Across the Thames from Essex, east of London and north of Canterbury, this town is built around fishing, tourism and tarmacadum. It is famous for oysters, sunsets and real ale. Where on earth?
Actually, no prizes. The only mystery is why, with a CV like that, it took us so long to get to Whitstable. But eventually, we did. It proved to be an enormously diverting pleasure.
This was 2013 and we were meeting up again with Mrs A’s good friend Jan and partner Ian after an inexplicable 15 year gap. How does this stuff happen? The intervening period had seen them retire, become grandparents and relocate to this gem of a town in north Kent.
Sat by the harbour, Mrs A and Jan had a decade and a half to catch up on, whilst Ian and I admired the refreshing and very obvious mix of real industry rubbing shoulders with assorted retail and leisure opportunities. Fish processing, coal and timber transport businesses were cheek-by-waterside jowl with restaurants, craft and gift stalls and an excellent fish market. This interesting juxtaposition explained why we were all misty eyed over a fully working original Thames barge tied up on the jetty whilst Daughter No 2 was buying a pink and white woolly unicorn hat from an adjacent shop.
The harbour was built in 1832 as a railway terminus for the "Crab and Winkle" line (I’d say the North Kent Tourist Board had a hand in the naming process) to Canterbury. Incredibly, and I have checked, it was the third passenger railway ever built and the first in the World to transport customers on a regular basis. A sharp poke in the eye to the Victorian powerhouses of the industrial north, then.
Back from the shingle beach held firm by a flood gate, our friends’ a vintage clothing shop run by our friend's daughter was squeezed into a row of weatherboard shacks, cutesy craft huts and holiday homes. Cue more catching up. The row was also home to a couple of decent looking pubs. Thank the Lord! Another delicious hour slipped by quaffing Whitstable Bay IPA procured from The Quayside.
Later, mooching around the town we stumbled upon a record shop selling vinyl where I exclaimed with joy on finding some pristine UFO 7” picture discs. The shopkeeper grinned at the prospect of forthcoming purchases. “No, no, I’ve already got them. I'm just delighted to see them here!” His smile fell, replaced by utter bewilderment. The main shopping street was busy and crammed with many other independent shops. It’s easy to see how the place appeals to visitors from cosmopolitan London, only an hour or so up the M20.
Later still, after good food and better conversation, it fell to Jan and Mrs A to safely see in the early hours: revisiting old haunts, old jobs and older friends; nostalgia the oxygen of the conversation and red wine its lubricant.
Next day, we headed out to The Old Neptune Inn for a swift pint before lunch. The pub, known as the Neppy, claims to be the only one in England actually built on the beach. At least two earlier incarnations of the boozer had been wrecked by the elements. The warped floor and twisted beams of this one, dating from the last days of the 19th century, were testament to its travails against battering north-easterlies.
Lunch could not be anything other than seafood in a town that holds an annual oyster festival. We navigated to the Lobster Shack via East Quay bounded by an industrial estate on one side and the imposing tarmac works on the other. This part of Kent was amongst the first in the country to adopt ‘blacktop’ roads. I asked Ian if he was taking us to the factory canteen for a bacon butty lunch. But just around the corner the road ran into the beach outside the restaurant as if it was the only possible destination. We found seats at a long refectory table in the busy open-plan barn next to full length sea-view windows. Over fantastic moules marinieres, rock oysters and prawns, Jan showed me her stunning sunset photos taken from in front of the shack. A quirk of this town on the east coast of England was that the geography of the bay gave a gorgeous westerly facing aspect.
Walking back, the wind had begun blowing with serious intent. Several moored dinghies had capsized at the mouth of the harbour and the kite-surfers were zipping over the foam at astonishing speed. The day was clear enough to spot old and new technology shimmering on the horizon together. An expansive wind farm out in the estuary was strung out beyond the spidery shapes of the Maunsell Sea Forts looking like outtakes from the final scenes in War of the Worlds. They were in fact hangovers from World War II where they provided platforms for anti-aircraft guns. The barge we saw earlier could be hired to run trips out there.Such was the success of our first visit to Whitstable that we returned a couple of years later with friends to celebrate one Easter and two birthdays in a tall, thin house close to the seafront. Close, indeed, to the aforementioned Neppy.
The house had four bedrooms. More than adequate for the four of us, plus our friend Julie and her son Callum. Callum, however, didn’t need any of them. In some crazy dare-bet with Daughter No 2, he had accepted a challenge not to sleep in any the bedrooms on any night of our stay, in return for the sum of £2. I’ll hold my hand up to any amount of mug punting, but even I would struggle to squeeze the value out of such a transaction.
His four nights, then, were spent in an upstairs linen cupboard, a downstairs utility room, a cloakroom over the cellar and the back of our car.
Callum went on to claim a further £2 from my spendthrift daughter by fearlessly wading out into the April sea up to his neck. Paying up, she said “Hmm. I wanted to see a bit more pain, really.”
We had stunning weather during our stay. Long walks along the beach whilst the dog exercised us. And longer walks back into the estuary headwind. The Sportsman out west by Seasalter provided a fine respite stop. The food looked amazing. Locally sourced everything, mostly out of the sea. It’s popular though. One would need to book a good year or so in advance to get a lunch table in one of the windows overlooking the bay. We hadn’t. Next time maybe. We settled for pints of decent ale supped on the sea break overlooking the bay.
As if the Neppy’s fame as the only English pub to be built on the beach was not enough, it was also served by Harvey’s brewery. Joy unconfined. Considering this was Shepherd Neame’s backyard there was a real danger of supping nothing all week except stale pints drawn straight from the estuary and filtered to the pumps through a mucky duster. I’m not Shepherd Neame fan. Local Whitstable brewery fare was also enjoyed in the Pearsons Arms, as was Adnams in the Oyster Shack of our earlier visit (reputedly the only shack in England to be actually built on a beach… oh no, maybe not.)
Herne Bay is a quieter, traditional resort found east of Whistable after a rewarding but longish step along the cliff top path from its hip neighbour. Where Whitstable is cosmopolitan shabby-chic, Herne Bay boasts a dollop of Edwardian elegance in its handsome promenade and a tidy pier. I do like a tidy pier. Mrs A and I had left the rest of the gang behind and felt like we had much of the town to ourselves that late Sunday morning. We smashed up a fantastic brunch in a welcoming café at the pier foot. The sort of place that would have been rammed a few miles west.
|Amy Johnson, pioneering aviator, crashed off Herne Bay|
Every time I come to this corner of Kent I like it more and more. My only complaint at the time was the lack of reliable internet access. I’m sure it is all sorted now. Even then, part of me was all for low-fi-get-away-from-it-all breaks. Except when I needed to make crucial, possibly life-changing transfers in the jumps’ season Twelve To Follow competition. Going in to the Aintree Festival I was leading the competition, with a hungry pack snapping at my heels. I was feeling confident, too. However, my inability to access web-based research into the stats, entries, forums, and general e-banter about the forthcoming Aintree meeting eventually lost me the prize. Right there. Only I didn’t know it at the time.
Packing up for home, I was doing a last sweep for dirty socks and hidden glasses upstairs when I missed out a step between the loft bedrooms. I went down like a novice chaser at Becher’s Brook, smashing my cranium in to the door. I could feel the sinews in the back of my neck crackle as my head was thrust back. It. Really. Hurt.
I had only two thoughts. The first, as I looked at the blood smeared door panel was, ‘I hope we get our damage deposit back’; and the second was, ‘I hope I don’t get concussion that stops me going to Aintree’. On the way home the girls were told to keep poking me in case I fell asleep.
It was all fine in the end and I even had a couple of winners up in Liverpool. Although I did have a nice big bruise to go with the tan: a wind-burned bonce topped off with a door-kissed forehead. That season’s winning combination.
Our exploration of the north Kent coast rolled into early 2020 for a visit on one of the last weekends before Coronavirus brought about a nationwide lockdown.
“Oh, this will be a good year”, said Mrs A.
1970? I doubted it. Paul Gambaccini was bigging up the likes of Pickettywitch and Judy Collins in a post-Beatles, pre-Glam edition of Pick of the Pops. A dead zone for music. A Dark Age akin to the Romans leaving Britain. A void filled by drivel like Brotherhood of Man and Peter, Paul and Mary until we were saved by the 1066 watershed of T Rex and Slade. (I offer you the Ladybird guide to popular music and medieval history in one handy publication...)
Radio 2’s long running chart retrospective was filling the car with pap as we headed to the coast for some fresh air. Mrs A knew every word of every song, whilst I was bleating on about the shallow quality and inane content. Even Elvis let me down. I’d never heard ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ before, but what a cast iron crock of indigestible sentimental soup that is. The chorus saw me with my head in my hands: ‘Daddy, you've still got me and little Tommy/And together we'll find a brand new mommy’. Even Mrs A winced. “OK, so this isn’t his finest moment.”
Coronavirus was obviously beginning to take grip of the country. We could see snippets of evidence with our own eyes. For instance, the roads were suspiciously quiet. I can’t recall the M25 ever being so tame in the middle of a Saturday. Mrs A was worried that we would get to our destination before the 1970 chart reached its zenith. I was not.
This was the weekend before the Cheltenham Festival and I was constantly expecting Coronavirus to result in its cancellation. Italy had already entered lockdown. Events elsewhere were being cancelled. It was only matter of time, surely. A trip to the seaside was a bit of light relief.
As Mrs A tapped her foot to ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ by Steam, and then ‘Venus’ by Shocking Blue, I wondered what she would make of the Airbnb I had booked in Broadstairs. More distractedly, I also wondered why both those tracks had been covered by Bananarama in the 80’s. I speculated that Keren, Siobhan and the other one that no-one can remember, sat down to plan their next ditties in one of the three houses they had bought together on the same street in north London. One of them undoubtedly said, “I know! Let’s just pick one chart from a week at random and cover everything in the top 10!” And that’s what must have happened. 7th March 1970 was that chart and over a number of years, they released their covers. Only these two became hits, obviously. I guess the other bilge failed to trouble the scorers.
Back to thoughts of the evening’s accommodation, which was beginning to exercise me. I had failed to book the fine hotel overlooking Botany Bay, north of Broadstairs, because they had no pet-friendly rooms left. Undaunted, I found a couple of town centre Airbnb gaffs that would happily host us and our hound. One place stood out. All the reviews used words like ‘quirky’, ‘individual’ and ‘eclectic’. Excellent, I thought as I snapped up a bargain, courtesy of Janice, the host.
We would soon realise that the website’s gallery didn’t come close to portraying the real vibrancy of Janice’s abode. The pics were, nevertheless, enough to spook Mrs A. Too late, I’d already booked. She shared the listing with Daughters 1 and 2 who were suitably horrified by snaps of the ‘busy’ décor, floor to ceiling shelves packed with ceramic bric-a-brac and walls crowded with framed art.
We hit out-of-town shopping centre traffic west of Ramsgate as I was marvelling at the insight and philosophical depth of Peter Noone’s insipid vocal on a 1970 Herman’s Hermit hit. Cop this wisdom: ‘Years may come/Years may go/Some go fast/Some go slow’. Genius.
The traffic snarl up meant Mrs A got her wish. We were parking up in Broadstairs as Gambaccini gave an undeserved build up to Lee Marvin’s gawd-awful chart-topper from that forgettable week, a dirge-like, teeth-grating rendition of ‘Wandrin Star’. I rested my case and indeed Mrs A had nothing further to say.
Although, funnily enough, she found her voice again when we entered the cottage. Descriptions of the place emptied our collective thesaurus: unusual, eccentric, peculiar, idiosyncratic, characterful, disturbing…just plain weird.
Actually, the place was also fantastic, imaginative, funny, unique and out-of-the-ordinary. I couldn’t decide whether the shelf packed full of Virgin Mary statuettes was more troubling than the inflatable moose’s head fixed above our bed. Or the papier mache mer-man hanging in the bathroom more unsettling than the black and pink floral wallpaper. It was a real house though. Janice lived there when she had no bookings, so it felt homely, comfortable and cosy. There was no telly, so we necked red wine and played Scrabble, overlooked by a ghoulish portrait gallery. I lost. Again.
Broadstairs offered up all the fresh air we craved, and plenty more besides. The coastline between Ramsgate and North Foreland is particularly attractive with chalk cliffs shot through with streaks of sandstone giving way to half a dozen coves and inlets filled with the golden sand you only see in filtered holiday brochure pics. Viking Bay at the foot of the town’s main street was lined with enough hotels, houses, shops, restaurants and pubs to give a fair impression of a well preserved Victorian resort.
Back up the hill and past the train station, we stumbled upon a fantastic pub, carved out of a stone-flag floored stable, serving real ale and cider straight from barrels piled up behind the bar. I’ve added Broadstairs to the list of seaside towns I’m trying to persuade Mrs A that we should move to. Well, the cat’s well and truly out of the Whitstable bag.
The following Saturday we were on another car journey. This time to meet our friends Fay and Adrian for a dog walk-pub-lunch. Over a pint and a robust plate of ham, egg and chips, Adrian fixed me with an inquisitive demeanour and said “So let me get this right. You booked a cottage in Broadstairs packed full of strange art without telling Helen first. And then you took her to a pub in a stable that didn’t serve red wine? How are you here to tell the tale?” I had no answer, but offered to make myself available for any assistance they needed with future accommodation bookings.
On the way over I insisted we had The Planet Rock Years on the radio. Gambaccini had been kicked into touch since his woeful picks the previous Saturday. Mark Anthony was digging 1975. Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Pink Floyd. That was better.