heritage Open Days scheme, visitors can climb the towers but the rest of the year you are free to explore the ruins from the groud and marvel at their sheer majesty.
Pack a picnic and just enjoy the views. Whether you pick the beach or the clifftop, it's a perfect spot to relax in our wonderful countryside.
Reculver in later times
Today, Reculver is a small but busy community, with the church and neighbouring primary school still very much at its heart.
But even now, change is continuing, most recently with the closure of one of the caravan parks and the land absorbed into the country park.
In 1377, according to poll tax records, there were 364 people aged 14 and above in the parish. But as with other parts of the Coastal Park of the past, it was susceptible to coastal erosion.
By 1540, the coastline was within 400 metres of the town, and by 1588 the population had almost halved, with 165 people taking part in Holy Communion services at the church - then just 152 metres from the shore.
A century later, residents petitioned local Justices of the Peace about the encroachments of the sea, and the village was almost totally abandoned by the end of the 18th century.
Sea defences were installed to protect the church, but sea water collected behind them and undermined the cliffs, and in September 1804 a high tide and strong winds destroyed five houses. Just three years later, parish clerk John Brett wrote that the village was a “total wreck to the mercy of the sea”.
Cliff erosion had left the church perched perilously just four metres from the edge and the decision was made to demolish it. The towers were left as a navigational aid after being bought by Trinity House for £100, and a replacement church was built at Hillborough, opening in 1813.
The village pub, the Hoy and Anchor, was also taken down in 1808, and the old vicarage was used as a temporary pub. The new Hoy and Anchor opened a year later and was renamed as the King Ethelbert Inn in 1838.
The onset of the 20th century saw a revival in Reculver’s fortunes as people discovered it as a holiday location; the 1931 census recorded 829 people including holidaymakers, and by 2005 there were estimated to be more than 1,000 people during peak holiday periods.
How well do you know Reculver?
Some of these facts may surprise you...
- A former vicar of Reculver, Robert Hunt, presided over the first recorded Holy Communion in America in 1607. He was part of an expedition to found a colony in the New World, some years before the Mayflower set off for New England. They came ashore on the coast of Virginia and Rev Hunt used a bar of wood for an alter rail for the open-air service.
Reculver also has a visible link with one of the two oldest Anglican parishes in Australia. St John's Church in Parramatta, Sydney, has twin towers said to have been built to resemble those of the original St Mary's Church. A stone from the old church at Reculver was presented to the Reverend Samual Marsden, a descendant of the first man to hold a Christian service in New Zealand, and it is mounted on the wall of St John's together with a plaque on the history of Reculver.
Neighbouring Whitstable is known for its oysters, but Hampton was also home to oyster beds and in 1867 an area of salt water known as the Dene close to Reculver was leased for oyster breeding. The industry still continues with Seasalter Shellfish using Reculver as its headquarters for hatcheries and nurseries.
- The cliff edge in the country park is undefended and will slip away by about a metre a year - so take care near the edge!
- The Towers are said to be haunted by the sound of children crying, as well as a monk, a wmoan and the sound of horses' hooves. Skeletons of children were found during excavations of the foundations, acording to Haunted Kent.
- In 2000, fragments of an early medieval cross that once stood inside the old church were used to design a Millennium Cross to commemorate two thousand years of Christianity. You can see it at the entrance to the car park.
- Reculver was a 'limb' of the Cinque Port of Sandwich, and was an important part of shipping industry as goods were transported up the Wantsum Channel.