Cliffs, secluded coves, twinkling lights at sea – the smuggling heritage of the Thanet coast has provided a rich backdrop for thriller writers too. ‘Father of detective fiction’ Wilkie Collins (1824–1889) stayed with his friend and mentor Charles Dickens at The Royal Albion Hotel in Broadstairs in 1859 and was a frequent visitor to Ramsgate, particularly in the 1870s, where he joined the yacht club and loved to walk, fish and sail, as you can today. Also share the colourful sights of Ramsgate Week sailing regatta (annually in July), or ramble the Contra Trail along cliffs honeycombed with caves and tunnels used by 17th-century smugglers.
You can spot the blue plaques where Collins stayed in Ramsgate, living a secret double life that confirmed Jane Austen’s views of saucy seaside morality: 14 Nelson Crescent, where as Mr Collins he resided with his ‘housekeeper’ Caroline Graves, and 27 Wellington Crescent, where he became ‘Mr Dawson’ ensconced with his morganatic wife Martha Rudd aka Mrs Dawson and their children.
Ramsgate appears in several of Collins’ novels including The Fallen Leaves, in which suspicions that a wife is Up To No Good offer interesting parallels to real life. There’s a legend too that, struggling to find the title for an earlier novel, Collins took a long cliff-top walk; exhausted, he lay on the grass and looked up at North Foreland Lighthouse towering above him – and in a flash the name for his best-selling Victorian sensation novel came to him: The Woman in White.
Built in 1691, North Foreland was the last Trinity House lighthouse to be automated, in 1998, and today you can stay in two lovely former lighthouse keepers’ holiday cottages, offering a wonderful base for adventure. Stone Bay, for example, is perfect for rock pooling; it is also close to where John Buchan (1875–1940) found the title for what is acclaimed as the first modern spy thriller. The author came to the North Foreland in 1914 while his daughter was convalescing and, as the six-year-old little girl counted the steps down to the beach, Buchan hit on The Thirty-Nine Steps title. Richard Hannay, his all-action hero with a stiff upper lip, comes to Bradgate (modelled on Broadstairs) in the story’s finale and thwarts the German spy plot. The original steps have gone but you will surely recognise ‘the Ruff’ as North Foreland.
Meanwhile the prolific ‘Prince of Thriller Writers’ Dennis Wheatley (1897–1977) wrote extensively of the Margate area in his novel Contraband. As an eight-year-old, Wheatley had attended boarding school in Margate, where the headmaster would read Wilkie Collins to the boys on Sunday evenings. Years later, Wheatley sent his tough-but-suave hero Gregory Sallust – a major inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond – back here to foil a conspiracy of international espionage and smuggling. A night-time showdown with arch-traitor Gavin Fortescue leads to Quex Park, while one of the most hold-your-breath episodes sees an attempt to do away with Sallust and Inspector Gerry Wells in Pegwell Bay.
At Quex Park you can uncover amazing real-life derring-do in the fascinating Powell-Cotton Museum: featuring historic natural history dioramas of animals collected on expeditions to Asia and Africa, it includes a lion that attacked a honeymooning Percy Powell-Cotton in 1906 – Percy was saved by a quick-thinking gun bearer and a copy of Punch magazine, which he had thrust into the waistband of his trousers! Along the coast, the diverse chalk cliff and sand dune scenery of Pegwell Bay is internationally important for waders and wildfowl – as the birds take flight, so will your imagination, here and throughout Thanet.