Pedalling furiously along the paved promenade and enjoying the invigorating autumn air, I smiled at the thought that I’d not yet encountered any other weekending Londoners. It was a peaceful Sunday morning, and the only people out and about were walking dogs.
Most locals, I imagined, were still tucking into bacon and eggs, and the weekend papers. So much for the ‘Islington by the Sea’ stereotype; Whitstable was tranquil, pretty but not too pretty, and the shingle beach was as empty as Angel station is (always) full.
I was cycling my way towards Herne Bay, the humdrum seaside town a few miles to the east. The further along I went, the grittier it became and after a couple of hours I was ready for the ride back to quaintness.
I’d arrived in Whitstable on Friday afternoon after an 80-minute train trip from Victoria; several passengers in my carriage commuted to London every day. I’d booked into boutique B&B The Front Rooms, a Victorian terraced townhouse ten minutes’ walk from the station.
Sensing that I needed to wind down after a busy week, my hosts Julie Thorne and Tom Sutherland gave me a glass of chilled white wine, which I drank in the front room that doubles as a gallery space. After a sumptuous dinner at JoJo’s in Tankerton – a short stroll away along the front – and a nightcap at one of the seafront pubs, I was ready for sleep and snuggled happily into my plush double bed.
Cycling the Crab & Winkle Way
On Saturday I cycled to Canterbury, seven miles away, using the Crab and Winkle Way (www.crabandwinkle.org). The bike path links Whitstable with the historic cathedral city and follows the railway line that was in use for more than 120 years until 1952. It’s a scenic track that passes fields and woodland glades – it incorporates some fat-burning hills too.
Arriving in tourist-filled Canterbury, I decided to save a tour of the cathedral for another time, opting instead to amble around the small streets, through the gardens and along the ancient city walls, popping into some secondhand bookshops. Hunger getting the better of me, I bought bottles of cloudy apple juice, slices of homemade quiche and a tangy tarte au citron from the Goods Shed (www.thegoodsshed.net), a permanent farmers’ market just outside the city centre and, not wanting to miss the afternoon sun, hopped back on the bike and stopped for an impromptu picnic on the ride back.
Oysters and Chablis
No visit to Whitstable would be complete without at least one meal of oysters (in season from September until April). The town’s most famous oyster bar, Wheelers, is notoriously busy and it’s difficult to reserve a table, especially on a Saturday night. Taking a chance, I went in and was given a stool at the bar, where I polished off a dozen with a glass of crisp Chablis. Service was bluff and functional at first, but after a while I was quietly inducted into an exclusive oyster-sucking sect – Whitstable’s in-crowd, perhaps – and it was all smiles and chit-chat from the waiting staff.
Sunday was a classic seaside day. As well as riding my bike to Herne Bay, I wandered on the stony beach – peals of laughter and plumes of barbecue smoke floating from between the rows of brightly coloured beach huts – and paused for a paddle in the water. Around me, families were out enjoying the fresh sea air and feeding the shrieking gulls. Before catching my train back, I indulged in some takeaway fish and chips. A perfect laid-back Sunday and not a Londoner in earshot. Whitstable is chic, yes, but at heart it’s just a simple fishing town on the north Kent coast. With its wonderful inland bike trail, bleakly beautiful views of the estuary in one direction and of Sheppey in the other, it certainly doesn’t look to the capital for directions.
Capital Sport offers gentle cycling holidays and bike tours across Oxford, Kent, the Cotswolds, Devon and along the River Thames (01296 631671/www.capital-sport.co.uk). For general information see www.visitkent.co.uk.
Where to eat
JoJo’s Chef Nikki Billington clatters pots and pans as she whirls around the tiny open-plan kitchen concocting mouthwatering Mediterranean tapas – most of them made from organic, local ingredients. At 7.30pm on a Friday, the wooden tables were filled with diners grazing on olives, homemade houmous and pitta, and we didn’t spy an empty table all evening.
We ordered four tapas (on average £5-£8 per dish) to share: Greek salad was crunchy and refreshing, lamb meatballs came in a sumptuous tomato sauce and fresh sardines were simply grilled, seasoned and served. We washed it down with a robust Argentine malbec from the local off-licence. JoJo’s is unlicensed; corkage is £2, or £3 if you buy your booze from Tesco.
The Front Rooms This stylish and homely B&B in a Victorian townhouse is run by husband and wife Tom Sutherland and Julie Thorne, who spent three years carefully restoring and modernising it. There are just two double rooms, each with a comfy cast- iron double bed, a stock of books (novels, the tide tables, picturebooks of old Whitstable) and DVDs for watching on the flatscreen TV.
The bathroom’s not en suite but is for the sole use of guests and is stocked with Molton Brown and Sanctuary products. Breakfast is a grease-free affair with lots of fruit salad, pastries, bagels, jams, cereals and muesli. On cold days, there’s a log fire in the front room to keep you toasty.
9 Tower Parade, Whitstable, Kent CT5 2BJ (01227 282132/www.thefrontrooms.co.uk). B&B £95 per room based on two people sharing, £75 single occupancy.
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