To Kent, where on a twenty-mile stretch of coastline you can find the locations of not one but four sites commemorating famous landings in England, all of which have played a key role in shaping the world in which we live today.
The first one is in the woods near Dover Castle, that fortress atop the White Cliffs that overlooks the UK’s busiest port. The castle, said to be England’s largest, has for centuries existed with the purpose of preventing hostile forces from landing on our shores; it was used by the military until the 1980s, and not for nothing has it been called the ‘Key to England’! Dover, of course, was part of the Medieval confederation known as the Cinque Ports, established to ensure that men and ships were available to defend that part of our coast that was closest to Europe in the event of an invasion. Dover is of course older – its status as the gateway to Britain goes back to Roman times, when it was called Portus Dubris and was the principal means by which Roman troops and traders arrived in the province of Britannia.
Anyway, somewhere in the woods just to the east of the castle is the concrete outline of an old aeroplane. This commemorates the first (and historically the most recent) of our landing-spots, the place where Louis Blériot landed in July 1909, having completed the first flight over the English Channel. Actually, it wasn’t the first flight, for a Frenchman and an American had crossed the Channel in a hot-air balloon in 1785, but it was the first flight in an aeroplane. This was just six years after the Wright brothers had done the first powered flight, and public interest in who would be the first to fly across the Channel was high thanks to the Daily Mail which had in 1908 offered a prize of £500 to anyone who could complete the feat. When 1908 ended with the money unclaimed, the paper upped the prize to £1000. Apparently the paper’s owner reckoned that one the Wright brothers – Wilbur – would be the first, but in the event he had already amassed a fortune from prize money from duration and altitude flights, as well as from sales contracts, and thought the cash on offer to be not worth the risk. Several days before Blériot took off, a rival had attempted the crossing, only to become not the first person to fly an aeroplane across the Channel but the first person to a crash-land an aeroplane on water (he survived).
Blériot flew without a compass, planning instead to take his course from a French destroyer which was sailing across the Channel as his escort, however he hit low cloud and the wind blew him off course; when he did land, it was a crash-landing which damaged his craft’s undercarriage and propeller. But he had successfully flown across the Channel all the same, even though the Mail’s correspondent didn’t witness the landing (he’d been expecting Blériot to land on the beach, and on being told that the intrepid aviator had actually landed above the cliffs near the castle he quickly got hold of a motor-car and headed up there). Louis Blériot’s place in history was assured, and today he is commemorated by the concrete outline of his aeroplane – his own design, called the Blériot XI – on the spot where he landed, which is a few minutes’ walk through the trees from Upper Road (just off the A258); there were no trees there when he landed, which just goes to show how landscapes can change over time.
Along the coast in a northerly direction there are castles – Walmer, which to this day is the home of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (now entirely ceremonial but the position does still come with a castle!), and Deal, built as a defensive fortification by Henry VIII (it’s got round walls, thus eliminating the corners of square keeps which were the most vulnerable points once cannons started to be used, and has three levels from which cannons faced out to sea). Between the two is a plaque commemorating the oldest of our landing-sites, that of Julius Caesar in 55BC.
This is the event that is often said to mark the beginning of British history – although the Romans and others had certainly traded with Britain before (the Phoenicians are known to have bought tin from the West Country), the British Isles were very much on the edge of the known world and Julius Caesar’s visit was the first time anyone had come over in a military capacity. He’d just conquered Gaul, and his invasion of Britain was, according to Winston Churchill in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, “an integral part of his task of subjugating the Northern barbarians to the rule and system of Rome.” Caesar, who suspected the Britons of having aided their fellow-Celts the Gauls in their struggle against Rome, regarded the people of the south-eastern corner of the island (modern-day Kent) as being the most civilised on said island on account of their being the closest to mainland Europe. Not that that was saying much, for they were nevertheless “a tougher and coarser branch of the Celtic tribes whom he was subduing in Gaul” (Churchill again), and he appears to have regarded their pre-battle preparations, which consisted of taking their clothes off and painting themselves blue, with some distaste (he was even less keen on their priests, the Druids, who he’d heard performed human sacrifices).
Caesar judged Dover to be unsuitable for a landing (those blue-painted warriors standing on top of the cliffs must have been off-putting), so he opted to land on the beach between Walmer and Deal instead. His troops were able to fight off the natives and establish a beach-head but they were beset by bad weather and the tides, not something they’d ever had to worry about in the Mediterranean. Unable to advance further inland, he returned to Europe after a couple of weeks. He was back a year later, better prepared and with a larger force, and this time he was able to advance inland and indulge in a bit of dividing and conquering by setting one of the British tribes against another, but when he heard of a revolt in Gaul Caesar left once again, never to return. The Roman conquest of Britain would not happen until 43AD, when Emperor Claudius sent Vespasian over with an army (which, interestingly, included elephants) to subjugate the Britons and establish a new Roman colony, Britannia.
Further along the coast, beyond Sandwich but not quite as far as Ramsgate, is Pegwell Bay, once the location of a major hoverport from where big vehicle-carrying hovercraft departed for Calais. The hovercraft have long gone (the hoverport closed in 1982), but there is one very large piece of evidence that points to an older sea-crossing. Back in 1949, a group of intrepid Danes sailed a life-size replica of a Viking longship from Denmark to Kent. They actually landed at Broadstairs, but the ship, called the Hugin, was put on display at Pegwell Bay to commemorate a landing which took place at Ebbsfleet, a hamlet at the head of Pegwell Bay marking the eastern end of the channel which once separated the Isle of Thanet from the Kentish mainland, in the year 449. This arrival would have a profound effect on the course of our history; indeed, the island of Britain would never be the same again.
Although a Viking longship commemorates this landing, those who landed weren’t Vikings. The arrivals of 449 were two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, warriors apparently invited over as mercenaries by a warlord known as King Vortigern. They brought with them a motley crew of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who hailed from what’s now Denmark and northern Germany; in due course, more of them followed. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede records that they “were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on the condition that they protected the country: nevertheless, their real intention was to subdue it.” This they did, becoming the ancestors of the English, for as Bede continues: “From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight … From the Saxons … came the East, South and West Saxons. And from the Angles … are descended the East and Middle Angles, the Mercians, all the Northumbrian stock … and the other English peoples.” A plaque close to the Hugin thus commemorates this landing as the ‘beginning of English history’.
Not far inland, there is commemorated an arrival of a more spiritual kind which also changed Britain for ever. Over a century after the arrival of Hengist and Horsa, the Anglo-Saxons (as they became known) had come to dominate much of the island of Britain, establishing several kingdoms – an arrangement known to historians as the Heptarchy. By the 590s, the kingdom of Kent was ruled by one Ethelbert (sometimes referred to as Æthelberht), who according to Bede was a descendant of the afore-mentioned Hengist. In the year 597, a missionary arrived from Rome. Christianity had come to Britain before, when the Romans had converted to it, but the Anglo-Saxons had arrived after the Romans had left and were very much a pagan people.