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A peerless pIace for brave birders to watch the sea

THE 12th-century towers of the ruined church that loom over Reculver’s Roman fort form one of the Herne Bay area’s more striking landmarks, but to most people the spot is essentially a summer location. Certainly, if you can blot out the adjoining sprawl of caravans, a misty autumn or winter day can create an atmospheric experience in which you let your imagination wander. But what might come as a surprise if you were to venture out to Reculver on the fiercest of stormy days is a band of people cloaked in all manner of cold-weather gear peering intently out to sea through telescopes and binoculars. They are “seawatching” or, more specifically, looking for sea birds that have been blown close to the coast by strong onshore winds. And on this stretch of the north Kent coastline, seawatchers wait for winds that come from anywhere between a northwesterly and northeasterly direction. Reculver’s position at the mouth of the Thames estuary and the way in which it juts a little from an otherwise “straight” coastline are the principal reasons why it is such a favoured location.

Autumn and early winter are the prime times for this seemingly masochistic activity and, with few opportunities and places available in the South East to indulge in it, birdwatchers travel from across Kent, London and neighbouring counties when conditions are promising. Nothing in the world of nature is guaranteed, of course, and a promising forecast doesn’t necessarily mean a great day’s birdwatching. Either way, however, one thing that rarely escapes comment among the assembled throng is the forlorn chunk of masonry just a short distance to the west and that can be seen clearly from Reculver. This, of course, is the now-isolated end of Herne Bay pier, the bulk of which was destroyed in storms in January 1978 and February 1979. Most of what was left was dismantled in 1980. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, ponder the wind-battered birdwatchers, if the pier was still in existence and we could get out there and watch all these seabirds from there. Skuas from the Arctic tundra, shearwaters from rocky offshore islands, gulls, terns and wildfowl from across northern Europe all can offer the fleeting chance of all-too-scarce encounters.

The frustration is almost tangible. Before its untimely end, the pier was the second longest in the country and the distance it stretched out to sea would have offered unparalleled views of all these seabirds, certainly in this part of the world. Rather than trying to keep track of often distant dots skimming between the waves, the adoring crowds could have seen these entrancing birds at inspiringly close range. In a cruel irony, seawatching only really developed in Kent at about the time the pier was demolished. Wider ownership of improved optical equipment and a growing understanding that seawatching didn’t have to be confined to Britain’s wilder western and northern coasts saw more and more people drawn to its special charms. Nevertheless, Herne Bay pier was given a few lines in the 1974 edition of the seminal work Where To Watch Birds, by ornithologist John Gooders. In truth, and perhaps in a reflection of the period’s limited understanding of seawatching, the pier’s entry in the book is hardly eye-catching and it’s likely that few would have been attracted there by a rather sombre “The pier is noted as a good place for an autumn seawatch and is worth a visit in August and September”. One man who did sometimes wander out for the end-of-the-pier bird show, however, is Frank Davies.

“The problem was, you didn’t know where to look,” he said. “You were so far out that some of the birds would be in front of you while others would fly behind you, between you and the land, so you missed them. To be honest, we didn’t really know a lot about seabird movements off the Kent coast at that time, so the pier didn’t get the coverage it would if we were able to get out there now. We were still getting to grips with things like the best weather conditions and the most likely wind directions to produce birds. Also, there have been such advances in binoculars and telescopes, meaning seawatching has become much more popular. Back then, there were hardly any of us out there. That said, with the views we were getting of the birds, we hardly needed top-of-the-range optics anyway. Thinking about it, though, perhaps we’re lucky with the way things worked out. The best birdwatching conditions are exactly the ones that blew the pier down! I might not be here today if I was stuck out there in a big blow! Nevertheless, I’ve often wondered what brilliant things might have been seen from Herne Bay pier if it was still there today.”

Frank and his fellow birdwatchers can, of course, only imagine such things. And, although their reasons will be different, they, like the rest of us, must dream of the day Herne Bay pier is resurrected to its former glories. The wait goes on.

Herne Bay Times, January 15th 2015

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