Phantoms of Pegwell
Part One: Raiders of the Lost Port
When I was young, children didn’t need to be encouraged to spend more time with wildlife- we were the wildlife.
Video games were in their infancy and were for rainy days, when football wasn’t possible or if you were lying low for some reason. And there could be many. Once, I missed an entire week of the summer holidays on account of a fight I got into with a pair of much older teens- siblings who lived in Pegwell for a summer or two and who like so many other characters encountered in the Wild West of one’s youth, seemed to evaporate thereafter- never to be seen or heard of ever again. What made my hiding out worse was that my chief tormentor was a girl, albeit about three years older than I and twice my size. I was eleven and she was fourteen. Her brother was seventeen, about thrice my size and wore a dog collar round his neck. We called them King Kong and Big Bird; both were feared on account of being so much older, bigger and crucially- many times more sadistic than even the meanest of our little gang. One afternoon, not long after the pair had moved to Pegwell, they decided that the neighbourhood’s children needed to be ‘initiated’. The process involved a dozen of us younger kids being lined up against the wall at the bottom of ‘the field’ (a green patch in the middle of the estate) and taking it in turns for Big Bird to boot us in the groin. I was about sixth in line so by the time she got to me, I was more scared by my mates’ resulting screams than I was of her. She must have sensed something was up:
‘Getting brave are ya?’
I managed to stammer half a word or three but as I was still talking, she kicked me. I experienced a temporary loss of breath followed by a spiralling sensation and when I opened my eyes, I saw a blue sky full of stars. As the latter receded I became aware that I was contributing to a mass groaning sound. Half a dozen of us had been ‘done’ and were all writhing around together on the floor in a contorted mass. I looked up to see Big Bird giving her brother a ‘High-Five’, at which point one of my friends’ moans turned into words…
‘Fat… Fat Cow!’
Our lamentations ceased that instant.
‘Who said that?’ cried Kong, who’d hitherto been happy to watch from the shade. From the ground, he looked even bigger. He seemed bigger still when I was looking down at him a few seconds later. Holding me by my neck and staring up into my eyes, I thought I might disappear down one of his nostrils;
‘You! The skinny one. ‘Ere, sis, the skinny one said it!’
The rest of the group looked on in mute horror as I was propped up against the fence and held there like bait for some monster in a ‘Sinbad’ movie. It wasn’t long before the gorgon-like figure of ‘Big Bird’ approached, dragging her right boot like a cave troll would its club. Her brother had me in a standing ‘half nelson’ and I could feel his breath on my neck. Despite his halitosis, my final thoughts were that I’d rather die from him crushing me than from her booting me, so as she got to within ball-kicking distance, I thrust my backside back into Kong’s stomach (which was ample enough to give me a ‘bounce’ effect); as I came forward, I released my striking foot as hard as I could towards her. To my disbelief, joy and horror, I was successful. I will never forget the look on her face.
For a second, I felt like a man who’d just thrown a can of beans into the course of a charging rhino. But it wasn’t anger on her face- it was shock. She fell to the ground, just the same as I had, and immediately went into what looked like an asthma attack. Her brother’s hot breath had either turned cold or else I was feeling the breeze. The nelson temporarily loosened and I broke free. Running as fast as my legs could carry me (which was very fast, I don’t mind adding) I got home in under a minute and so commenced my week’s retreat from the outside world. By about day five, I’d completed ‘Duck Hunt’ three thousand times over on the Nintendo and my parents were growing suspicious. Eventually, Kong knocked at the front door to ask if I wanted to come out and ‘play’. My father recognised how much older the boy was and visited his family that night. It turned out Kong and his father were more scared of my dad than I was of Kong, whom I never saw again. Nor Big Bird, either. A lucky thing, as I valued my groin. And my summer, too- the remainder of which provided me with an introduction to an altogether more mysterious type of bird.
Several weeks and a hundred or so catapult battles later, the Pegwell Posse expanded its BMX territory as far as the site of the old Pegwell Bay Hoverport, or the ‘old port’ as we called it. By this point, it’d been closed down for a decade and had begun the slow journey back to nature which still continues to this day. For a boy, it was heaven. We’d play ‘Man-Hunt’, ‘British Bulldog’ and all the usual 80’s games amongst the wrecks of old hovercrafts and beautiful sand-dunes. As glorious as the place was for a boy, it never really replaced our other favourite haunts such as Courtstairs Park, Devil’s Kitchen or the Chine Cliffs.
Looking back, most of us were barred from going to the port by our parents, so it was always a ‘stealth mission’ and not everybody could be counted on to come. Also, it was second only to Pegwell’s infamous ‘Dark Alley’ in terms of how creepy it was. Several of the children’s parents had previously been employed at the port (my dad worked there for years as an engineer) and we’d all taken hovercraft trips to Calais as toddlers. Such a state of decay (as our young minds perceived it) could be unnerving if you found yourself on your own. It was during one such moment that I saw my first bird of prey. I was sulking because everybody had decided to cycle back east, beyond the village and over to the Boating Pool. I wanted to keep playing in the port so held my ground, hoping that a few of my chums might return. They didn’t. After a while I got ‘the creeps’ and decided to catch them up; also, the lure of the Boating Pool’s ‘Adventure Playground’ was just too much. In my angst to reunite with the gang, I pushed my little BMX a little too hard and came off near where the old passenger bridge stood (and still stands today).
I must have rolled over half a dozen times or so; I remember having a huge scab on my right elbow that seemed to last until the next Christmas. As I was recovering, I watched a bird hovering about 40 yards away or so from the bridge. I could see feathers and a beak, but its wings were moving so quickly (easily faster than a bumble-bee’s, or so I thought) and synchronised to such perfection that in my dazed state, I fantasized that it was a robot of some kind, an escapee from ‘The Transformers’ sent out across the bay to spy on me. In fact, it was only when I fully came to, that my childish mind realised I wasn’t watching a cartoon, nor less a space-droid. I concentrated on the creature as hard as I could and tried my best to imprint the image on my mind (I did a pretty good job, as it’s still there today). Once the ‘robot’ had flown off (seawards, after pouncing on something or other in the scrub) I cycled home, where I pored through a vinegary old Encyclopaedia Britannica until I found a dark, inky image that just about matched the bird. And a name, too… Kestrel. The sight stays with me and so does the name, as an archetype for every bird of prey I’ve seen since. And I’ve seen many more kestrels. There are lots locally; they still nest and hunt around the old port, even today.
What you don’t see anymore are the children. Pegwell has many young people, as does Ramsgate- but you won’t see them these days. Video games and social media seem to have imprisoned an entire generation or two indoors. But the birds are still out there. And so am I. So I can’t lose too much hope. After all, the avocets came back, didn’t they? So surely our children can, too.
But the bird I most wanted to see this last winter was the short-eared owl. Known as ‘shorties’ to their fans, they’re cold month visitors to England. We do have some of our own, perhaps a few thousand or so, but in the winter, a great army descends from the north to invade our more temperate climate. On a good year, they can number in the tens of thousands. Nearby Sandwich Bay had five or six resident shorties this year but I never caught up with them. This was partly due to an obsession I developed with a local barn owl on the other side of the bay but also because I lack all of the skills requisite for a good birder. Firstly, I over-sleep and am never up early enough, meaning that I can only catch the dusk run. That lowers my potential ‘catch rate’ by 50% before I’ve even made it to the field. Secondly, I’m loud and clumsy. Thirdly, my eyesight is appalling, meaning lots of switching about between glasses and binoculars, all of which has a knock-on effect with my clumsiness.
So I was grateful for the extra help when a friend told me she’d recently seen an ‘owl’ on the Pegwell salt marshes late last April. We both work at the same school, which is situated in a lovely farmhouse on the other side of the bay. My friend was walking her dogs on the reserve one evening when she observed an owl land on a fence post quite near to her; she recorded the footage but it was a little too grainy to make out what it was. In fact, I thought it might be a barn owl, given that the ‘Sandwich Bay Shorty Gang’ had left the area a month earlier, according to the local birding grapevine. This was on the first day of the last school term, Wednesday 24th April. I didn’t know it then but I’d be spending the next week of dusks alone on Pegwell Bay, hunting for a solitary owl. I started that same afternoon, straight after school.
That first day, I started at just gone half four, parking up at the NNR official car park and wandering west until I reached the end of the footpaths. I hid up for some time, clocking two kestrels (none close enough for a photo), a million shelducks and observing a mass explosion of terns on the other side of the bay.
At just gone six, I’d come back east and found myself in a clearing near the middle of the reserve, where there are several Aberdeen Angus enclosures. Having been chased and nearly killed by bulls whilst over near the village of Dunkirk in the Blean, I’m very careful about where I walk. Death is one thing. Death by trampling is another. The reserve has a series of marked gates, so it’d be hard to find yourself nose to nose with an Angus (or ‘Bantha’ as I call them) but you’re best off being on your guard.
It occurred to me that that the glade was eerily silent for this time of the evening; more like dusk, from which we were still an hour or so away. I glanced behind me for impending death-cattle but saw none. Then as I turned round to face east again, a short eared owl shot out of the bush and started making towards me from about fifty or sixty yards away. I fumbled about and managed a pretty horrendous photograph as it approached me. The picture’s saving grace is that it captures the bird’s wonderful, hunter’s eyes. Not to mention the photographer’s state of complete panic.
Then, as the owl strafed wide of me (I was clearly never the target, although the look in its eyes made me feel like one) I took another rushed photograph of it from the side on.
I prefer not to revisit my subsequent feelings of utter anguish as the bird then flew up out of the glade and over into the bay, completely out of my sight. I did a kind of lame jog towards where I’d seen it heading, before realising that it would be quicker to keep going towards my car. About-facing, I again half-ran/half-walked, all the while mentally cursing myself for missing what should have been the shot of a lifetime. Before the car park, you can get onto the coastal path; from there, it’s quite easy to sweep the entire bay with your binoculars. When I did so, I saw nothing on the larger, western section but when I swept back east towards Ramsgate, I saw that the owl was now at large, stalking and quartering the salt marshes adjacent to the old port. This was a few hundred metres away so I got back to my car and drove east, down to just below where I’d seen the bird. I was banking that the owl was done with the wooded, bushy part of the reserve and was now doing its real evening’s hunting out on the marsh proper.
This seemed a tenuous theory but as with hunting of any kind, there are no absolutes; your trip is all about reprioritising and reacting to the ever-changing habits of your quarry, the weather, your surroundings- and occasionally, what your stomach tells you. The reason I’m writing this down is because my gamble paid off somewhat. However, the bird was distant at first and I never got as intimately close as I had been in the glade.
But I managed a couple of good shots. The first was from behind, with the owl displaying a full wingspan’s worth of war camouflage.
I also got one of the bird hunting parallel to the white cliffs of Pegwell. It’s a dusk shot, so what it lacks in digital clarity , it makes up for with the mood of the moment. But more importantly to me, it shows the owl in its element: a migratory, coastal hunter- fearless and proud. Full downloads of all these photos can be found at the bottom of this entry
It was also lovely to witness the owl hunting over the old port. Making Pegwell its playground, just as I once did. Like the bird, I’ve been migrating back and forth from this area for some time. It was nice to feel a kinship with that old, wild world again, however remote.
Those old stirrings die hard, if they do at all. The owl had ambushed me tonight; I’d tracked it and I’d gotten close. But not close enough. The aim is not to disturb a wild creature, but I could get much nearer still without doing that. As dusk fell, the owl disappeared into a purple haze that I carried home with me and into my sleep.
The next afternoon, I would arrive earlier. Be readier.
And get closer.
Click on images to enlarge: