diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 14, 2008

Seaside postcard: Herne Bay
Herne Bay is an overlooked resort on the North Kent coast, facing out into the North Sea between Whitstable and Margate. Victorians came here in their droves, and even 30 years ago the promenade would have been packed in the summer with happy families intent on enjoying a week at the seaside. Since then Herne Bay has become a more retiring place, and businesses on the seafront attempt to survive on insufficient daytrippers. I've been along to partake.

Herne Bay (pier stump, and Pier Pavilion)

You may recognise the promenade at Herne Bay from the first series of Little Britain - it's where Emily Howard (who is a lady) went for a stroll. It's an ideal town for the discerning dame, blessed with peculiarly genteel shops such as Margot Gowns [photo] where one can pop in and purchase sequinned eveningwear for the next cocktail party or soiree. Meanwhile the water's edge increasingly attracts well-off blokes in wetsuits, hopping aboard their throbbing jetski for a speedy whizz around the harbourside. And yes, there's bingo and fish and chips and amusements too, if that's what the more common of us want.

Two major structures originating in the 1830s still dominate the seafront. That's not just any old clock tower, that's the world's first free-standing purpose-built clock tower, erected in 1837 [photo]. And slightly further west is what used to be Britain's longest pier, but alas no more. Southend-on-Sea overtook it in the 1840s (2km easily beats 1km), and then a storm completely destroyed the central section in 1978. Today the pier goes out no further than the futuristic metal sports pavilion [photo], home to an offshore bowling alley, although the far distant pierhead still stands severed and decaying way out to sea [photo]. Then there's the bandstand, a giant 1920s octagonal structure surrounding a central performance area. Based within is the town's tourist information centre, doomed to imminent closure thanks to short-sighted cost-cutting on behalf of the local council.

Bayblast HQ (a Herne Bay hut)But that's not why I was in Herne Bay, I was here for the boat trip. There are some really fascinating structures out at sea, and the only way to get up close is aboard an inflatable. Bayblast are a new-ish company operating from the hut beside Neptune's Arm Jetty, and their Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boats can whisk up to 12 people off on a variety of short trips and lengthy excursions. They're not cheap these tours - mine was £22 for just over an hour at sea. And be warned that sailings are subject to change and cancellation if the weather's bad, and that the company's website is frozen in a not entirely helpful timewarp. But it's not every day you get the opportunity to scud across the North Sea at umpteen miles an hour aboard a big orange diesel-powered speedboat. In a fetching lifejacket, I might add.

First stop, five miles off shore, was the Kentish Flats wind farm. If the future of UK electricity is renewable and wind-powered, then this forest of tall twirly blades is where it all started. There are 30 masts altogether, each hammered down into a convenient sandbank, and they've been generating power since the summer of 2005. They looked fairly tiny and compact from the beach but, as the boat approached, the huge scale of the project soon became apparent. These are mighty structures, towering 60 metres above the waves, plus another 45 metres for each blade. The blades swish round surprisingly quietly, although at some considerable speed, and it was slightly perturbing sitting in a small boat directly underneath hoping that one didn't snap off and come spinning down towards us.

Kentish Flats wind farm

I found the wind farm extremely difficult to photograph. The boat throws you about a bit, so it's not easy to capture a shot with a flat horizon [photo]. The masts are spread out over an area of 10 square kilometres, so the majority of them are always too far away to look imposing [photo]. Meanwhile each individual mast is too huge to fit easily into a frame [photo], leaving nothing else in shot to give a reasonable indication of scale [photo]. Plus it was a bit misty out at sea yesterday, brightening up only as our boat returned to shore, so I ended up with a lot of shots of thin white sticks on a grey background above a grey sea. Still, I tried. Other people have tried better. If UK electricity production has to go the green sustainable route, I think these masts look much better out at sea than plonked down on dry land. And it's rather impressive to have had the opportunity to sail right through the middle of them.

[more tomorrow]

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