Coordinates: 51°22′44″N 1°11′58″E / 51.3790°N 1.1995°E / 51.3790; 1.1995

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 whom were in caravans.


Reculver once occupied a strategic location on routes between continental Europe and the east coast of England, but sedimentation and coastal erosion have obscured its importance. In ancient times it lay on a promontory at the western entrance to the Wantsum Channel, a sea lane between the Isle of Thanet and the Kent mainland, that silted up during the Middle Ages. The Roman fort and medieval church stand on the remains of the promontory, now "a small knoll which, rising to a maximum height of 50 feet, is the last seaward extension of the Blean Hills." Place-name authorities state that the name "Regulbium" was Celtic in origin, meaning "at the promontory", or "great headland", and that, in Old English, this became corrupted to "Raculf", sometimes given as "Raculfceastre", giving rise to the modern "Reculver".

Sediments laid down around 55 million years ago are particularly well displayed in the cliffs at Reculver. Nearby Herne Bay is the type location for the Thanet Sand Formation, a fine-grained sand that can be clayey and glauconitic and is of Thanetian (late Paleocene) age. It rests unconformably on the Chalk Group, and forms the base of the cliffs in the Reculver and Herne Bay area. Above the Thanet Sand are the Upnor Formation, a medium sandstone, and the sandy clays of the Harwich Formation at the Paleocene/Eocene boundary. The highest cliffs, rising to a maximum height of about 115 feet (35 m) to the west of Reculver, have a cap of London Clay, a fine silty clay of Eocene age.

These rocks are easily washed away by the sea, and 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.

Pre-historic and Roman

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.

Towards the end of the 3rd century, a Roman naval commander named Carausius was given the task of clearing pirates from the sea between Britannia and the European mainland. In so doing he established a new chain of command, the British part of which was later to pass under the control of a "Count of the Saxon Shore". The "Notitia Dignitatum" shows that the fort at Reculver, then known as "Regulbium", became part of this arrangement. Archaeological evidence indicates that the fort was abandoned in the 360s.

Monastery and church

After the Roman occupation of Britain ended in about 410, Reculver became a seat of the Anglo-Saxon kings of Kent. King Æthelberht of Kent is said to have moved his royal court there from Canterbury in about 597, and to have built a palace on the site of the Roman ruins. While excavation has shown no evidence of this, and the story has been described as "probably no more than a pious legend", Anglo-Saxon kings were peripatetic, and the Roman remains at Reculver would have been "the only substantial building for miles around". A church was built on the same site in about 669, when King Ecgberht of Kent granted land for the foundation of a monastery there. This foundation "illustrates the widespread practice of re-using Roman walled places for major churches". Ten years later, in 679, King Hlothhere of Kent presided over a council at Reculver, attended by Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, at which he granted the monastery lands at Sturry, about 6.2 miles (10 km) south-west of Reculver, and in the western part of the Isle of Thanet, across the Wantsum to the east. In the original, 7th century charter recording this grant, Reculver is referred to as a "civitas", or "city". In 692 Reculver's abbot, Berhtwald, a former abbot of Glastonbury in Somerset, was elected Archbishop of Canterbury. Bede, writing no more than 40 years later, described him as having been "learned in the Scriptures and well versed in ecclesiastical and monastic affairs."

Monastic life had ceased at Reculver by the early 10th century, though whether or not this was due to the attentions of Vikings is unclear. The minster subsequently became St. Mary's parish church of Reculver: a charter of the mid 10th century records its gift by King Eadred of England into the possession of Canterbury Cathedral, at which time the estate included the later parishes of Hoath and Herne, land in Thanet, and land "at Chilmington for the repair of the church".

According to Domesday Book, in 1086 the Archbishop of Canterbury had an annual income from Reculver of £42.7s. (£42.35): this value can be compared with, for example, the £20 due to the archbishop from the manor of Maidstone, and the £50 due to him from the borough of Sandwich, both of which he also held. Included in the Domesday account for Reculver, as well as the church, farmland, a mill, salt pans and a fishery, are 90 villeins and 25 bordars: these numbers can be multiplied four or five times to account for dependents, as they only "relate to adult male heads of households".

Reculver remained an unusually large and valuable parish in the late 13th century, when it included chapels of ease at St. Nicholas-at-Wade and All Saints, on the Isle of Thanet, as well as at Hoath and Herne: in 1291, the "Taxatio" of Pope Nicholas IV put the total income due to the rector and vicar at about £130, and this wealth led to disputes between lay and Church interests, over control of its benefice.

Over time, the church gained structural additions: principally, the towers were added in the 12th century, and, according to local legend, they were topped with spires "in the early years of the 16th century", since when they have been known locally as the "Twin Sisters". The addition of the towers, and the extent to which the church was enlarged in the Middle Ages, suggest that "a thriving township must have developed nearby." However, the church retained many prominent Anglo-Saxon features, and, on a visit to Reculver in 1540, one of these raised John Leland to "an enthusiasm which he seldom displayed":

In 1927 archaeologists discovered the base of the cross, which has been dated to the early 7th century and thus predated the monastery. This may originally have been an open-air preaching cross like the Ruthwell Cross, around which the monastery was later built. In 2000 the surviving fragments of the cross, now at Canterbury Cathedral along with the base, were used to design a Millennium Cross to commemorate two thousand years of Christianity. This stands at the entrance to the car park and was commissioned by Canterbury City Council.

Loss to the sea

Recording his visit to Reculver in 1540, Leland wrote that it was then "withyn a Quarter of a Myle or litle more of the Se Syde The Towne at this tyme is but Village lyke." A map of about 1630 shows that the church itself then stood only about 500 feet (152 m) from the shore, and the village's failure to support two "beer shops" in the 1660s has been taken as "a clear indication of the dwindling population at the time." The village was mostly abandoned around the end of the 18th century, and a new church was planned a little to the west and further inland, at Hillborough. Consequently, the old church was no longer required:

Trinity House intervened to ensure that the towers were preserved as a navigational aid. In 1810 it bought what was left of the structure, and built the first groynes, designed to protect the cliff on which it stands. A storm destroyed the spires at a date prior to 1819, and Trinity House replaced them with similarly shaped, open structures, topped by wind vanes. These structures remained until they were removed at a date after 1928.

The demolition of this "shrine of early Christendom", and exemplar of Anglo-Saxon church architecture and sculpture, was otherwise thorough, and it is now represented only by the minimal ruins on the site, some fragments of the cross which had enthused Leland, and the parts of two massive stone columns. The cross fragments and column parts may be viewed in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral. The vicarage was abandoned at the same time as the church. 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.

Tourist resort

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. The image on the left shows that there was sufficient tourism in 1913 to support a cafe. 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.

Bouncing bombs

During the Second World War, the Reculver coastline was one location used to test Barnes Wallis's "bouncing bomb" prototypes. Different, inert versions of the bomb were tested at Reculver, leading to the development of the operational version known as "Upkeep". It was this bomb which was used by the RAF's 617 Squadron in Operation Chastise, otherwise known as the "Dambuster raids", in which dams in the Ruhr district of Germany were attacked on the night of 16–17 May 1943 by formations of Lancaster bombers, led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. On 17 May 2003, a Lancaster bomber overflew the Reculver testing site to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the exploit.

On 6 June 1997 it was announced on the BBC World News that four of the prototype bouncing bombs had been discovered at Reculver. Each weighing approximately 4 tons (4.1 tonnes), attempts were made to salvage them, as a result of which, one prototype is displayed in Herne Bay Museum and Gallery, a little over 3 miles (5 km) to the west of Reculver. Others are on display in Dover Castle and in the Spitfire & Hurricane Memorial Museum at the former RAF Manston, on the Isle of Thanet.


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.

Country park

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.

The new Reculver Centre for Renewable Energy and Interpretation opened in July 2009, marking 200 years of the moving of Reculver village. The centre features a log burner fuelled by logs from the Blean woodland and solar and photo voltaic panels to convert sunlight to energy. Displays and information describing the history, geography and wildlife of the area are available inside the centre.


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.

Crying Baby

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.

Twin Sisters

A story which has been told many times, incorporating varying details, but following essentially the same course, concerns the origin of a byname for the Reculver towers, as the "Twin Sisters". According to this, late in the 15th century there were two orphaned daughters of Sir Geoffrey St Clare, twin sisters named Frances and Isabella. Frances became prioress of the Benedictine priory of Davington, near Faversham, while Isabella remained a ward of Abbot John of St Augustine's Abbey, in Canterbury, who was the sisters' uncle. Isabella was then betrothed to Henry de Belville, but unfortunately he was fatally wounded when fighting for Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, in 1485. Isabella then joined her sister, "took the veil", and became a nun. Fourteen years later, Frances was taken ill. The sisters made a vow that, if Frances recovered, they would go on pilgrimage to give thanks at the Shrine of Our Ladye Star of the Sea in Broadstairs.

Frances recovered, so they set off on their promised pilgrimage. They sailed from Faversham, but their ship was caught in a storm and ran aground on a sandbank near Reculver called "The Horse". Frances was soon rescued, but Isabella was left on the wreck until daylight. Though she too was then rescued, she died of exposure in her sister's arms. Frances completed the vow to make offerings to the shrine at Broadstairs, and then restored Reculver church, also dedicated to St. Mary, adding spires to the towers, which were known thereafter as the "Twin Sisters".

A re-invention of the story is in the Ingoldsby Legends, where two brothers, named Robert and Richard de Birchington, are substituted for the two sisters.

Parramatta cathedral

The twin towers and west front of St John's Cathedral, Parramatta, in Sydney, Australia, which were added in 1817-1819, are based on the Reculver towers. A campaign to save Reculver church was under way when Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his wife Elizabeth left England in 1809. Mrs Macquarie showed Lieutenant John Watts, ADC of the 46th Regiment of Foot, a watercolour of Reculver church and asked him to design some towers for St John's in Parramatta. A watercolour of Reculver Church in the Mitchell Library section of the State Library of New South Wales has a note in Governor Macquarie's hand that he laid the foundation stone on 23 December 1818, and that Mrs Macquarie chose the plan and Lt Watts was responsible for implementing the design. A stone from Reculver was presented to St John's Cathedral by the Historic Building and Monuments Commission for England – now English Heritage – in 1990.

  • Jessup, R.F. (1936), "Reculver", Antiquity 10, ISSN 0003598X 


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