A Photographer Explores Kent no. 3: Reculver
With coronavirus travel restrictions being eased, I decided to treat myself with a short journey along the north Kent coast. I wanted to visit one of the most striking (and often photographed) features of the area.
Reculver Towers will be familiar to both residents and holidaymakers. Easily spotted from anywhere along the coast between Herne Bay and Birchington, the towers also provide a navigation marker for shipping. The twin towers, known as “The Two Sisters”, are remains from a 12th century church. But this was built over the foundation of an earlier Saxon church (7th century) and this in turn had been built within an abandoned Roman Fort.
To appreciate the importance of this location for the Romans, we have to understand that the local geography was then very different. Thanet was separated from the mainland of Kent by a channel of sea - The Wantsum - up to three miles wide. The Wantsum Channel may even have provided the route for the Romans' invasion of Britain in AD 43. Whilst this is debated, there is certainly evidence that both Reculver and Richborough (at the southern end of the channel) were important from the earliest years of the Roman conquest. A settlement grew at Reculver during the 1st and 2nd centuries and a square fort was built in the 3rd century. The Romans located their fort on a promontory, to look over the northern end of the Wantsum and to protect against raids from the Saxons. Today, the Wantsum has silted up to become dry land, whilst the cliffs around Reculver have been eroded by the sea, taking much of the fort away with them. Yet some remnants of its walls can still be seen, along the southern boundary.
After the Romans left, an Anglo-Saxon monastery was founded on the site, and the church of St Mary was built near the centre of the earlier fort. Early builders were great scavengers and recyclers, taking Roman tiles, bricks and masonry from the fort to build walls for the new church. The monastery had gone by the tenth century and St Mary's became the parish church of Reculver. The iconic twin towers came later, as part of a remodelling of the church in the 12th century. This medieval church survived until 1805, when much was demolished and the stone again re-used. This time around the stone went to a new church being built on higher, safer ground, at Hillborough.
Today, despite the changes wrought over two thousand years, we can still admire elements from each stage in the site's history, so it is no surprise that Reculver Towers are a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The Two Sisters from the 12th century are obvious from far afield, but walk up to the site and you will see standing ruins and foundations from the original church. Now look closer still and you can't help but notice the Roman tiles which form an integral part of those ancient walls. Having walked around the towers, now step back and enjoy some of the surrounding area. Right next door is Reculver Country Park, where the soft cliffs provide an important habitat for a range of insects and birds, including the Sand Martins that are seen flying in and out of their cliff-side burrows. The cliffs are also of equal interest to geologists as their erosion regularly exposes small fossils of bivalves and other burrowing marine creatures as well as tiny shark's teeth.
Reculver beach had an entirely different value during World War Two – it was one of the locations used to test Barnes Wallis' “bouncing bomb”. The rusty remains of one of these prototypes was found washed up on the beach as recently as 2017.
The site has a public car park, a visitors centre (normally open at weekends) and cafe. Good walking and cycling routes lead out along the coast.
If you're around after dark, bear in mind that the long history of the site has also excited the imagination of ghost hunters. Stories of hauntings range from the mysterious cries of an unseen baby, to Roman soldiers on patrol, even a spectral sword fight between a smuggler and a customs officer!
Fellow photographers may like to visit at dawn, as I did, to catch the sun rising over the sea. I'm hoping to visit again at the end of the day, with hopes of photographing a dramatic sunset behind the ruins!