Article written be Derek St Clair-Stannard
nostomania nos-tā-mā’ni-?, n an abnormal desire to go back to familiar places. [Gr nostos return, and mania]
This is how The Chambers Dictionary defines this unusual word. But I don’t think for one moment that I am “nostomanic” because my desire to visit Sandgate, where I spent my early youth, is not “abnormal”. Far from it. I spent a happy childhood there and, later, in Folkestone. It’s only natural, I think, for me to want to go back from time to time.
I used to visit very frequently because, as Editor of the Kent County Cricket Supporters Club quarterly magazine from 1988 – 2001, I’d leave the M20 at Hythe and have a good look around before continuing to Canterbury to watch the cricket. Passing the little railway terminus of the Hythe – Dungeness miniature steam railway used to bring back happy memories. Way back in the late 20s my father, Capt. St.Clair RN, was invited to the opening of this line which then only went as far as Dymchurch.
I don’t know how true it is but the story was that the railway was the brainchild of a local millionaire who was crazy about locomotives of all kinds. I remember him, dressed in overalls and a rakish cap, at the controls of the little puff-puff. His smutty face was wreathed in smiles as we chugg-chugged out of the station while a guard with a whistle waved his green flag and I gripped my father’s hand in excitement. At Dymchurch we’d use the Martello Tower as a place to change into our bathing costumes – a privilege afforded us because of my father’s position as District Officer, HM Coastguard.
But I have sad memories, too, when I visit dear old Sandgate. One of these concerns Encombe – a beautiful house in the Italian style owned by a Ralph Philipson and his wife Maya, of Hungarian origin. With her architect Basil Ionides she created a dream of a villa by the sea. It became a sort of small fairy palace, something fresh and idyllic, in harmony with the blue ocean out beyond the sinuous lawns and ilex trees. To me it was a paradise.
Now Encombe is no more. The large estate had for a long time been developed. But the house itself collapsed eventually through neglect and all that was left was a load of brick rubble. That’s gone at long last leaving a bare patch where, if fear of landslides is removed, some building or other will go up. I can hardly bear to look at it.
Once Encombe nestled beneath the wooded escarpment of Shorncliffe in, but not of, Sandgate. I used to go there most days of the school holidays – I was only 10 or 11. I was welcome as a “playmate” to Mrs Philipson’s adopted girls, Betty and Barbara.
We called her “Winky”. She never got over her husband’s death and wore widow’s weeds for the rest of her life. She organised Easter egg hunts, games of tennis and rounders. She let us use the little thatched changing-rooms on the Esplanade from which we went bathing and maybe searching rock pools for crabs at low tide. We enjoyed a never-ending round of amusements.
One day some chicken coops were erected high up in the woods behind the big house. Each morning all made the pilgrimage to see if any eggs had been laid. Each time all were disappointed until, one early morning,
I stole into the kitchen, and grabbed a handful of brown eggs. I climbed the steep hill up to the hen coops and gently placed them in the boxes. Later I heard shouts of joy as the girls collected them and took them to the Viennese cook to have her boil a few for breakfast. Later the cook went, as she was wont to do, to see Mrs Philipson in the Morning Room to discuss the week’s menus.
“Madame” she said “these fresh eggs the children brought me. It ees very, how you say, curious. Zey‘ave ze date stamped on them…”