IT’S good to stray, to tack one extra bite of the cherry on to an already fruitful road trip. Indeed ripe cherries were in abundance as we meandered our way across the Weald, Kentishmen flogging punnets of them by the roadside.
'From the outside, The Sportsman might be any old boozer. But how many landlords make their own butter and salt and source their saltmarsh lamb from an award-winning farm across the meadows'
By rights, after high times in Brighton and then Hastings, we should have been bombing up the M23 and M25, the directest route northwards, but the lure of two places in Kent was too strong. The old “We might not be down this way again” kicked in. The first was Broadstairs, an old-fashioned resort (its popular beach pictured above, with apologies to LS Lowry) with strong Dickens connections, the second Seasalter – home to the Michelin-starred food pub, The Sportsman. We expected much of both and were not disappointed, but it was our one-night lodging, convenient for the Sportsman and Whitstable, hipster capital of the Kent Coast, that somehow stole the show.
The Linen Shed was not some chance discovery. It’s been recommended by the likes of Conde Nast Traveller and Alastair Sawday (in his recent dog-friendly accommodation guide) for its laid-back, vintage (some might say shabby chic) appeal. It’s in a village called Boughton-by-Bean, which is basically one long street, the old Roman Road to Canterbury. Georgian in the main, but few shops or pubs and not immediately appealing, it has the feel of a commuter settlement for Faversham or Canterbury itself.
Our B&B billet for the night, though, was a magical haven, in appearance like something out of Cape Cod or Key West. Plain grey clapboard, wrap-around porches and a sun-trap back garden teeming with lavender and hollyhocks. It dates back only to 1927 when it was built as an Army drill hall. Later it became a dance hall and eventually the stripped-down, light-filled boho-looking house that current owners Vickie Miles and Graham Hassan bought and enhanced. They’ve added to the collectors’ clutter, with items from across the globe, but it all feels quite casual, accompanied by a huge personal warmth.
That was in evidence on our arrival when Graham welcomed us to the back porch for a a glass of red, while our chihuahua, Captain Smidge, warily made acquaintance with the resident moggies, Wilfred and Cecil.
Vickie was out stocking up at Macknade Fine Foods in Faversham, a fabulous food emporium. She used to be a private cook for the likes of Tiny Rowland in his private jet. Her breakfasts are famous – we found out why next day. The rosti and serrano ham are to sigh for and throughout the day it’s an effort not to keep dipping into the flapjack jar.
'A magical haven, in appearance like something out of Cape Cod or Key West. Plain grey clapboard, wrap-around porches and a sun-trap back garden teeming with lavender and hollyhocks'
We paid £95 for the Green Room, a compact double with a private bathroom down the corridor. There are only two other bedrooms. We spent much of our time in the garden, nattering with the other guests – a London-based jazz guitarist, shortly off on tour with the Puppini sisters, his wife, new baby and mother, over from Australia. The Linen Shed is not for the anti-social. The wine flows.
We were far from alone, apparently, in using The Linen Shed as a base for a pilgrimage to The Sportsman at Seasalter, to the west of Whitstable.
The drive there is past pebbledash bungalows and caravans with a shingle beach piled up beyond the concrete sea wall. Not the most attractive of English coastline, it must be said, and from the outside, The Sportsman might be any old boozer. But how many landlords make their own butter and salt and source their saltmarsh lamb from the farm across the meadow (Monkshill, just named Best Local Farmer in the Observer Food Monthly Awards)? Well, Steve Harris is just a bit special.
When he took on the down-at-heel Sportsman 15 years ago and transformed it he was a pioneer. Now Kent – and England – is rich in pubs that serve excellent food, but there are few where Michelin stardom is achieved through such exquisite simplicity. Look at this picture of my thornback ray with cockles and sherry vinegar.
The interior is equally straightforward, welcoming but really a pared down canvas for the cuisine. This comes two ways. The first, which we had, is the daily offering chalked up on the board, changed daily depending on raw materials. Accompanied by a floral, low alcohol Vinho Verde Quinta de Azevedo 2009 at £17.95, was just what we wanted with Captain Smidge in tow.
The alternative, which might stretch to a not dog-friendly four hours, is the tasting menu of small perfectly-formed dishes, which must be booked 48 hours in advance (not available Saturdays and Sundays) and showcases the self-taught mastery of Mr Harris and the quality of his local resources. It costs £65 a head without wine.
Whitstable along the road is famous for its native oysters and holds a festival in their honour. Whelks are very much the poor relations and don’t merit one. The town’s most famous resident was Hammer Horror star Peter Cushing, whose centenary was celebrated at the Whitstable Museum last year. We hoped to toast his memory at the Whitstable Brewery Tap on the Dickensian film set that is the old dock area, but it was shut. The old centre of Whitstable is a good place to wander, but I prefer Broadstairs 20 miles to the east. Margate may be suddenly verging on cool thanks to the new Turner Contemporary Gallery, where Tracey Emin showed, while the re-imagined Margate Dreamland vintage amusement park is set to reopen in 2015, but Broadstairs (pictured below) has real class. And Charles Dickens.
Bleak House was known as Fort House in Dickens’ day and renamed in his after his death though the link with that book is tenuous). Here, in his study overlooking Viking Bay he definitely wrote much of David Copperfield. Today, much altered and a B&B, it offers tours taking in the study and a Smuggler’s Museum based on exhibits rescued from an 18th century wreck. Dickens leased it from 1837 to 1859. It was his favourite house and his family lived here every summer.
PlaqueBroadstairs had a strong hold on his imagination from the start – he completed his breakthrough work, Pickwick Papers, in lodgings in the High Street and also stayed regularly at the seafront Royal Albion Hotel. But it is the neighbouring, and quietly charming, Dickens House Museum next door on Victoria Paraded that boasts the most immediate link with David Copperfield. A museum, since 1973, it was once the home of Miss Mary Pearson, a kindly and charming old lady who used to feed tea and cakes to Dickens’s sonm who recalled she was firmly convinced of her right to stop the passage of donkeys in the front of her cottage. Dickens used the donkey incident for the character of Betsey Trotwood, although in the novel he switched the location to Dover to avoid any embarrassment to Miss Strong.
If you are looking for a wealth of Dickens memorabilia, you might come away disappointed, but it has a lovely period feel, especially in the parlour. This room, described by Dickens and illustrated by H. K. Browne (Phiz) are well known to the readers of David Copperfield. The cupboard in the corner is recognised as the 'press' from which Miss Betsey brought out the concoctions she poured down the throat of young David, when he arrived at her home after running away from London.
Fictional (but strongly autobiographical) David must have made his weary trek out to the coast in flight from the blacking factory in London by that old straight road through Boughton-by-Bean. He found Aunt Betsey and eventual a bright future. We found a quite perfect B&B.
We stayed at
The Linen Shed, 104 The Street, Boughton Under Blean, Faversham, ME13 9AP. 01227 752271/07775 946724, www.thelinenshed.com.
We ate at
The Sportsman Faversham Road Seasalter Whitstable Kent CT5 4BP. 01227 273370, www.thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk.
We bought the elements of a picnic at
Macknade Fine Foods, Flagship Store, Selling Road, Faversham, ME13 8XF 01795 534497, www.macknade.com.
We ate oysters at Wheeler’s Oyster Bar. A tight squeeze, but worth it for some fine seafood (not just bivalves). We’d just missed the town’s annual Oyster Festival.
We should have drunk beer at The Whitstable Brewery. I’ve drunk their citrussy, blackcurrant-tinged Brewer’s Gold Single Hop Ale elsewhere and it is excellent.
This is also prime territory for micropubs...
Especially in Broadstairs, Margate and Ramsgate. Read about them via this link.
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