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Before Achill


There's BC, and there's AD; and then there's BA. Before Achill.

In the early '60s, before we were permanently bewitched - or enchanted perhaps - by Achill, our family used to holiday on the coast of Kent, at Littlestone on Sea. Littlestone was neither town nor village, more an amorphous conurbation with no centre to it, nor any kind of infrastructure. A kind of civic invertebrate.

This area of the Kent coast showed all the symptoms of post-war seaside decline - deteriorating hotel facades and dilapidated beach huts. Grey buildings, grey concrete walkway stretching for miles along the sea front, and an often, metallic grey sea. When the tide was out, you could spot bits of wartime wreckage in the sand, and Mulberry Harbour, intended as a temporary portable harbour for second world war cargo movement, was a gloomy permanent presence on the horizon. I always thought that Mulberry Harbour was a unique Littlestone feature; but as it turns out, the title is generic, and was applied to a number of such floating structures around the south coast. So, long before a 'Mulberry' meant an expensive fashion accessory, it meant a vital piece of defence equipment.

The long road connecting Littlestone to the nearest small town, New Romney, was a dreary sequence of ribbon development: houses, bifurcated by a completely straight highway, with Littlestone at one end and New Romney at the other, framed by trees that seemed to grow ineluctably towards each other across the road.

The population of this place seemed to be a strange combination of slightly dour locals, with a platoon of retired army officers. In fact, our connection with the place was partly because my aunt's husband was a retired Brigadier from the British Army: he had bought a house there as a holiday home for his large, and ever expanding extended family, of which we were a part. Uncle Eddie like golf and swimming, so he had chosen well, because the sea swimming was good, and there was a golf course too.

Although remarkably undistinguished in appearance, with few obviously beguiling features, Littlestone was a perfect family summer sanctuary for small children: the beach was extraordinarily flat and inviting, with an endless golden strand sloping gently into the sea. No loud, vulgar seaside attractions...no 'Kiss Me Kwik'. You had to go to Dymchurch for that. The view was delightful too, stretching right round as far as Folkestone to the left, and Dungeness to the right, and I have happy memories of sploshing in the sea, building sandcastles, and playing leapfrog over the many groins.

My uncle and aunt's house was an ugly, squat house in a long line of ugly squat houses along The Avenue: 1950s architecture, with metal framed windows and interior doors with bubbly glass and stiff metal handles. Stringy, durable carpet; uncomfortable, lumpy sofas with a raised patterned green upholstery I can still feel under my fingers if I think hard; and possibly the largest collection of domestic spiders I have ever had the bad luck to encounter. Indeed, I put my lifelong arachnophobe tendencies down to early experiences in this house. I'm still intermittently tormented by the memory of waking in the middle of the night to see a spider the size of my hand (I was three) hanging from the chintz curtain just above my head.

It was a 'no nonsense' sort of house, with linoleum on the kitchen floor and plastic mugs that made the tea taste of...plastic mug. Few pictures on the walls, and just the bare minimum of furniture, each bedroom crammed with the optimal number of beds to accommodate an optimally populated Catholic family. It was a house of transit, rarely lived in for more than two weeks at a time, the spider-infested downstairs loo full of rubber raincoats and bags of golf clubs, the sitting room desk drawers crammed full of board games and playing cards.

There were moments of drama: aged four, I was swinging between two of the lumpy green armchairs, when my sister (no doubt lovingly) pushed me from behind. When I got up from the floor, I was one front tooth short of the complete set; and as our parents were in London for a wedding at the time, it befell to our minder to explain to them why I was toothless at the time of their return. I do remember having loo paper stuffed in my mouth to absorb the blood; but other than a childhood of gap-toothed photos, the damage was limited.

Then there was the time when one of the Great Train Robbers was found holed up in a house on the front at Littlestone - Jimmy White was arrested there in in 1966. I remember the fuss made at the time, just as I remember the first moon landing in 1969: we didn't have TV at home, and there wasn't one in the Littlestone house; so we trooped down to The Dormy House Hotel where there was a TV in the bar, to watch Neil Armstrong doing his stuff. One of those moments that pegs history to a moment of personal memory vividly. I seem to recall feeling thoroughly underwhelmed by the whole business, but something of the importance of it all came across to me, if only because everyone in the bar was very quiet.

Pine trees can still bring forth an olfactory memory if I close my eyes - there were several of them in the back garden, and there was a steep slope down a grassy bank that we used to slide down, skinning our bottoms painfully. A back garden that, rather like the house, was business-like and functional rather than attractive; but given the brief the property needed to fulfil, it was ideal.

The Romney Hythe and Dymnchurch Railway was a very popular holiday treat too, in fair weather and foul - open carriages with hail beating against our bare legs comes to mind - but always an excitement to smell the coal, and to feel that chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga that can only ever be felt in a steam train.

My father, being neither a holiday person, nor a beach person, could only be persuaded to come if we committed time to visiting the Romney Marsh churches. We tended to do this in Spring, enjoying the primrose explosion and the newborn lambs wobbling perilously on their fragile newborn legs.

Something about the place must have lodged in my mind; because more than fifty years later, I'm living there. Not quite in Littlestone, but round the corner in Hythe, where the railway starts.

Littlestone is not vastly different now in my estimation (sorry Littlestonians) in that there is not much more tangible civic vertibration; but the sense of post-war depression has gone, and many people, myself included, have made the coastal diaspora from London and the home counties, making the area more homogenous. I certainly struggle to see many retired Colonels these days, although a military presence is palpable through the MOD occupation of the coastal area between Hythe and Dymchurch, which is a military training ground and shooting range, mostly out of bounds to the public. From my house I can hear the shooting practice, a potent reminder of what this area must have witnessed during the war years. We are, after all, only twenty miles from France.

I do walk on the beach at Littlestone, and there is still a bit of Mulberry Harbour to see at low tide; but the squat fifties house in The Avenue is indistinguishable from all the neigbouring houses...because all the fifties features have been smoothed out with the additions of extensions and new windows. Just as all the other houses in The Avenue have been 'upgraded'. So funny that these definitive outward manifestations of fashion, are so completely uniform. A kind of 'keeping up with the Jones's', meets 'Snakes and Ladders'.

My house is partly sixteenth century, and a higgledy-piggledy thing it is, with each room on a different level, and sloping floors upstairs that would challenge the most balanced of people; but the views are truly amazing, and although it's not Achill, it has memories I can touch and smell (with my eyes closed) and there is a living, breathing atmosphere of history all around.

Partly the memories of a small girl building sandcastles on a sandy beach, but partly the sense of living on the edge of a huge, historic change in relationship with Europe, and realising that actually, the former inhabitants of my house might have witnessed all of this before.

Many times.