Riding Away From Things
In the midst of a whirling storm, chilled to the bone and lodged precariously against the stout wooden boarding (worryingly called The Groins) on Whitstable Beach, I realised with no little surprise that I was enjoying myself. What were we three doing on a beach in England in February? A foolhardy enterprise and no mistake, but the source of our current discomfort was not far away. Indeed, he was sat opposite us, merrily steaming freshly fished scallops over a wandering flame between sing-song mutterings about not bringing his usual salt, or ‘camping herbs’. This unexpectedly chipper chap (and fine seaside chef as it turns out) was our friend Stefan from Pannier.cc.
A Brompton is many things, but what it is not is a windbreaker. However, on a windy morning aboard a train from St. Pancras to Canterbury, its much touted benefits were more apparent than its later shortcomings. With three Brompton bicycles neatly folded and deftly slotted into the luggage rack, we sped past green field and Oast house towards the first destination on our #myunseencity expedition.
A Monday is a busy day for an eCommerce business. Weekend orders pile up, customer emails fly in, and someone always forgets to refill the coffee pot. Yet it was on a Monday that I found myself doing my signature ‘Brompton jiggle’ (an apt verb when a Brompton miraculously forms a bicycle out of a shoebox) on a blowy platform in Canterbury. A busy period at work had me burned out, so Monday could go hang, I needed to reconnect with normal life! So it was that Brompton buddies Stefan, Alexandra and I exited Canterbury’s disappointingly drab station, replete with almost matching Brompton bags, and wheeled into town in search of breakfast and the best cycling route to Whitstable.
As a stark contrast to an underwhelming entrance, Canterbury is actually quite lovely. Of course there is the Cathedral, the Norman Castle & St Augustine’s Abbey as roll-call highlights, but on a more liveable scale, there are also a number of neat, well-appointed shops, independent eateries & attractively cobbled streets. It was at one of the former that we wolfed down a welcome mid-morning bagel just next to the entrance to Canterbury’s looming Cathedral, and chatted to a chipper Canadian girl about where to find the Crab & Winkle Way to Whitstable, our final destination.
I don’t know if you are similarly afflicted, but whenever I meet someone from abroad, I must immediately make conversation about their homeland. Luckily, having only recently met TJ & Bobby from 7Mesh, I could confidently tell her that I had just made friends with some of her fellow Canadians.
“Yes, they are from Squeamish, British Columbia”, I intoned knowledgeably.
“Ah right, well, I bet they were friendly folks”, she offered uncertainly, with a kindly look quite similar to the one my Mum used to give when I couldn’t get the hang of tying my shoelaces as a teenager.
“Certainly were, great chaps!”, I said, quite proudly.
“Anyway…, ah, thanks for the bagels, I think we’ll be heading off now”, I muttered, as the slow dawn of realisation descended that I had devastastingly mispronounced the home town of our newly appointed Canadian supplier.
The Crab & Winkle Way (no sniggering at the back) links Canterbury & Whitstable by way of an old disused railway line. It forms part of the National Cycle Network Route 1, and weaves its way, traffic-free, past the University campus on depart from Canterbury, buttressed by apple orchards, wide meadows, rolling hills and Blean Woods; one of the largest areas of ancient woodland in southern Britain.
Before you reach any of the aforementioned loveliness though, you first have to ascend out of Canterbury though some rather depressing suburbs that stand in stark contrast to the unspoilt wilds yet to come. However, the start of the Winkle remains traffic-free, so whilst none too pretty, it does do a good job of lifting you out of Canterbury and towards Whitstable; now roughly 7 miles away.
With gusts pushing 50mph, and smartphones bleeping fierce weather warnings, it quickly dawned that conditions were not best suited to Brompton antics. Yet despite the abnormally fierce winds, our little-wheeled bicycles handled the gravel and dust packed trail with aplomb, deftly steering us through the twists and turns of the Winkle Way en-route to Tabasco-seasoned oysters and lemon-steamed scallops on the beach at Whitstable. A few photos, some hurried video and a kindling-jaunt into the woods for the night’s fire, and we were all-set for a sunset scallop-fest.
As Winkle Way peter's out, you are deposited unceremoniously next to Whitstable train station, and, like Canterbury in reverse, it’s a brusque, ever urbanised route to the centre of this historic fishing & harbour town. Famous for the quality of its oysters since Roman times, and home to the world’s first steam-hauled passenger and freight railway service, Whitstable now exists on two planes - the first as a town, the second as a weekend tourist destination and Londoner’s retreat. Its dual nature is most apparent with the price of its oysters, which in the welcoming (and thankfully warm) Whitstable Oyster Company restaurant were nevertheless an eye-watering £3 a pop! However, they were large and delicious, and a sit-down was most welcome after the battering we received during a quick pre-lunch sortee to the beach; holy moly it was windy!
Warmed and primed for some top-notch photo action on the beach, we enacted a few daring sweeps of the boardwalk for the camera and went in search of some scallops for the anticipated cook-up. As you might expect, good quality seafood is not hard to find in Whitstable, with the harbour-side fishmonger offering up a juicy haul of fat, freshly caught scallops.
There are lovely beaches in England (Putsborough Bay in Devon always springs to mind, as does Rhossili Bay or Scarborough) but it has to be said that Whitstable Beach is not one of them. Perhaps it was the roiling sea and ever-deepening cold that put me in a funk, but stony, steep and fenced at intervals by wooden boarding, it didn’t excite one jot.
Nevertheless we persevered with camping preparations, and set-to making a fire from Stef’s kindling. It was not long before we had a goodly blaze to warm our hands by, and, with the hour getting late, readied the scallops in tin foil before placing them at the centre of the fire. It was at this point that Stef admonished himself for not bringing his usual camp-cook fare of salt or herbs, but, revealed in a haze of steam and rush of flavour, his reservations proved to be groundless: the scallops turned out to be astoundingly good; meaty, flavoursome and still sea-salty!
A few more shots of the darkening skies above Whitstable describing a glorious sunset brought to a close an unforgettable trip. Who knew that a Brompton was so adaptable, that un-looked for adventure was so close at hand? And when would I stop making an ass of myself in front of complete strangers? Over a pint or two at the Neptune pub just along the beach we talked over the day, and set our minds to a few more during the year.
(For more information on bike trips, camping or to purchase a hand picked range of outdoor kit, head over to Pannier.cc)
Photos credit - Pete Harrington