Scalloped by rocky bays and riddled with narrow caves and secret tunnels… this is smuggling country all right. Not that, arriving at Margate on a summer’s day, you’d know it: sun worshippers pack the golden sands, kids flock to the amusements and painters hunch intently over easels in the shadow of the Turner Contemporary gallery. But in the late 18th-century, the Thanet coast was synonymouswith skullduggery.
Being rich in natural hideouts made the north Kent coast the perfect place for smugglers to ply their trade. One of the most successful – if length of career is anything to go by – was Joss Snelling, who gave his name to (or perhaps took it from) Joss Bay. Born in 1741, Snelling was still smuggling as an octogenarian: aged 89 he was fined £100 for his crimes. But he must surely have feared for his life in 1769, when revenue men ambushed him and his gang as they were unloading their contraband.
Snelling escaped, but many of them were captured and later hanged. Yet Snelling evidently achieved some kind of respectability late in life, even being presented to Queen Victoria as “the famous Broadstairs smuggler”.
Two bays and a castle
Walk or cycle the well-marked Viking Trail from Margate to Broadstairs and you’ll pass both Joss and Botany Bays (the name of the latter is believed to allude to the fate
of smugglers sentenced to deportation to Australia). Low-cruising gulls mew overhead, while the chalk grassland of the cliff top is bright with wildflowers.
Just beyond the Captain Digby pub lies the slightly improbable bulk of Kingsgate Castle, built in the 1760s for the folly-loving Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland, but has now been transformed into flats. More conventional in form is North Foreland lighthouse, which, until its automation in 1998, was the last manned lighthouse in the UK.
Not so bleak house
Once you’ve passed North Foreland it’s on to Broadstairs and the last stop on the trail: Charles Dickens’s house (admission charges apply).
This is where the author wrote David Copperfield and his study, with its enviable sea view, has been preserved. But, in its former guise as Fort House, this place was also a coastal observation station used to keep watch on suspicious vessels. A smuggling museum, complete with life-size models of Snelling and co, now occupies the building’s surprisingly extensive cellars.