This is an extended version of an article by David Mairs, CPRE Kent campaigns and PR manager, that appeared in the most recent edition of Kent Voice
In a previous life as chairman of CPRE Thanet, I was supported by a small but stoic group of volunteers who battled all weathers and circumstances to help keep the district group alive.
One of them was Eileen Randall, who also helped create the Pegwell & District Association, a member of CPRE Kent. This piece pays tribute to the kind of volunteer so important to what we do.
On first mention, it might seem an irony that the founder of an organisation devoted to the protection of arguably Thanet’s finest stretch of coastline hails from somewhere about as inland in this country as you can get.
But then again, when you learn a little of the family background, everything falls into place.
Eileen Randall was born in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and educated in Bedford, but it was her father’s love of the sea that brought this woman who would play a such a role in the protection of Pegwell Bay to east Kent.
“My father was an old sailor in the Merchant Navy and he had always wanted to live by the sea,” said Eileen.
“We were living in Bedford during the war, but afterwards my father immediately looked for a property here – and one in Ramsgate took his fancy.”
So for William Pangbourne and wife Emily life was about to take a sharp turn as they moved to the golden isle (or Thanet, as it is also known) in 1946.
Buying a guest house, Allandale, in North Avenue, the couple utilised the catering skills they had developed during their time running a restaurant in St Albans.
Living the dream certainly, but the lure of nearby Pegwell was too strong and the family’s association with the bay was set in train when the property that was ultimately to evolve into Eileen’s Driftwood home came on the market.
“The coastal areas that had been closed to the public during wartime were opened up again,” said Eileen, now 88. “Land was being released by the Army and being put up for auction through Daltons Weekly.
“The building we’re in now was built on the ruined foundations of the old coastguard station – a long, narrow building divided into little rooms with a passage down one side. The blockhouse next door was the armoury, with 2ft-thick walls with slits that you could just about peep out of. There were rolls and rolls of barbed wire and deep slit trenches – it took about a year to clear it all.”
Eileen sold teas and home-made cakes on the lawn at the front, and with help from her father managed to save enough for the deposit for the bungalow to be built. She slept in an old army pillbox as all the work was going on.
“We called it Driftwood, which was appropriate because we used to get wood washed up at the bottom of the cliff.”
Work began on the bungalow in 1960, but other aspects of Eileen’s life had also been moving apace: in December 1951 at St George’s Church in Ramsgate she married Derek, who had just been demobbed from the Army, specifically the Household Cavalry based at Windsor.
It was all hands to the pump, meanwhile, as the family established themselves in Thanet, Derek taking on a range of jobs locally before travelling up and down to Luton as he re-engaged with his former work at Vauxhall Motors. Like most ex-servicemen, Derek had difficulty settling to a civilian life.
With Eileen and Derek’s sons Christopher, born in 1953, and Julian (1954) on the scene, everything seemed rosy in the garden, but there were dark clouds on the horizon.
It was in the late 1980s that plans were revealed for a railway line cutting through Pegwell Bay and the West Cliff foreshore to Ramsgate harbour.
Linked with the expansion of the harbour and the construction of a new port and breakwater, the line would cross fields from a junction with the present line and break through the cliffs in a cutting where The Pegwell Bay Hotel still looks out over its gardens to the shore.
Paradise was in danger of being lost.
“People were up in arms about it,” said Eileen, a woman who was never going to engage simply in some wild waving of limbs, physical or metaphorical. The fight was on.
The first move was the creation in April 1987 of the Pegwell & District Association after about a hundred folk had gathered on the lawns of Driftwood to discuss a response to the scheme.
Eileen was the principal driver, aided and abetted more than ably by Jacqui Williams and Mike Houghton.
The plans for the railway line were beaten off as Pegwell residents flexed their muscles as well as their powers to have fun… for this was no collection of hatchet-faced moaners with a taste only for gloom and doom.
Instead, as the association looked to raise both funds and awareness, Driftwood hosted regular garden parties and meetings, while there were outings to more distant parts and annual summer fairs throughout the ’90s… it there was an upside to the battle forced upon the bay and its denizens, it was the strengthening of social ties between a range of people brought together in a common cause.
It is, sadly, a fact of life in our part of the world that the savouring of any victory for the environment is only ever short-lived – there will invariably be another threat rearing its ugly head before very long.
And sure enough, a new road was now proposed, to be built in a similar cutting through the cove next to the hotel.
Another fight, another victory, this time a government inspector throwing out the plans at public inquiry, encouragingly on the grounds of nature conservation.
Encouragingly… and remarkably, as it was the discovery of a rare algae on the cliffs that won the day. Needing the sea splashing on it to ensure its survival, a new road would have jeopardised that process and of course the future of this little-known species.
Again, though, there was soon another plan to be fought, this time for a road tunnel through fields opposite Chilton and emerging on the lower promenade.
The association objected due to the intrusion into the fields and the imposition of traffic on the undercliff, but, as developers and their friends in local government know, if they keep hammering away long enough ultimately the wishes of local people and the value of the environment they seek to protect can be overcome.
Another public inquiry was held, with the result that a publicly-funded tunnel and road to the harbour was to be built.
It was, in a way, a defeat, but the general feeling among residents was that the newly-accepted scheme represented the best of a bad job… certainly Pegwell had escaped the horrors of a road or railway line wrecking its fragile environment.
“It’s absolutely a very special place,” said Eileen. “The wonderful wildlife that’s here and the fact that we have one of the few unspoilt cliff-faces in Thanet… it gives great pleasure to many people.
“The thought of a railway or a road along the bottom of the cliff was dreadful. It wasn’t ideal itself, but we preferred the idea of a tunnel and in the end had to go along with that.
“We weren’t against the port, but we were against developing the bay.”
Today Eileen’s health doesn’t allow her to be involved with the association, but son Chris has inherited her love of Pegwell and an awareness of the fact that its beauty can’t be taken for granted.
“There’s a constant threat,” he said. “There are so many people wanting to do something to the place, wanting to develop it.
“I remember two of our neighbours getting very ill fighting the threat of development – one of them died as a result of the stress of it all.”
So many giving so much for Pegwell, while, aside from the public inquiries and battles with well-heeled developers, there were also any number of minor, unpublicised tussles to be had, as Chris recounts:
“I can recall Mum getting up and racing down the lane every time she heard someone dumping rubbish to give them a mouthful. ‘You can pick that up and take it back where it came from!’ she would tell them.
“She was so well known locally – I remember well the councillor who said ‘You don’t upset Mrs Randall!’.”
The Pegwell association still fights the corner of this wonderful place, but Chris can not help but remark upon a change in both demographic and attitude.
“There are threats to this area as we speak, but also we’ve got so many people from outside buying properties and renting them out to others who might only be here for a short time and are not interested in protecting what we have.”
If the future is, as ever, unclear, one thing is certain: Pegwell needs its district association. Without Eileen, of course, there would be no association… and Pegwell itself would in all probability be a very different, and sorrier, place.
We might also reflect that, without her efforts to foil the misguided efforts of our local authorities, the Viking ship Hugin would almost certainly not be in its traditional place on Pegwell cliff-top.
That’s a story for another time, but for now we’ll simply pay tribute to a special person who fought for a special place.
Eileen lost Derek, whose role in putting together and distributing the association newsletter should not go without mention, in February 2015 at the age of 88, but her love and passion for Pegwell remains undimmed.
Driftwood has had some important visitors over the years. In September 1940, Winston Churchill arrived with military chiefs to inspect the Pegwell battery as part of his tour of south-east England’s coastal defences.
What this country’s arguably most famous Prime Minister could not have known was that a defensive HQ of a very different kind would one day be established nearby.
It was of course from here that Eileen and Derek Randall led the fight against the ravages of developers who seemingly knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Those who love Pegwell owe Eileen Randall a lot.
Monday, April 23, 2018