I was in Brussels last week, a slow-burner of a city that rewards revisiting. When I first passed through – on a European Parliament study trip more than 20 years ago – I found it grey, sprawling and difficult to get a handle on. About a decade later, when staying with my brother (who then worked at the Law Society of Scotland office), I realised there was more to it than commission-branded buildings. I remember spending an afternoon at a museum devoted to the singer Jacques Brel. I was hooked.
On the outskirts of the city was the atmospheric Musée royal de l'Afrique centrale (Royal Museum for Central Africa), which a decade ago felt like being transported back to the early 1960s when the Belgian Congo was still a colony, previously the personal possession of King Leopold II, statues of whom stand all over the Belgian capital. When I visited, the museum clearly hadn't been properly updated in half a century, and a few hastily-constructed boards brought the story up-to-date. I read recently that it has finally been brought into the 21st century, with contemporary art from Central Africa now displayed alongside the original colonial exhibits.
Last week's visit was another study trip, and I couldn't help but think back to my first, when the UK's membership of the European Union was largely uncontested. I didn't have much down time between meetings, but I managed to revisit an evocative war memorial I remember seeing on an earlier visit – the Anglo-Belgian Memorial on Place Poelaert – which commemorates the Belgian people's support for British prisoners of war during the first world war. I was interested in the stonework, the handiwork of the Scottish modernist architect Thomas S Tait (of St Andrew's House fame), but most striking were the two sculpted figures by Charles Sargeant Jagger. The soldiers stand with arms folded, staring solemnly into the middle distance.
From Brussels I made my way to Broadstairs to catch up with friends from the Cardiff School of Journalism, another part of my life that belongs in the late 20th century. On Sunday morning I walked up Albion Road to find the childhood home of Sir Edward Heath, the prime minister who guided the UK into the then Common Market more than 46 years ago. Number 54 is a modest terraced house with a blue plaque between its two upstairs windows, noting the politician's birth there on 9 July 1916. At that time, Heath's father was a carpenter building air frames for Vickers and his mother a maid.
Indeed, Broadstairs was full of blue plaques, many of them recording connections with the late Sir Edward, even his membership of Broadstairs Sailing Club (1952-2005). Otherwise, the seaside town is best known for its Dickens connections. Bleak House was, well, bleak, with heavy chains sealing its handsome cast-iron fences; afternoon tea was advertised for an astonishing £19.99 per person. Closer to the seafront I tried and failed to look around a timber structure which claimed to have been the famous author's home. The board outside said it was open, but the entrance was firmly shut. 'That's where the mayor lives!' a passer-by told me.
Edward Heath went to school not in Broadstairs but neighbouring Ramsgate, having passed his 11-plus in order to attend Chatham House Grammar School, a massive red-brick building a short walk from the handsome railway station. The weather was clear if windy, so I walked along the coastal path from Broadstairs to Ramsgate, dodging the waves and sea spray that battered its concrete defences. At the Royal Harbour there were even more plaques, including one commemorating Sir Edward Heath opening the Ramsgate Maritime Museum (also closed) in 1984.
In its Victorian heyday, Ramsgate was one of several fashionable resorts on the Kent coast, and even had something of a European flavour. In the attractive Spencer Square stands a home occupied for a few months in 1876 by Vincent van Gogh, who worked as a teacher in the town. Then there was Karl Marx, who in 1880 took his ailing wife Jenny to Ramsgate in the hope of restoring her to health. Francis Wheen's biography concludes with Marx on the beach, cryptically asked by an American journalist 'What is?', to which the German philosopher replied simply: 'Struggle'.
Ramsgate, like Broadstairs and Margate, is said to be part of the 'Isle of Thanet', but just as Kansas City isn't actually in Kansas, the Isle of Thanet is not physically an island. A few hundred years ago, however, the incoming English Channel left an island of chalk on the east side of Kent, separated from the rest of the county by the Wantsum Channel. This was once up to two miles wide, crossed via a bridge or a ferry from Sandwich. Over time, it silted up and joined Thanet to the rest of Kent, leaving the remains of small harbours and quays in now land-locked villages. The geographical nomenclature, however, endures into the 21st century.
Long after this reunification came frequent contact with the continent. Another plaque at Ramsgate's Maritime Museum recorded those 'who went across the seas in the dark days of 1940' to rescue some 82,000 men from Dunkirk in 'numerous small vessels, pleasure craft and lifeboats'. And further down the coast lies the cracked, weed-infested concrete remains of what was once Pegwell Bay hoverport, where the shipping company Hoverlloyd operated a service to Calais. It later merged with the British Rail-operated Seaspeed to become Hoverspeed and moved to Dover. There, on my 10th birthday, my brother and I crossed to Calais, visiting the captain's deck as a celebratory treat.
The photograph at the top was taken in Brussels by David Torrance. It shows sculpted figures by Charles Sargeant Jagger