Are you in search of some bargains to help banish the January blues? If so, a short hop across the channel for a spot of retail therapy could be just the thing. In the run up to Christmas, UK shops were heaving with overseas shoppers taking advantage of a weaker pound. So what better time to make the most of the good exchange rate between the pound and euro?
A relatively short journey from this country, Ramsgate has always been a popular destination for Belgians and this pleasant Kentish seaside town could soon become even closer following news that the port is being dredged in order to turn the harbour into a “second Dover” in preparation for a no-deal Brexit.
Under UK Government plans revealed last week, the seaside port is being excavated so that ferries and large cargo ships can begin operating out of the harbour again. Ramsgate, which used to operate passenger ferry services to Ostend, was Charles Dickens’ favourite holiday home and it’s easy to see why.
The town, though, was once just a collection of fishermen’s cottages clustered around a harbour. But by the end of the 17th century a burgeoning shipping trade saw the port growing in importance. Fast forward to the present and, having been named as one of the UK’s ten Heritage Action Zones by Historic England and with the opening of the Grade II-listed Royal Victoria Pavilion, there is a real feel-good factor in Ramsgate.
Little wonder that Coast Magazine says, “If its regeneration continues at its current pace,this historic Cinque Port could easily outshine its neighbours.” With its historic waterfront and lively cosmopolitan feel, Ramsgate’s a good spot to head for for a short break.You can select an alfresco café, sip a drink and see the yachts bobbing in the picturesque working marina (this Cinque Port is the only ‘Royal Harbour’ in the country).
An excellent base to explore the area is Ramsgate’s Royal Harbour Hotel, located a short drive from Dover. Owned by a go-ahead local businessman, James Thomas, this is a lovely hotel on Ramsgate’s best known historic garden crescent. From its wonderful position perched on a hill, it directly overlooks the small marina/port of this vibrant town.
When James, formerly of Claridge’s, the famous London hotel, took over in 1999, it had just six rooms and two bathrooms. It has multiplied in size and also houses a locally highly renowned restaurant called “The Empire Rooms” serving excellent British food. James and his enthusiastic team have introduced some quirky touches, such a great collection of old-style vinyl LPs that guests can play on a record deck in the comfy lounge where an impressive large portrait of the Queen of England seems symptomatic of the “patriotic” feel of the surroundings.
This delightful Georgian hotel, made up of adjoining Georgian Grade 2 listed townhouses that date back to 1799, boasts pleasant family and disabled-access guest rooms. It was awarded a 5-star review by “An Inspector Calls” in the Daily Mail, voted “Best Small Hotel” by the Oldie Magazine Travel Awards and is often No.1 in Trip Advisor’s popularity index for Ramsgate.
It all makes for a very satisfying and relaxing stay and, from here, you can marvel at Ramsgate’s panorama (the vista affords views of the French coast on a clear day).
After taking in the refreshing North Sea air, you’ll have worked up a hearty appetite and a very good spot locally to sate any hunger is the hotel’s Empire Rooms, ranked an impressive three out of 152 restaurants in Ramsgate.
Seating up to 45 the appropriately called “Empire” serves excellent British food (the lamb, pork and hake curry are particularly recommended), much of it sourced locally. The nicely balanced menu features a range of meat, fish and veggie dishes. Open for lunch and dinner, the fact that 80 per cent of diners (at weekend) are non-guests testifies to its wide appeal.
To reinforce its British colonial connections, the restaurant walls are adorned with pristine front covers of the old BBC magazine “Empire” which James, being passionate about British military history, used to collect. Its warm red walls, original mixed wooden tables and chairs and history books lining the walls, all combine to make this restaurant elegant and stylish, yet comfortable and informal (diners with dogs are also welcome).
The seasonally-adjusted menu, overseen by 36-year-old head chef Nick Cobley, is also very good so little wonder it’s been called by respected food critics as a “hidden gem”. Birmingham-born Nick says he tries to use local products from local producers as much as possible, adding, “That way, we can spread the word about the quality of local ingredients. It’s a win-win for both the producers and us.”
Nick and James also offer invaluable work experience to young people from a local college. Thanet is the furthest south-east you can go in Britain, almost touching mainland Europe and has many wartime related tales to tell. Ramsgate Tunnels, which housed over 1,000 people during the darkest period of WWII, has reopened while 2015 marked the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo when hundreds of ‘little ships’ set out from Ramsgate Royal Harbour and Margate to rescue troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.
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Ideally located on the seafront, “Little Ships” is also the name of another of another local restaurant owned by James. Its walls contain lots of military-related memorabilia plus a framed jacket worn on active service by James’ grandfather, an army medical officer. The idea is not to turn the place into a mini-museum but, rather, to highlight Ramsgate’s role in WW2 (very timely, as this summer marks the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings).
The restaurant is run by Broadstairs-born Craig Mather, a locally renowned chef who started cooking at the age of 13 to earn pocket money. In the space of just one week last year, James et al transformed it from a very rundown café into the stylish and atmospheric eatery it is today (the chairs were salvaged from a scrapyard in Boulogne).
Unlike the Empire, this eatery relies more on a walk-in trade and offers simpler, bistro-style cuisine, including seafood such as oysters and mussels which 33-year-old Craig is currently keen to promote to locals.Some of the delicious dishes are cooked from the open kitchen on a locally-crafted £5,000 “Harrison” charcoal-fired oven which affords a particularly tasty and moist BBQ-type flavour to the food including sea bass and pork chops.
The very affable James has done a lot to help revive the town’s fortunes and he and Caroline, his wife-to-be, are not above lending a hand and serving here on busy nights. With the possible reopening of Ramsgate as a commercial port for the first time in five years, there’s likely to be a surge in cross-channel trade as people from Belgium and mainland Europe.
For people travelling by car from Belgium, “the Garden of England” is the most accessible part of the UK and the fine hospitality epitomised by James and his team can also be found just up the road in Margate at GB Pizza, which has rightly won a clutch of awards since it opened.
Located on the town’s historic seafront, it is notable not just for its very flavoursome pizzas, cooked in a wood-fired oven and using the best of Kent produce, but also for the many accolades it has received, including inclusion in the Guardian´s “top 10 budget restaurants.” This place boasts really great tasting and authentic pizza served by a friendly staff, with good local beers and all in a relaxed and casual atmosphere (it’s small so booking is advisable).
It too sources locally wherever possible and also has a “special pizza”, proceeds from which go to a brain tumour cancer charity, an issue close to the heart of owner Lisa Richards. The importance of the area’s long and rich maritime history was recognised by King George IV when he awarded Ramsgate its harbour Royal status – a unique accolade in mainland Britain.
But if you’re looking for a short winter break – or just to do a spot of sales shopping – the area is a great choice for lots of other reasons. Just down from Ramsgate, for instance, is Walmer Castle which commemorates some key political figures in the area’s history, including the Duke of Wellington who resided here after defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.At the nearby Hornby visitor centre, you can relive the story of Britain’s best loved toys. It has some fascinating displays, featuring rare products from the Hornby, Scalextric, Airfix and Corgi archives.
For people travelling from Belgium, this part of the UK is the main point of entry to England and, especially for military-minded folk, 2019 is a particularly good time to visit. The coming year marks 80 years since the start of WWII, of which Thanet has a number of connections – Ramsgate Tunnels, the RAF Manston History Musuem and the Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum and their Spitfire simulator.
Getting to Kent from Brussels and the rest of Belgium is relatively easy, with leading ferry operator DFDS by far the most popular choice for mainland Continental travellers. Northern Europe’s largest shipping and logistics company, DFDS is an award winner (the world’s leading ferry operator in the 2015 World Travel Awards) and has seen a huge rise in both passenger and freight traffic volumes on its Dover-Calais and Dover-Dunkirk routes.
It now has a second ferry, the Côte des Flandres, on its Dover-Calais service which has increased its daily schedule of sailings between Dover and Calais to up to 30. When combined with DFDS’ three ferries on the Dover-Dunkirk route, the company now operates six ships in total on the Dover Strait, with up to 54 daily sailings to the two French ports. For a small extra charge you can upgrade to enjoy the delightful and peaceful on-board lounge and very useful priority boarding.
Back in 1821, King George IV was particularly impressed by Ramsgate harbour as well as the warm welcome and hospitality he received. Today, visitors are assured a similarly friendly welcome and, whatever prompts you to come, Ramsgate and Thanet won’t disappoint.
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