Reculver is a hamlet and coastal resort situated about 3 miles (5 km) east of Herne Bay in southeast England. It is a ward of the City of Canterbury district in the county of Kent. Reculver once occupied a strategic location at the western end of the Wantsum Channel, between the Isle of Thanet and the Kent mainland. This led the Romans to build a small fort, probably at the time of their conquest of Britain in 43 AD, and, starting late in the 2nd century, they built a “castrum” called Regulbium, which later was part of the chain of Saxon Shore forts. The military connection continued in World War II, when Barnes Wallis’ “bouncing bombs” were tested in the sea off Reculver.
Reculver retained its importance after the Romans left, as an Anglo-Saxon palace may have been built in the ruins of the Roman fort before a “preaching cross” and monastery were built there. During the Middle Ages the twin spires of the church became a landmark for mariners known as the “Twin Sisters”, supposedly after daughters of Geoffrey St Clare. The facade of St John’s Cathedral in Parramatta, Australia, is a copy of that at Reculver.
Reculver declined in importance as the Wantsum Channel silted up and coastal erosion claimed many buildings constructed on the soft sandy cliffs. The village was largely abandoned in the late 18th century, and most of the church was demolished. Protecting the ruins and the rest of Reculver from erosion is an ongoing challenge.
The 1930s saw a revival as a tourism industry developed and there are now three caravan parks. Reculver Country Park is a Special Protection Area and Site of Special Scientific Interest; it has rare clifftop meadows and is important for migrating birds. 135 people were recorded by the 2001 census, nearly a quarter of who were in caravans.
At Reculver the cliffs are eroding at a rate of approximately 5 feet (2 m) a year. It has been estimated that the Romans built their fort about 1 mile (1.6 km) from the sea. A plan is in place to manage this erosion whereby some parts of the coastline like the country park will be allowed to continue eroding, and others – including the site of the Roman fort and St Mary’s Church – will be protected from further erosion.
While Stone Age flint tools have been washed out from the cliffs to the west of Reculver, a Mesolithic tranchet axe was found at Reculver in 1960, but is “likely to have been a casual loss”. Evidence for human settlement at Reculver itself begins with late Bronze Age ditches, followed by an early Iron Age farmstead slightly to the west of the church ruins, a Roman “fortlet” probably dating to their conquest of Britain, which began in 43 AD, and a well known Roman fort, or “castrum”, which was probably started late in the 2nd century. This date is derived in part from a re-construction of a uniquely detailed plaque, fragments of which were found by archaeologists in the 1960s. The plaque effectively records the establishment of the fort, since it records the construction of two of its principal buildings, the “basilica” and the “sacellum”. These were also found by archaeologists, together with the commandant’s house, probable barracks, a bath house and a corn drying kiln. Presumably the fort was built at Reculver because of its strategic position at the northern entrance to the Wantsum Channel, and covering the mouths of both the River Thames and the River Medway. While it was normal for a Roman fort to be accompanied by a civilian settlement, or “vicus”, it is believed from “significant Roman structures and features” that at Reculver it was “extensive” and lay to the north and west of the fort, mostly in an area now lost to the sea.
When the Hoy and Anchor Inn fell into the sea, the redundant vicarage was used as a temporary replacement under the same name, until a new Hoy and Anchor Inn was built. The vicarage soon followed the original inn into the sea, and the new inn was re-named as the “King Ethelbert Inn” in the 1830s. It was later extended, probably in the 1880s, into the form in which it stands today.
In the census of 1801, the number of people present in the parish of Reculver was given as 252, and this figure remained roughly stable until the 20th century, when it increased dramatically: in the census of 1931, the number was given as 829. In the most recent census of 2001, however, only 135 people were found. Today the site of the church is managed by English Heritage, and the village has all but disappeared. New sea defences were built in the 1990s, including covering the beaches around the church with boulders, but the struggle to protect the towers from the sea continues. A visitor centre in Reculver Country Park, just west of Reculver church, highlights the archaeological, historical, geological and wildlife conservation value of the area.
Apart from the Roman and church ruins, Reculver today consists of the country park, a public house, The King Ethelbert free house, and a nearby shop and cafe, surrounded by three caravan parks. To the east, however, is an oyster hatchery belonging to the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company, from which young oysters are transplanted to the sea bed at Whitstable.
Reculver Country Park comprises a narrow strip of protected, cliff-top land about 1.5 miles (2 km) long, running from the remaining enclosure of the Roman fort and Reculver Towers west to Bishopstone Glen. The park is managed by Canterbury City Council in partnership with Kent Wildlife Trust and English Heritage. The park first won a Green Flag Award in 2005, and it is estimated that over 10,000 people visit the park each year, including up to 3,500 students for educational trips. Reculver Country Park is a Special Protection Area (SPA) and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), due partly to the thousands of birds that visit Reculver each year during their migrations from the Arctic. In winter Brent Geese and wading birds such as Turnstones may be seen, during the summer months Sand Martins nest in the soft cliffs, and wading Curlews may be seen at any time. The grasslands on the cliff top are amongst the few remaining cliff top wildflower meadows left in Kent, and are home to butterflies and Skylarks. Also present is the nationally scarce species of digger wasp Alysson lunicornis.
According to legend there is often heard the sound of a crying baby, in the grounds of the fort and among the ruins of the church. Archaeological excavations conducted in the 1960s within the fort revealed numerous infant skeletons buried under the walls of Roman structures, probably barrack blocks, from which coins were recovered from between c. 270 and 300 AD.