Ahead of the centenary of Armistice little ships "making waves" once again

Following the German invasion of Belgium in WW1, Britain offered support to thousands of refugees. In August 1914 large numbers of Belgian refugees began arriving at Folkestone in fishing boats and colliers.

In one weekend alone, 20,000 Belgians arrived, gaining Folkestone the title of the ‘Refugees’ Gateway to Britain’.

The Folkestone Belgian Committee for Refugees assisted 15,000 Belgians to settle and helped another 64,500 refugees to travel onwards to other parts of England.

Fascinating memorabilia from these events are displayed at Kent History and Library Centre including 1914 photographs of Belgian refugees from Ostend; a diary describing efforts to assist Belgian refugees; a Belgian pill box cap and Belgian silk flag and a postcard requesting clothing for wounded Belgian soldiers.

With the centenary of the Armistice (the end of WW1) on 11 November fast approaching, it’s very topical but the centre is but one good reason to visit Thanet and Kent, the Garden of England, both the closest part of mainland UK to Belgium.

Another fine attraction is the Powell Cotton Museum at Quex Park, named after Percy Powell Cotton, an explorer and early conservationist. The house and museum was used as a hospital for injured soldiers during the First World War and there are some great black and white photos of soldiers convalescing amongst the tusks, horns and skulls.

As thanks for the nursing care he received, a Belgian soldier painted one of the diorama backgrounds (if you look carefully at the African landscape in Gallery 3 you can still see his signature.)

Yet another Belgian (and French) wartime connection to Thanet/Kent can be found at the newly-opened Little Ships Restaurant and Café in nearby Ramsgate. Overlooking the marina, this terrific 80-seat establishment is the brainchild of leading local hotelier James Thomas and his head chef Craig Mather, more than ably supported by locally-born/trained Laura Seeman.

The Little Ships’ name plays tribute to the flotilla of privately owned boats used to help evacuate stranded British troops from the Dunkirk beaches in 1940.  It also refers to Thanet local trawlers, which supply the fresh fish cooked in the restaurants.

The restaurant has been completely (and very tastefully) renovated and newly opened just in time for the busy summer rush. Its corporate identity, and catchy stripy seaside awning, is taken from the chrome yellow, red and black medal ribbon of the Dunkirk Veteran’s Association and the menu showcases the very best of local produce, including some from across the Channel from northern France. 

The short, seasonal (and delicious) menu features some dishes, like the juicy pork chop and sea bream, which are cooked in a special charcoal-fired oven (no expense spared here!) that makes the food even more tasty. Flat kebabs, chargrilled sirloin steak, with tahini yoghurt and spicy sriracha sauce and a rich Belgium chocolate pot with crème fraiche also feature. The lovely food, augmented by the polite and informative service from the enthusiastic young team, comes very highly recommended. There’s also a fine wine list and some great local beers.

The walls are adorned with photos, maps and memorabilia which commemorate the Dunkirk evacuation include the officer’s Army tunic of James’s grandfather, Dr George Morris, who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was evacuated from Dunkirk on 30 May 1940. Look out too for the framed newspaper front cover story from the time about the “units of Belgian troops fighting on side by side with the allies.”

James, formerly of the famous Claridges in London, is rightly credited with flying for flag for breathing new life into the whole area. Thanks in no small part to his sterling efforts (and now his energetic team at the Little Ships), Ramsgate is becoming as well known for its fine food as much as its wonderful wartime efforts in both WW1 and WW2.

Another delightful eating place nearby, situated in the historic village of Minster, is the Corner House, an independent, award-winning restaurant offering fine homemade British food such as mouth watering lamb from the nearby Romney Marsh (a mainstay of the menu). Other popular dishes include pork belly and the goat’s cheese and pistachio fritters. Unlike so many places, vegans (and veggies) are also very well catered for here with a totally separate menu.

Critically acclaimed, it has won the title of Kent Restaurant of the Year in 2015 and 2017. Restaurateur/owner Matt Sworder has worked at a number of London restaurants including Gordon Ramsay's La Noisette but is now thrilled to be back in his home region running things superbly both here and at his sister restaurant of the same name in Canterbury. The Minster kitchen is under the expertise of Serbian-born head chef Predrag Kostic who takes enormous pride in the quality of ingredients and ensuring that any visit is one you will remember.

This venue is a truly beautiful, intimate restaurant, set in the heart of a traditional Kentish village. Like the Little Ships, it benefits from the fantastic local produce both are lucky to have on their doorsteps.

Dreamland, one of the oldest surviving amusement parks in the UK, is a great way of working up an appetite for such terrific dining experiences.

This summer, Dreamland boasts no less than nine new rides (open 10am-6pm daily to 2 September) with something for both families and thrill seekers alike including pop-up entertainment, live music and art installations.

Visitors enjoy new, re-imagined versions of firm favourites from the past, delight in carefully restored vintage rides and experience new thrill and coaster rides, purpose built for Dreamland which is located opposite the golden sands of rejuvenated Margate.

A Dreamland spokesman said new entertainment has been added throughout the summer season, adding: “The new rides bring a wealth of new exciting experiences to the park adding to the fun festival feel that can be enjoyed every day through our doors. The rides are part of our ongoing investment into Dreamland and Margate providing a wonderful venue for all generations to enjoy.”

Since re-opening last year after significant investment, the attraction has also hosted a music festival and was voted runner-up for “Best Family Theme Park” in the 2017 Family Traveller Awards.

Another great family outing can be had with multi-award winning “Canoe Wild” which offers delightful watersport activities (including canoes, kayaks and paddleboards) throughout the county.

One popular option is to paddle on Canterbury’s unseen and unspoilt river, alongside Stodmarsh nature reserve, meandering through stunning scenery, and with great pubs at both ends of the route. Great for photo opportunities, wildlife watching, or just relaxing. What started as a family business five years ago last year attracted over 11,000 visitors.

The aim is four-fold: encourage folk to enjoy the river and beautiful outdoors; educate people in the animals and plants found here; promote rural and ecological tourism and,finally, help conserve and enhance the river environment for flora, fauna and future generations.

Getting to Kent from Brussels and the rest of Belgium couldn’t be easier with leading ferry operator DFDS the most popular choice for mainland Continental travellers.

Northern Europe's largest shipping and logistics company, DFDS is an award winner (the world’s leading ferry operator in the 2015 World Travel Awards) and has seen a huge rise in both passenger and freight traffic volumes on its Dover-Calais and Dover-Dunkirk routes.

It now has a second ferry, the Côte des Flandres, on its Dover-Calais service which has increased its daily schedule of sailings between Dover and Calais to up to 30. When combined with DFDS’ three ferries on the Dover-Dunkirk route, it now operates six ships in total on the Dover Strait, with up to 54 daily sailings to the two French ports. For a small extra charge you can upgrade to enjoy the delightful and peaceful on-board lounge and very useful priority boarding.

Kent and Thanet are easily the most accessible part of the UK and have recently undergone something of a renaissance. It is still easy to see why this was Charles Dickens’ favourite holiday destination.

So, if you’re maybe looking for ideas for a late summer getaway (or a pleasant break at any time of the year) this delightful corner of England makes for a great destination. It was pointed out that the Greek word for Thanet is death but this part of the UK is as lively as anywhere in the country. If you don’t believe me go and find out for yourself.

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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