The Long Walk to Whitstable

A long, hazy walk down memory lane triggered by a first dance with Shepherd Neame’s Whitstable Bay Organic Ale.

Oh, how time flies! Over twenty years have come and gone since I moved to the UK to attend the University of Kent at Canterbury, from which I graduated ˗ without distinction ˗ three years later in the Summer of ‘06. The events I will proceed to describe took place in the Spring of ‘05, at the very end of my second year in “the Garden of England”.

Starting Point – “The Coach House”

It must have been late May, possibly even early June, because exam period had already come to a close ˗ for me, at least. It was one of those rare occasions where, for one reason or another, I got home before midnight on a Saturday.

“Home” at that point in time was “The Coach House”, a renovated 19th century carriage house located a mere ten minute walk away from Canterbury’s iconic cathedral. A group of five of us, including the likes of the previously introduced Louie Jenkini and DJ Takeover, had been renting the place for almost a year and were getting ready to move out.

Tucked away at the front end of a cul-de-sac, with a large front lawn separating it from our closest neighbours, “The Coach House” definitely had its charms. In many ways, it was the epitome of slummy comfort.

The kitchen was tiny and also functioned as our hallway; the living room chairs and couch didn’t suck you in, they literally hugged you and held you close; our living room table was nothing more than an old kitchen worktop resting on a discarded kitchen cabinet carcass; my bed consisted of three mattresses stacked on top of one another ˗ the list of imperfections was endless.

Nevertheless, we made an effort to keep the place tidy and did our best to make any visitors feel welcome. It was also a perfect spot for hosting house parties, especially during the milder seasons.

On the other hand, “The Coach House” was poorly insulated and impossible to keep warm during the winter months. It was equipped with one of those prepayment meters that can be topped up with a plastic key. We got into the routine of monitoring our electricity consumption early on, power cuts were few and far between; unfortunately, even when adequately charged, the system proved incapable of heating up the house.

As a result, we spent many a night literally chilling in the living room with our winter jackets on. In the end, this proved to be the primary reason for not extending our rental agreement ˗ none of us could bear the thought of slowly trembling through another winter under those conditions.

Unsteady but Ready…GO!

However, on that Saturday night in the Spring of 2005, conditions inside “The Coach House” couldn’t have been more pleasant. I found Louie, barely visible in the depths of one of the armchairs, holding down the fort on his own. He was probably enjoying a bottle of wine because I distinctly remember pouring myself a drink of some sort and sinking into the chair opposite him.

We, as a household, must have had cause to celebrate earlier that week because there was a solid selection of half empty bottles on display on top of the fridge, including rum, vodka and jenever. Over the course of the next hour or two, Louie and I became increasingly intoxicated ˗ and adventurous.

I cannot recall exactly how the entire course of that night came to be redefined so drastically. In all likelihood, it was as simple as one of us uttering something along the lines of:

“(Hic!) It’s been way too long since I’ve seen the ocean. I wish I was on a beach somewhere right now…”

And the other exclaiming:

“Same here! You know what? We should go to Whitstable! If we start walking soon, we can make it there before sunrise!”

Whitstable is a sleepy seaside town located some 8 km north of Canterbury. I had been there a couple of times and was confident that my enhanced sense of direction would guide us along. Moreover, if my memory serves me correctly, Louie and I were both aware of the existence of the Crab and Winkle Line.

This old steam railway connection between Whitstable’s harbour and the city of Canterbury closed down in 1953 but certain stretches were made accessible to the public as a foot- and cycle path in 1999. I’m pretty sure it was Louie who knew where the trail started; we were both eager to see where it would take us.

Before setting out on this impromptu excursion, we filled a backpack with a large plastic bottle of rum and cola (or maybe it was vodka and lemonade…), the bottle of jenever, Louie’s bottle of wine, a six-pack of beers, and some snacks.

On top of that, we must’ve pre-rolled at least three spliffs for the road. Looking back, one can only conclude that we were intent on making the journey as challenging ˗ often synonymous with eventful ˗ as possible.

En Route

Louie and I left “The Coach House” around two in the morning, first making our way up St. Stephen’s Hill to campus and then cutting across university grounds until we reached the sports fields in the north-eastern section.

When we had reached the outermost corner of these fields, we were greeted by a signpost with an arrow pointing us in the direction of Whitstable. By then, we had been on the road for approximately 40 minutes; during this time, the backpack had become four cans lighter.

As soon as we stepped off university grounds, we were flanked by trees on both sides. It was a calm night and, apart from the rustle of leaves swaying in an occasional breeze, the woods hardly made a sound. We too kept our voices low, slightly apprehensive of the eerie silence. Moderate cloud cover prevented the stars from illuminating our way consistently.

For the first 30 minutes, sporadic gaps in the trees revealed the contours of a fence, house, or cemetery; the 60 minutes that followed were spent moving forward in complete and isolated darkness. Emboldened by the rum ˗ or whatever it was ˗ in our systems, Louie and I embraced the silence and glided through the murk.

By the time we had reached the northern fringe of the woods, which would have been sometime after 4 in the morning, the horizon had already started to glisten. Beyond the trees, we were treated to a glimpse of “the Garden of England” in the golden hour.

We stopped for a smoke and enjoyed the view for a while ˗ rolling hills covered in shades of fresh green, a tree-lined road weaving through them, a perfectly kept cottage in the distance; a flawless picture of serenity.

The Reception Committee

It was already coming up to 5 am when the trail took us over the motorway and into the southern reaches of Whitstable town, which was still deserted. And luckily so, because we must have been a sight for sore eyes! Pale with dehydration and fatigue, momentum was the only thing keeping us going. Half an hour later, we reached an equally empty beach front and let the sea wind pound some sense back into us.

The more we sobered up, the colder it got. In desperate need of another break, we started looking for a sheltered spot and found it in a wooden hut with a built-in bench, right on the border of sand and pavement. We had barely had the chance to make ourselves comfortable when a lean, scruffy mongrel appeared in front of us, growling.

Within seconds, three of its accomplices ˗ all equally shaggy ˗ had stepped onto the scene displaying similar territorial behaviour. When the gang leader showed its teeth, the others barked louder. Louie and I did not feel welcome at all.

The most feasible course of action we could come up with was to create a diversion and run for our lives. There was one small packet of crisps left in the backpack; notifying my companion of my intentions, I opened it, flung a handful in front of the leader, chucked the rest of the packet somewhere behind the pack, and fled in the opposite direction.

I did not stop sprinting until I started feeling an urge to chunder, but only after I had checked our rear multiple times and established that we weren’t being followed. A few strides ahead of me, Louie did not halt until I had caught my breath and called out to him. Even though the coast was clear, we were both hell-bent on getting out of Whitstable as soon as possible.

We followed what appeared to be a main road and eventually came across a bus stop along the route to Canterbury. According to the timetable, the first scheduled connection on a Sunday morning was due at approximately 08:15 ˗ a quick glance at my watch revealed it was only 06:30.

Homeward Bound

And so we stumbled on from one bus stop to the next, over the motorway and along a country road, taking regular breaks in the process. Sometime around 07:30 we first heard, then saw a bus approaching, proudly parading Canterbury as its final destination, but there was not a stop in sight and the bus driver ignored our frantic attempts to wave him down.

It is easier to lose one’s spirits with sleep deprivation setting in but a hearty swig of jenever, by now the only bottle in the backpack, prevented us from letting the erratic nature of the East Kent bus services get to us. Instead, we took it as a sign that we were on the wrong path and decided to cut across the fields in the direction of the woods we had traversed several hours prior.

Somewhere halfway to the treeline, we stopped for another smoke under a lone oak and allowed ourselves the luxury of a little snooze in the tall grass beyond its branches. We must’ve been out cold for at least two hours because it was already coming up to midday when we finally reached “The Coach House”. I have no recollection of that final stretch; we were practically sleepwalking. Thankfully, Louie and I made it to our beds safe and sound ˗ we had accomplished that which we had set out to do, for whatever reason that may have been.

As the days rolled on ˗ albeit nowhere near as gently as “the Garden of England” does ˗ into years, a long list of other shared experiences with Louie have come to overshadow that spontaneous excursion to Whitstable. Truth is, we have hardly dissected our little walkabout since we got back to “The Coach House” that day.

Sure, it’s mentioned every now and again, and it’s impossible not to smile when that occurs, but it did not become one of those memories that is repeatedly relived because there is nothing else worthwhile talking about.

Whitstable Bay Organic Ale

I can honestly say I hadn’t had cause to think of that night in years before August of ‘22, when I stayed at Louie’s parental home in Crouch End for a week. The day after my arrival, on the first of many trips to the local corner shop, Louie recommended that I add a bottle of Whitstable Bay Organic Pale Ale to the selection of beers I was already cradling in my arms. That was when the memories came flooding back.

“Ah yes, Whitstable ˗ I’ve been there, haven’t I?!

Louie grinned, and assured me that I would gladly return once I’d tasted the local brew. It did not disappoint. A light chestnut-coloured ale with a mild, bready nose, Whitstable Bay Organic Pale Ale’s medium sweet, medium bitter palate is characterised by citrusy hops and the softer, buttery richness of pale and crystal malts.

Refreshing in a mature and balanced fashion, it is particularly suitable for summertime sessions. The brew packs an ABV of 4.5%, which gives it some heft, but is subtle enough to enjoy in large quantities.

As its name suggests, Whitstable Bay Organic Ale is brewed using only organic ingredients and the brewery’s own chalk-filtered mineral water. Drawn from an artesian well deep beneath the surface of a historic brew house, the certified mineral water is heated and combined with malts that are sourced locally, delivered daily, and crushed to grist in a historic, on-site mill.

Seeing as Kent is one of only two major hop-growing regions in the UK and renowned across the international brewing community for its spicy, peppery varieties, it only makes sense that hops are sourced locally too.

Finally, the brewery keeps no less than six strains of yeast ˗ including its own, that dates back generations and requires strict management by a team of in-house microbiologists dedicated to keeping its character pure. Exactly the type of management practices you would expect to be implemented at an institute of excellence like Britain’s oldest brewery.

Shepherd Neame

Ironically enough, the brewery at which these outstanding practices are being implemented is not even located in Whitstable. The Shepherd Neame brewery was officially founded in the nearby medieval market town of Faversham in 1698 but there is evidence to suggest that its heritage pre-dates this period.

I will refrain from attempting to summarise this long and illustrious history but I do strongly recommend that you click on the link above and surf to the company website so you can read all about it yourselves. Take my word for it, it is fascinating! (Spoiler Alert: Official founder Richard Marsh, in his capacity of mayor, held King James II prisoner at the brewery after the latter had run aground off Faversham whilst attempting to flee to France during the Glorious Revolution of 1688!)

Best known for producing classic British ales such as Spitfire, concocted in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Shepherd Neame is not only Britain’s oldest brewer ˗ it is also its largest independent family brewer.

The brewery’s portfolio has been expanded to include contemporary brands such as Bear Island East Coast Pale Ale and the Whitstable Bay Collection. These brews are served at over 300 pubs and hotels throughout South East England.

I am not sure whether any of these establishments are located in Whitstable. I suppose I will have to go back there someday and find out for myself.

By Christopher Andel

Born in Bangkok to a Dutch father and German mother, Christopher has spent much of his life pedalling back and forth between Europe and South East Asia. A true ‘Jack of all trades’, he has worked as an environmental consultant, language tutor, and roadie for the Chippendales, just to name a few. He currently resides in the Netherlands and is patiently plotting a return to greener pastures.

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