Kent´s maritime history

It is common knowledge that Kent has been the gateway to England for a number of historical figures and missionaries, facilitating the merger of indigenous and foreign ethnic groups towards the foundation of the present English population. Its naval industry, maritime trades, offshore battles and seaside forts are renowned worldwide and captivate the interest of locals and foreign visitors alike.

The Roman period and the first lighthouses

The first constructions purposely built to provide bearings and guidance to navigators were erected by the Romans while developing one of the first Kentish settlements at Dover. Two lighthouses were built there and are referred to as Pharos; it is believed they were built less than a decade after the Roman invasion in 43 AD, although they cannot be dated with precision. Their locations were chosen in concordance with Dover´s topography, on two elevated structures, the Western Heights and the Eastern Heights. The one on the Western Heights no longer exists, aside from a few ruins, yet the other one has proved more resilient throughout the centuries and is still a stable structure with a height of 24 metres, which is impressive considering its age. It is now used for religious services, as a bell tower to a adjoining church.

The Saxon period

The Romans withdrew from England in 410 AD, after having developed various settlements and a durable infrastructure. Multiple fights for domination of the region were carried out and a long sequence of Saxon kings soon followed, which brought relative stability. The Saxons used and fortified all settlements and ports left behind by their Roman predecessors; a powerful fleet was soon established. Various accounts of coastal conflicts in those times exist, both internal and external. For example, the battle between Ethelred the Unready and King Canute, which ended with a victory of the latter in 1016, or the internal confrontation between Edward the Confessor and Earl Godwine, who intended to overthrow him, in1052 (a rebellion which did not succeed and consisted of part of the fleet rising against the other part).

The Cinque Ports

This name was officially given in 1155 AD, by Royal Charter, to a federation of five settlements on the south-eastern coast of England, which were strategically located at the smallest distance from neighbouring France, the English Channel being at its narrowest point. Their role was primarily to provide an efficient defence against potential invaders as well as to develop expansive, lucrative harbours. The coastal towns designated as the Cinque Ports were Dover, Sandwich, New Romney and Hythe in Kent, and Hastings in East Sussex. In exchange for the obligation of supplying the king (Edward I, at the time of their establishment) with men and vessels during military conflicts, these towns received certain tax exemptions and their residents were bound by less strict regulations when it came to import and commerce. They maintained their special status for a considerable length of time due to their geographical position yet in time lost ground to other municipalities which excelled in terms of ship building.

Kent´s prolific naval industry

Throughout the following centuries, Kent has been the focal point of England´s maritime military operations, mainly due to its proximity to mainland Europe. It has played a vital role in commerce and external conflicts alike, and for that purpose a technologically advanced, state-of-the-art fleet was developed. In medieval times, the precision of English warships took many by surprise (for instance in the renowned conflict with the Spanish Armada, during the reign of Elizabeth I, when an unlikely victory was obtained). Centuries later, the industrial revolution radically transformed naval engineering, when new technologies were introduced at a fast pace. A significant number of notable warships were built during that period, such as the H.M.S. Britannia.

The Channel Tunnel

In 1988,work began on what is considered one of the world´s most amazing construction, an undersea tunnel linking Folkestone in Kent to Coquelles in France, situated near Calais. The tunnel was bored into the geologic strata beneath the English Channel in order to facilitate travelling and commerce between the UK and mainland Europe. It took several years and human sacrifice to complete (eight people died during its construction) and the tunnel finally opened in 1994, with the afferent ceremony. Its activity was disrupted on several occasions by fires, yet it is fully operational today and boasts intense activity, providing passenger and freight rail services.

Renowned boats and ships

The Bronze Age boat. One of the most prominent remnants of the Bronze Age discovered in Kent was a boat dating as far as 1550 BC (or, according to some sources, her construction and use is estimated between 1575 and 1520 BC). She was unearthed during road construction work in 1992, in the city of Dover. What remains of the vessel, an oak structure measuring 9.5 metres, which is not believed to be the whole length of the original boat, is now exhibited at Dover Museum.

The Viking ship reproduction. In order to celebrate the arrival of legendary bothers Hengist and Horsa on Kentish shores during the 5th century, a commemorative vessel, built in Denmark, was sailed to Kent in 1949 and is now exhibited in close proximity of Pegwell Bay. The vessel, named Hugin, was the well crafted replica of a Viking ship, and although she was built in remembrance of a 5th century journey, her design does not match the period´s ships as it is visibly more advanced. She was first landed in Broadstairs.

The Mary of Colchester. In Ramsgate, one can admire a 19th century fishing boat, which is actually the oldest boat in the harbour, dating all the way back to 1844. She has undergone extensive repairs twice, resulting in large parts being replaced, and despite her commendable age, the fishing boat is still in use.

The Britannia vessels collection. In Dover there is a captivating assortment of ships from many historical periods, all having one thing in common – the name of Britannia. They range from scale models of ships from the earliest days of the merchant navy to contemporary models and war combat used in significant naval battles, such as the H.M.S. Britannia, which dates from the 1820s.

Maritime Museums

1. Ramsgate Maritime Museum. Located in the Clock House of Ramsgate harbour, a historic building itself, Ramsgate Maritime Museum is comprehensive in a number of ways, as it covers exhibits from a relatively wide area (the eastern part of Kent) and from varied periods of time. Visitors can observe five exhibitions displaying aspects derived from the region´s coastal position, from its subsistence and economy, partly based on fishing, to its commerce, navigation and participation in military operations.

2. Deal Maritime and Local History Museum. Hidden on a small alley and run by volunteers, this museum contains an impressive collection of local boats and model ships, besides a multitude of related artefacts and a detailed account of Deal´s history. Visitors can also observe cannons, anchors and other parts of prominent historic ships.

3. Whitstable Museum. What makes this museum (located in the village of Whitstable) particularly special is a broad range of displays of old diving equipment, those related to maritime archaeology and those covering the oyster trade, which has had a very long tradition in the area. Shipwrecks are also exhibited.

4. Dover Museum. A very diverse array of exhibits highlighting Dover´s navigation history can be found there; a notable one is the Dover Bronze Age Boat. The history of the Cinque Ports is also comprehensively covered.

5. The Margate Seaside Museum. Along with Ramsgate Maritime Museum, the Margate Seaside Museum is under the patronage of the East Kent Maritime Trust. Among other items, it displays exhibits related to holiday travelling in the 1800s, by steam ship. It also displays a collection of historic ships, such as the Sundowner (built in 1912) and the New Britannic (built in 1930).