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