Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

“Are there any good pubs in Whitstable?”

The train conductor mutters something indecipherable as he hands a ticket back to the man asking questions. I’ve spent the last half hour trying my best to ignore the loud conversation of this questioner and his girlfriend from the safety of my seat a few rows back, but now my attention is piqued. Plus I’m somewhat interested in the answer.

“I don’t mean pop ups… we have those in London. You know, some traditional places. Anywhere with good fish and chips?”

The conductor screws up his face like he’s caught a whiff of the aforementioned fish. I get the impression he’s been asked this question too many times while riding the rails.

“Do you have a fat wallet?” he asks the passenger. “Are you a banker?”

These two are on a pre-Valentine’s Day trip and they’ve spent most of the train ride exclaiming over their McDonald’s Egg McMuffins. Something tells me they’re not planning to flash the cash today. Outside, rain splatters and streaks the scratched window as I hear the conductor recommending a pub called The Ship.

“Are you a lager boy, are you?” The guy says he prefers ale and the conductor nods sagely, but offers no further suggestions. He’s clearly finished with the conversation even though the ale drinking pub aficionado isn’t. Trying in vain to keep them talking, I hear him pipe up with, “You’re not exactly filling our hopes up with recommendations for Whitstable..!”

I’m intrigued by this guy – his cocky exterior versus the boyish eagerness of a stranger’s influence over his day at the British coast. Maybe he really is a banker; maybe it’s his first day off in weeks, or their anniversary, or their first Valentine’s Day together.

Why have they decided to go to Whitstable? And why, for that matter, have I?

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

If I’m honest, I blame Bill Bryson.

Thanks to spending most of the past week reading ‘Notes From a Small Island‘, I suddenly felt struck with an inescapable need to explore more of my own country. No bad thing – except for when the typical February weather has left much of England in a cold, grey, interminably glum state.

But bad weather or not, being confined to my flat each day while I scribble away at my book manuscript is a surefire recipe for cabin fever. I’ve been feeling stressed and erratic about staring endlessly at a computer screen, not to mention lethargic. I needed to move, to be outside of myself.

I needed to walk.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

As soon as I’d made that connection, everything was simple – it just required a few evenings of impatiently Googling good hiking routes within easy access of London. I knew I was missing the sea; needing a wide open expanse in front of me to breathe in and feel invigorated by.

And thanks to the joys of people’s eager suggestions on Twitter, I happened upon Whitstable.

Early on Saturday morning, I successfully missed two connecting trains and threw myself into the third as it pulled out of Victoria station. My eyes roved the backs of the seats and the shadowy parts of the carriage, but I couldn’t see a plug socket anywhere. Somewhat problematic, seeing as I’d forgotten to charge my phone the night before – although also wryly appropriate as it literally forced me to switch off for the day.

Airplane mode on and screen brightness turned way down, I took my Kindle out of my backpack instead and settled into the journey towards the coast.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

A good dose of British sea air

Although I’d done minimal research before arriving, it was a happy surprise to discover that Whitstable is actually a pretty famous town.

Centuries of oyster farming put this working harbour and fishing port firmly on the map, particularly in the 1850s when fishermen had oyster boats set permanently on the sand bank, catching the eighty million oysters that were sent to Billingsgate Market in London each year.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Nowadays, thanks to Whitstable’s annual Oyster Festival, a series of wonderfully named narrow alleyways, and the rows of brightly coloured, adorably quaint converted fisherman’s huts lining the seafront – one of which even made it into the Saatchi Gallery, thanks to its artist owner Tracey Emin – thousands of tourists regularly flock to this stretch of pebbly English beach.

Head down to Whitstable on a rainy day in early February, however, and there are a few less visitors.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Now, I’m British born and bred: a quality that supposedly means I’m adept at both talking about and dealing with bad weather. For most of my life I didn’t think the latter was at all true, but since walking two hundred kilometres through Spain with sweat dripping off my nose I’ve begun to appreciate the hidden joys of a hike in miserable weather.

Being doused by freezing cold rain while striding along beside the sea in Whitstable is a perfect example. For one thing, that sense of openness I’d been craving was more than abundant: I had the whole coast laid out in front of me with barely anyone around to interrupt the views and the quiet.

Cockles, mussels and oyster shells galore…

As I walked along the shoreline, the sea’s detritus began to reveal itself. Half shattered crab claws lay strewn on the harbourside; splintering wooden oars propped up against doorways; huge mounds of oyster shells spilling out from plastic boxes.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

I began to notice the little seafaring details dotted around the landscape, each one carefully created and displayed by someone living in Whitstable.

Weathervanes topped by little sailboats and early spring daffodils battling in vain against the elements; seashell decorations painted silver and tiny model lighthouses sequestered on second floor windowsills.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

The more I wandered, the more I started getting rather jealous of people who live so close to the water and who have the luxury of using flotsam and jetsam to decorate their houses.

The people who I occasionally met were out walking their dogs, pushing prams with babies swaddled in layers of fleece, carrying toddlers on their shoulders. Everyone seemed at ease with the pouring rain: hoods up, gloved hands jammed into pockets as they walked steadily onward.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Despite the rain, I realised I hadn’t been taking photos for weeks and I missed it. Soon my camera was tucked just inside my coat and I kept wrenching off my gloves to take shots with chilly fingers, quickly pressing them to the back of my neck before they went totally numb.

And just when I thought I might have been done with photography, I came across the fishermen’s huts.

A burst of colour amongst the grey

They sat in a neat little row, flanking the pathway and set just in front of the stoney grey sea. Each one I passed was more flamboyantly coloured and patterned than the next, and I fell hopelessly in love with every single one of them.

Although something tells me that the fishermen who once used these huts to store their nets and tackle wouldn’t have been quite so keen on the current colour schemes…

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

As the colours went to my head and I preoccupied myself with choosing my favourite fishermen’s hut to theoretically move into, the rain steadily turned into a downpour. Soon it was time to hightail it to the nearest pub for a plate of scampi, chips, and salad, where I could honestly taste the ocean in each bite of the fish.

I felt pretty damn smug.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Darker and colder – but a great deal clearer

The light was beginning to fade when I made it back outside to the coastline. The rain and wind were both much stronger as I joined the straggled groups of other walkers and we moved toward the lights of the Old Neptune pub on the horizon, battling our way through the elements.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Eventually, I arrived back into Whitstable’s high street, where the rain reflected the streetlights and everything felt cosy, even in the downpour.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Whitstable isn’t necessarily the most beautiful of places, particularly not in bad weather – but it was exactly what I needed that weekend. To spend the day outside and apart from my technology, breathing in cold air through a red nose while the seagulls soared overhead.

I never used to think of myself as someone who loved nature, and I didn’t grow up with that undefinable tug towards the water, to the coast. But there’s something so unbelievably free and satisfying about just walking and walking without a plan. Without thinking.

Just me, the wind, the rain and the open sea.

Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

Do you go walking beside the sea to shake yourself up a bit? Have you ever taken a spontaneous trip somewhere close to home?

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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11 Responses to Clearing My Head in the Winds of Whitstable

  1. Michelle February 19, 2016 at 3:27 am #

    Such a wonderful walk I just had with you, thank you! I love walking the beach, I am down at the sea 4-5 times a week all year long. This time of year there is great sand erosion and the treasure hunting is fabulous. There’s nothing like it, and I love to say hello to folks who’s hands are full to overflowing with their precious finds.

    The rhythm of the waves meditates us, the water and sand and the smell are amazing. …my dog runs huge circles and I just laugh and love it all. There’s no place I’d rather be. ♡♡♡

    • Flora February 19, 2016 at 10:54 am #

      That sounds fantastic Michelle! You’re so lucky to be that close to a seafront. If I knew there was somewhere treasure-hunting worthy on the UK coast I’d totally do the same :p

  2. veena lives her life. February 19, 2016 at 4:58 am #

    This sounds like my perfect weekend. This was pretty much how I spent my 4 days in Galle last year — it was raining then as well, but I threw on my raincoat and walked for hours along the fort wall and along the streets within the walls, loving being on my own and exploring at my own pace.

    I am also filing this away for a little pipe dream I have — sometime in the next few years I want to spend a few months just exploring the various UK coastlines, beginning in England and working my way up through Wales and eventually Scotland. It’s something that has been in the back of my mind for a while, and it keeps popping to the forefront with more and more regularity these days, so I will definitely be coming back to you for some tips once I get a little more into the practicalities of it.

    Out of curiosity, where did you stay while you were in Whitstable? Thanks!
    xx

    • Flora February 19, 2016 at 11:03 am #

      There’s something so satisfying about walking alone in the rain – and I’m glad other people get it! Your pipe dream sounds lovely, Veena, and something I’d love to do too. I think Whitstable would be a great stop along the way! I didn’t actually stay overnight so can’t give you any tips, although you could always rent a fisherman’s hut for the night!

  3. Sharon Burke February 19, 2016 at 11:08 am #

    Hi there Flora…always love reading your work…can’t wait to hear about your trip to the Arctic once you return. As I write this, I have once more returned to Medellin ….all is well in Los Montañas . .here since mid January…moving on next week…Safe travels
    S

    • Flora February 24, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

      Thanks so much Sharon – I can’t wait to get to the Arctic either! Best of luck with your return to Medellin and wherever you head onwards to next 🙂

  4. Jessi (@2feet1world) February 29, 2016 at 8:17 am #

    Wow those colours are incredible! I love being by the sea, even in this sort of weather it certainly blows the cobwebs away. And there’s something so meditative about the waves. Beautiful shots.

  5. Katie Bell March 3, 2016 at 4:14 am #

    You have actually made me miss the grey rainy days of the UK! I visited Whitstable in Summer a few years back, biking there for the day from Canterbury. I happened to visit during the Oyster Festival which was a lot of fun then we biked along the coast to Herne Bay. It really is quite beautiful in the sunshine.

  6. Gina March 10, 2016 at 4:29 pm #

    Whitstable fish and chips are some of the best in the world – in my opinion, of course.

    How d’you decide on your next destination, is it literally throw a dart at a map like in the movies or is there some kind of method. I’m so interested in travelling but it’s something that scares me massively too.

    With my feet still firmly on UK soil I’ve been involved with the launch of a relatively new travel website – http://www.triporia.com – which allows users to view the surroundings at their chosen accommodation. Personally we’ve found it takes away a lot of the anxiety of landing in an area completely unknown so we’ve been asking travellers if they’d be willing to take a look.

    If you’re able to, thanks in advance. 🙂

    • Flora March 12, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

      Well, my plate of Whitstable scampi was certainly delicious :p I don’t have a specific method for deciding on my next destination – it’s usually a mix of the time & money I have available, and somewhere I’m interested in exploring!

  7. sometimeswithrene March 20, 2016 at 7:07 pm #

    I used to love Whitstable. I still love it in the winter, but it’s no where near as authentic as it was 20 years ago, that’s a shame but I guess things move on and the little craft shops in the beach huts by the quay are awesome. I’d like to say check out nearby Reculver, but I don’t want that secret out too 😉

    Karen x

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