Thursday, 20 November 2014

Pebbles from my Childhood

Throughout my childhood in Sheerness in the 1950's the one place that was always constant was the nearby beach. Through the long, hot sunny days of summer or the wild, stormy days of winter, it was a regular playground, a place where to us children you seemed to stand on the very edge of a big, wide world that stretched to eternity.
We lived four, small, terraced streets back from it but could stand at the end of our alley, look along Richmond Street, that linked our side streets and roads and there, 3-4 hundred yards away was the sea wall and beyond it the wide and pebbly beach. On those hot summer weekends when package holidays were still being invented, it overflowed with people of all ages, swimming, picnicking, walking in their Sunday bests, and escaping from the hot and dusty streets and dog-shit alleys behind. On the promenade there were three, tile-roofed and open-sided shelters where people could sit out of the hot sun or cool wind and watch people watching them. At those shelters as we grew older we met and courted our girlfriends, or on rainy summer days, left our clothes, while we swam because we had this notion that the water was always warmer when it was raining.
The stretch at the end of Richmond Street, our stretch, was about a quarter of a mile long, it's eastern end featured the old Cheyne Rock Coal Pier, leading to the beaches and green countryside of Minster. It's western end had a short row of beach-side houses known aptly as Neptune Terrace, a couple of arcades and a short jetty where we sometimes fished with our hand lines and caught crabs and "boot-lace" eels. Beyond there was the further beach that led past the large Catholic Church, fairground and onto Garrison Point and the naval dockyard.  As we grew older and more confident in our childhood we occasionally made excursions to the east and west, particularly the fairground, but at first we stuck to our beach and the arcades.
There, on calm and early winter's evenings, well before my teenage years, I would stand on the promenade in the dark and look across the wide and sloping beach, lit dimly by the street lights behind me. I would stare out at at the inky blackness of the sea beyond and dream about where it's seagull, porpoised and fish-filled expanse went, well beyond the winking lights of the distant ships at anchor. I would listen to the tiny, silvery wavelets lapping on the shoreline, leaving just a whisper of sound before the sea reclaimed them back again.

Marine Town, as that part of Sheerness was grandly known then, had two sides. Neither was really the back or the front, it was just the beach one way or the Canal and the fields and marshes the other, with our dingy streets stuck in between. But for the first twelve years of my life it was all I knew and we made our fun and adventures from what there was and the beach was one of those places. When I wasn't standing in the dark dreaming about far off places, there was the day time. Always there were naval warships and sometimes submarines passing by out to sea, en-route to the the Sheerness and Chatham dockyards. Out to sea, the masts and bodywork of "The Wreck" were always visible and we loved the stories about the vessel, an American Liberty ship the "Richard Montgomery". While at anchor one night during WW2 it had broke it's back on a sand bank and sunk with it's full cargo of bombs and explosives still on board. Half the cargo was removed soon after but the rest still remain there today and the exciting stories that we were fed as children, that their explosion could wipe out half of Sheppey, still re-surface, unlike the cargo, annually today. Even better for many years, throughout my childhood and beyond, there used to be two small motor boats, the "Silver Star" was one, that waited on the beach near the Fairground to take a load of the paying public out on trips every hour or so. There were two sailing options, a "trip past Sheerness Harbour" (boring), to look at the boats there or "a trip round the Wreck". The Wreck one was always the most fun, when at a safe distance of several hundred yards you could circle the sunken vessel and marvel at the masts and funnel, etc. that was still showing above the surface and as children, be both excited and frightened that it might suddenly blow up.

There was always something to do along the beach, regardless of the height of the tide, High tide in the summer meant mainly swimming, or, if I wasn't getting up to mischief with my school mates there, simply sitting on the beach with my mother and much younger siblings. There on hot, sunny weekends, among hundreds of other like-minded people, my mother would lay out an old blanket and provide us with Shipams paste sandwiches and tea from thermos flasks. Sandwiches for us in those days always seemed to have contained either Shipams paste or Spam and I can still see those little paste jars with a brass ring round to keep the lid sealed on. It's quite amazing to see photos of those days in the late 1950's/early 1960's and see the beach and promenade as densely packed as modern day Benidorm and yet nowadays, even on hot weekends, there will be barely a dozen or so people along there.
In the winter, high tide and it's stormy seas often meant beach-combing, wondering along the tide-line picking up and perusing the wide variety of objects that had been washed up. It became a form of treasure hunting for us kids as we mooched along the tide line, competing with the Turnstone birds, kicking over the sea weed and uncovering hundreds of little shrimp-like insects that we knew as "toe-biters". How they got that name I don't know because they never bit any toes that I recall but the Turnstones enjoyed eating them. There were cuttlefish bones that we took home for the lonely pet budgerigar in it's cage, there was bladder wrack sea weed whose every mini bladder we popped by squeezing it between our fingers. Best of all there were bottles, of all shapes and sizes and sometimes with labels on with foreign writing, and always we hoped that one would have a mysterious message in it, but they never did. They were cold and windy days as we competed with each other to find that special piece of sea-tossed treasure, looking like mini burglars with balaclavas on our heads, itchy things knitted by mothers who had unpicked old jumpers and re-used the wool.
And at low tide, winter or summer, the low tide exposed a whole new playground from under the sea, flat and sandy mudflats.  There rock pools held crabs hiding under small rocks and small darting fish and shrimps, there were worm casts in the sandy mud that sometimes we would dig at to produce the rag and lug worms for our mediocre fishing days on the nearby jetty. And there were also the wooden groynes or breakwaters that ran in lines down the beach and out onto the mudflats and these sometimes provided part of our Sunday tea. Small shellfish called Winkles attached themselves in large numbers to these breakwaters and I was often sent out on a Sunday morning by my father to collect several dozen of these, what looked like small snails. During the afternoon he would briefly cook the winkles and then my reward for collecting them was to sit there with a small sewing needle and pick out from each shell what looked like a tiny curled and white-grey slug and put them in a bowl. Later we would then eat them with a slice of bread and butter and some vinegar, not exactly filling or terribly nice but in those days of regular poverty they were both sold in fishmongers and commonly eaten. I thought that eating them had been consigned to history but this week while watching Masterchef on the TV, contestants were asked to prepare a dish of winkles and whelks, so clearly not.

As I later morphed into a teenager then that short section of beach became swallowed up amid much wider horizons and interests but now, as I cycle along there in my old age, I can never resist stopping for a while and re-visiting my memories of it.


  1. I very much enjoyed this fine piece of writing, Derek. I can see it so clearly in my mind's eye.

    We had winkles, or something similar, at a restaurant in France. A wine cork bristling with small pins to pop out the winkles was presented along with the dish winkles cooked in peppered seawater. Quite tasty, but as you say, not too much nourishment. Cheers.

  2. Wilma, good to hear from you and I really envy the way your re-built house is coming along in Belieze.
    You were brave to try winkles, they're not the most inspiring of seafoods and I like the idea of the cork bristling with pins.

  3. Another trip down memory lane Derek. I remember as a kid being taken to Sheerness beach (probably 60s) and trying to enter the sea without getting near the numerous jelly fish. Winkles ,and cockles were also served with shrimps from my time spent as a child in Deal. Happy days one and all.