Travel: Winter sunshine on the Kent coast
14:33 30 January 2015
Wonderful Whitstable shrugs off its ‘package holiday’ stereotypes to edge into Jon Dean’s list of potential home destinations
In my mind’s eye I’ve always filed Whitstable, along with neighbouring Margate, in the ‘UK seaside towns that lost their lustre with the advent of cheap package holidays and now have a kind of faded glamour’ bracket.
Not all my brackets have such long titles – another is ‘seafood destinations’ and, as luck would have it, Whitstable fits nicely into both.
Anywhere that’s been famous for its oysters since the Roman times when Julius Caesar (probably) took the old straight road down from Londinium for a night of shucking is alright by me.
Whatever the reason, a winter trip to the delightful Kent coast ensued, which these days takes about 30 seconds from St Pancras thanks to Southeastern’s ridiculously fast High-Speed service.
Despite that, due to leaving after work, we arrived in the dark, but eventually found a taxi rank (this is a far cry from Waterloo) and made our way to the ultra-funky Front Rooms, where we were staying. Part gallery, part bed and breakfast, the Front Rooms is run by a couple of former down-from-Londons (or DFL’s, as such people are semi-affectionately known by the indigenous population) who decided to set up shop on the coast full time for an easier pace of life.
And their time spent among the interior design maelstrom of the capital is very much reflected in the place: the three room hostelry is impeccably furnished and had us furiously jotting down notes of what to up-cycle and how to clad our own London peid-a-tierre.
After a brief history of the town and details of its hotspots from Tom (one half of the very amicable couple in charge), we set off into the windswept night in search of adventure.
The town itself is dominated by the incredibly cute Harbour Street: a winding, paved thoroughfare of independent shops with a disproportionate amount of vintage bric-a-brac stores. Those who’ve walked down Stoke Newington Church Street or Portobello Road would be in familiar territory – and the wife was in her element.
Little side streets snake off from Harbour Street at regular intervals, many hiding cosy little retreats. The Pearsons Arms was a perfect example, where we enjoyed icy fresh oysters and fish in wood-panelled comfort.
It’s a vibey kind of place – the nearby Prince Albert seemed to have live music on, and the delicatessen was serving up carafes of wine to folk on bar stools and managed to squeeze a three piece beat combo into the corner.
The following day, in crisp, brittle winter sun, we strolled along the wonderfully deserted pebble beach, past brightly coloured beach huts, onto a lovely little harbour. Golden light shimmered off the water, ships bobbed away and whelk sellers hawked their wares to passers-by; meanwhile arts and crafts types peddled their latest creations in little wooden huts.
Annoyingly this busy, thriving, captivating Saturday morning scene was dominated by a massive coking plant on the shore. I appreciate this is, or certainly was, necessary for the town’s survival, but in terms of quaintness, it’s a bit of a blight.
One end of the harbour leads, sensibly, to Harbour Street, while at the other, with a bit more effort, you can get up on a hill by the castle and admire a cracking, albeit blustery, view of the north sea.
Whitstable is certainly not short of good (though not cheap) places to eat, particularly if you like shellfish. The Lobster Shack is particularly famous for, well, lobsters; meanwhile at the Oyster Stores you can some of their renowned... you get the idea.
The long, thin layout of the town makes it ideal for a sightseeing stroll.
After a luxurious breakfast in bed on Sunday, for example, we set off, well-wrapped up, right from one end to the other.
Whitstable to St Pancras from £27.80 return
The Front Rooms
9 Tower Parade, Whitstable, CT5 2BJ
T: 01227 282 132
Rooms: from £130pn/£120pn for two or more nights
It’s hard to describe quite how many vintage shops we looked around that day – ranging from Cath Kidson charm to dusty old shops with owners as old as the stock. There was even a very well-attended vintage fare going on in a church hall – these people know their antiques. Suffice to say, despite a lot of browsing, nothing made it back on the train with us.
As ever after to a trip to somewhere nice within touching distance of the capital, the question was ‘could we move here?’ – along with some serious scrutiny of estate agents’ shop windows.
Although the tiny beach huts can go for an eye-watering £30,000, houses themselves seem pretty reasonable, especially compared to Hackney.
With great restaurants, boutique shopping and a live music-orientated night time scene (plus a eardrum-poppingly fast train to London), Whitstable has edged into my ‘potential home’ bracket.