The sun was barely rising over the horizon and all was seemingly quiet, but the seaweed-covered mudflats were alive with baby crabs, scuttling for cover from the circling oystercatchers and sandpipers.
There’s not too many times when it seems advantageous to get up at some unthinkable hour with the children – but today we were there to see the early bird literally catching the worm – or in this case, mussels, whelks, sprats and anything else from the abundance of wildlife bringing a special quality to Sandwich Bay.
This sweeping inlet on the east coast of Kent, between Ramsgate and Deal, is a five-mile haven for bird watchers and nature lovers alike and part of the Sandwich & Pegwell Bay National Nature Reserve.
Luckily for us, this was also just a short stroll away from our bedroom, having checked into The Lodge at Prince’s Sandwich Bay.
Sporting buffs will likely be familiar with this venue, which also offers a 27-hole championship golf course and has in recent years played host to The Open.
There are 38 bedrooms altogether on site, with 12 at The Lodge, which also offers two interconnected rooms, ideal for families and groups. Our room was modern, spacious and boasted a stunning view of the luxurious golf course and beyond.
Inside the main hotel, there is also a bar, sun terrace, fully-equipped gym, snooker and games room (much to my children’s delight) and The Brasserie on the Bay, a 2 AA rosette star restaurant, which caters for vegetarians and has a dedicated children’s menu.
Just a short drive away from the picturesque surroundings of Prince’s lies one of the most complete medieval towns in England, after which the bay was named. Sandwich was one of the original Cinque Ports (meaning “five ports”) formed for military and trade purposes. It was joined by Hastings, New Romney, Hythe and Dover.
Sandwich is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086, though its roots are thought to go back more than 200 years before this to Anglo-Saxon times.
Apparently it was at the port of this very town that the first captive elephant was landed in England by Emperor Claudius.
Not to be outdone, many years later another elephant arrived here in 1255 as a gift to Henry III from the French, and was taken on foot to the Tower of London to join the monarch’s menagerie.
The journey through Kent is said to have passed without incident except – when a bull tried to attack it – but was swiftly thrown to the ground by the much larger elephant.
There were no elephants or bulls on the day we explored Sandwich, just many quaint medieval buildings with bowing windows, sagging roofs and ancient beams.
There’s even something charming about walking along No Name Street, an irony given that it’s possibly one of the more well-known roads to look out for today in Sandwich.
It would of course be remiss not to also mention that this town indirectly gave a name to what one historian has described as Britain’s “biggest contribution to gastronomy” – the sandwich. John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was said to have been so addicted to his gambling that he did not have time to have a meal and instead asked his servants to bring him slices of meat between two slices of bread. The very first “sandwich” was said to have been salt beef, no less, though one can probably assume it was not on rye!
A short 20-minute drive from Sandwich lies Dover, famous for its white, chalky cliffs, but also for its castle, from where the daring rescue from Dunkirk was meticulously planned.
While the history of Dunkirk has been well-documented, not so well-known is the role a small Kentish settlement played in the rescue of Jews during the Second World War.
Richborough, around three miles from Sandwich, hosted thousands of refugees rescued by the Central British Fund for German Jewry, between February and September 1939, who were given safe haven at an old First World War training base, the Kitchener Camp.
It was an interesting side note as we made our way towards Dover Castle, which has formed an important part of Britain’s coastal defences for hundreds of years.
There’s plenty for all ages to enjoy here, though younger visitors may feel overwhelmed by some exhibits, including the Underground Hospital and Wartime Tunnels.
They can still however enjoy fantastic views from the top of Henry II’s Great Tower, and even get a taste of regal life, sitting on thrones inside the opulent King’s Hall.
There were also plenty of hands-on exhibits to learn about codebreaking during the First World War, while my children were held enraptured by a historian dressed in wartime uniform. Look out also for the restored anti-aircraft gun used to see off Zeppelins in the First World War, but remember to bring earplugs for the demonstration!
The Wartime Tunnels exhibit is a must-see on a visit to Dover Castle. First dug during Napoleonic times, it was from within these chalky walls 23metres beneath the surface that Churchill’s Royal Navy planned Operation Dynamo.
Taking place between 26 May and 4 June 1940, 338,226 troops, including 224,320 British, were rescued from the shores of northern France with a hastily assembled fleet of 800 boats.
It was an evacuation on an epic scale, masterminded from these subterranean control rooms, which were first opened to the public just two years ago.
As our time came to an end, we returned once more to the coastal road, taking in the breathtaking white cliffs and appreciating all the natural beauty Kent has to offer.
Francine stayed at The Lodge at Prince’s, Sandwich, where a two-bedroom apartment suitable for families starts from £270 per night, including bed and breakfast. Latest rates and offers are available at princesgolfclub.co.uk. For more information about historic Sandwich and Dover Castle, see visitkent.co.uk or english-heritage.org.uk/dovercastle.
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