Sandgate In The 1960’s

Article written by Anne Oakford and Tony Adams March 2005

In the 1960’s, I was a photographer with the Kent Messenger newspaper which maintained a district office at Sandgate, and this had a pleasant, roomy flat over the premises, into which my wife and I and our two young sons moved early in 1966.

We found Sandgate in the mid-1960’s a lovely place to live. Although a minor seaside resort in itself, it was, effectively, a suburb of Folkestone, but retained a village atmosphere, with the main street running parallel with the sea-front at the base of the steep escarpment at the top of which was Shornecliff Army Barracks.

The Kent Messenger office was on Sandgate High Street, separated from the sea front by a row of Edwardian boarding houses which had stood empty and derelict since the war. But, shortly after we moved into the flat, these were demolished, opening up extensive sea views across the 100 or so yards of rough ground which was all that now stood between our flat and the sea wall.

This was something of a drawback when there was a south-westerly gale blowing, driving big waves against the sea wall which they often hit with such force, making a loud “whoomff” noise as they did so, that they shook the building and deposited a shower of seawater and shingle onto the roof, which had to be weatherproofed with some sort of bitumen compound to make it waterproof, impervious to salt and robust enough to withstand the bombardment of shingle.

When an onshore wind combined with a very high tide, the sea would come right over the sea wall and flood the High Street and Esplanade (and the cellar of the Messenger office). But these snags were more than compensated for by the incredibly beautiful and ever changing seascapes to be seen from the rear windows of the flat.

On a clear day, from the back bedroom window, it was possible to see the coast of France 22 miles away across Dover Strait, and, at night, the headlights of cars travelling the coast road between Calais and Boulogne were clearly visible. With the aid of binoculars, we indulged in a form of maritime ‘train spotting’, identifying the names and nationalities of ships travelling this most busy of waterways, and watching the pilot boat going out to put a pilot aboard a ship about to negotiate the mouth of the Thames, or taking one off on the outward journey. We saw the Channel Ferries plying back and forth out of Dover, and the first Hovercraft ferries operating.

When one of the notorious channel fogs came rolling in, the mournful braying of the foghorn on the Varne lightship could be clearly heard, and, at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, all the ships, either in harbour or out on the Roads would sound their sirens to welcome in the New Year.

We also had a grandstand seat during the filming of the ‘dogfight’ sequences for the film “The Battle of Britain”, released in 1969, which starred, among others, Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Ralph Richardson, and Christopher Plummer. The planes used, Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts, mostly belonging to the Spanish air force and repainted with their original camouflage markings and identification symbols for the filming, swooped and dived just a short distance out to sea, often flying fast and low along the shore line. There were only about three of each type of aircraft, so some very clever camerawork and, later, film editing, was required to create the illusion of the dozens of aircraft which would have been involved in the real ‘dogfights’.

Being so close to the shore, we were able to spend a lot of time down by the sea. The ‘beach’ at Sandgate consisted mainly of pebbles, sand being visible only when the tide was well out, but it was usually clean, and because it was on the edge of such a busy sea lane, there were often interesting items of flotsam and jetsam to be found along the shoreline, particularly after a storm.

In the warm weather, with home only such very short distance away, my wife could take the boys to spend all day by the water, and, on warm summer nights, it was possible for us to slip out of the flat while the boys were asleep and go for a quick cooling dip in waters alive with phosphorescence.

In spite of her heavy coat, designed for arctic conditions, our Samoyed dog Zella loved the water and would happily retrieve anything floating in the sea. She even pulled one of our sons out of the water by the seat of his bathing trunks when a wave knocked him over. On one occasion, she nearly drowned when she was swamped by a freak giant wave while squatting by the waters edge. She always ‘did her business’ well away from the waves after that!

One of the oddities of living in the Sandgate flat was that we were unable to use a mains radio, the neon sign in the shop window causing so much interference that clear reception of radio programmes was impossible. To get round this, we bought a Marconi battery operated set, but found, to our surprise, that we received transmissions from Radio Francaise better than those from the BBC. This was a considerable drawback when it came to the spoken word as neither of us spoke or understood much French, but we enjoyed concerts and other musical offerings. One programme we particularly remember was called “Un Note Sur le Guitar”. We were also able to receive clear transmissions from the so-called ‘pirate’ radio stations, particularly ‘Radio London’ which had been set up by a couple of American businessmen to cash in on the success of ‘Radio Caroline’. ‘Radio London’ broadcast from a converted American minesweeper moored off the Essex coast, and first brought Kenny Everitt to the attention of the listening public. There was also ‘Radio 390’ which broadcasted from a wartime defence fort in the Thames Estuary.

We have lived in many towns and cities in three different countries, but the memories of our time in Sandgate remain amongst our happiest recollections.