Coasting along: The Kent and Sussex renaissance
Either someone has laid their hands on a job lot of pastel shade paint or England’s South Coast really is experiencing a major renaissance.
It was the combined effects of mounting overheads, decaying infrastructure, successive recessions and tough competition from cheap, sunshine guaranteed, package holidays abroad that, over the course of half-a-century, sent seaside towns like Eastbourne, Hastings, Folkestone, Ramsgate and Margate into seemingly terminal decline.
Kiss me quick hats, seaside rock, candyfloss and even saucy postcards had all exceeded their sell-by dates and streets that had once been thronged with holidaymakers became benefits’ cities – the haunt of druggies, illegal immigrants, the work shy and impoverished families scraping through on welfare.
The turn-round of the past five years has been phenomenal. Streets are now clean and tidy, flowerbeds are well tended, attractions have been given a lick of paint and lots of investment. Property prices – among the lowest in Britain a decade ago – are soaring as gentrification proceeds apace and the days of five to a room are giving way to one family occupation. The streets are lined with late model Audis, BMWs, Mercs and Jags where once clapped-out old bangers lay rusting.
Take a deep breath of salt air and look at Margate, for example.
True, the once renowned pier has long since tumbled into the sea and the Benbon Brothers’ Dreamland fun park, fondly remembered from my past, remains closed – for now – but the town’s shops are busy and there’s evidence everywhere of property renovation and re-development. And, yes, talk is that Dreamland is to re-open. Right now, where Margate merges into the stoically middle-class Cliftonville, there’s a sparkling new metal and glass offshoot of the Turner Gallery – The Turner Contemporary Centre – and a year-round plethora of cultural events to go with it.
The master of light, Turner especially rated the Thames Estuary and the Isle of Thanet for wide skies and amazing dawns and sunsets, influencing many of his most atmospheric paintings.
The infamous seaside bed and breakfast landladies and their Draconian “Not in by 5pm, no tea. Not in by 10pm, locked out for the night” policies have, thankfully been consigned to the past and there’s a burgeoning café society and thriving arts’ community plus half-decent clubs and bars to keep the town’s neon burning late.
There’s even a bit of gastronomic pioneering going on down in the Old Town at The Ambrette at Margate (www.theambrette.co.uk), a truly out of the ordinary eaterie featuring the culinary art of chef Dev Biswal.
If you are expecting this to be a run of the mill, if upmarket, Asian establishment, then think again. Here many exotic spices are used, sure, but the exquisitely pretty presentation is heavily influenced by the current Michelin-standard French and British fine dining experiences. It is, if you like, a fusion of Western kitchen art and Oriental flavours and it works divinely.
Local produce dominates, from fresh sardines and crabs, caught in the Channel, to wild rabbit, pheasant and pigeon from the bounteous Kentish fields and cobnuts from the local woods. Seaweed figures, as does sea purslane, foraged from local salt marshes and sand dunes, and the taste-laden alexander, a rarity brought here by the Romans and with a flavour mid-way between celery and parsley.
In far more traditional mode but with its own quirky twist was Sunday roast lunch in Cliftonville at the grandly titled Walpole Bay Hotel & Living Museum (www.walpolebayhotel.co.uk) where the delightfully eccentric Diane Bishop and her family have created a much-loved local institution – one sitting only, please be at your table by 12.30pm but then linger all day if the muse takes you.
Here you’ll find a graceful Edwardian pile, with sweeping sea views but what will catch your eye as soon as you venture through the portals is an amazing treasure-trove of theatre and other bric-a-brac – including a collection of vintage milk bottles, costumes, typewriters, arrays of period paintings and framed photos and other memorabilia that will in a wink transport you back – via the lovely old 1927 Otis Trellis gated lift – to the racy days of the 1920s.
If you don’t want a full lunch – three different meats, Yorkshire pud, heaps of veg and rich gravy – then indulge in a cream tea, especially if the weather is clement enough for you to sit out on the flower-bedecked veranda and be waited on hand and foot by attentive staff, who often dress in Edwardian garb, and a host who flits delightfully from table to table making sure everyone is having a good time and swapping the latest gossip.
Besides the cavernously grand dining room, the hotel, which opened in 1914 and was extended in 1927, has a glorious snooker room and a huge ballroom, replete with its original 1920s sprung maple-wood dance floor.
There’s a determinedly period feel to the 37 guest suites but the modern amenities are en-suite, so you don't need to troop down the corridor for the bathroom.
Legions of famous people have dined or stayed at the Walpole and many of them have contributed to the owner’s unique and fast growing collection of dedicated and framed linen napkins – nearly 300 so far – many of them painted or embroidered with witty poems or evocative art, including those from regular visitors, one of whom is superstar artist Tracey Emin, who has publicly acknowledged her sea view room at the Walpole as her favourite love nest in all the world.
If you can tear yourself away from such a delightful base, local attractions include Quex House, the Shell Grotto and five theatres, including Britain’s second oldest, the Theatre Royal, and its very smallest, the Tom Thumb, plus 26 miles of sandy Isle of Thanet beaches.
We opted to stay outside town, a few miles inland at the neat little village of Minster. Here you’ll find The Corner House (www.thecornerhouseminster.co.uk) – in popular parlance, a restaurant with rooms, well just two of them to be precise. But what delightful romantic hideaway rooms they are!
With its oak beams, traditional country pub furnishings and open fireplace, this 50-seater was run during the ‘nineties as Morton’s Fork by affable David Sworder, now owner of the nearby Durloch Lodge B&B.
In early 2013, David’s 28-year old son Matthew brought the property back into the family’s ownership, put his father to work front of house and started shaking the pots and pans in the kitchen, using the skills he developed working at Gordon Ramsay’s La Noisette and other top London establishments.
With a focus on seasonality and local produce, all the dishes on his ever-changing menu are made from scratch – and that includes the breads, pasta and ice cream.
There’s more than a hint of classic country cooking to his style, with such mouth-waterers as rabbit, ham and tarragon cottage pie, loin of cod, mustard braised leg of rabbit, venison and mushroom pudding, braised venison, lemon posset, Eton mess and the finest summer pudding ever to pass these lips.
The Kent and Sussex coast has a still thriving fishing industry using small boats that are drawn up on the mainly shingle beaches. Hastings boasts the largest such fleet in Europe.
The 1066 town celebrates this maritime heritage each year with September’s enormously popular two-day Food & Wine Festival, staged on the atmospheric Stade open space, right next to the tall, black painted historic wooden net huts that today hold, among other things, a sea life centre, the new Jerwood Gallery of outstanding 20 and 21 Century British art, a shipwreck museum and an award-winning fishermen’s museum.
More than 40,000 food lovers arrive at the festival each year to sample succulent fishes from some 30 plus food stalls, with accompanying music, street entertainment and cookery demonstrations to create a fun-filled ambience.
We kicked off on the right foot with a sumptuous seafood lunch at Webbe’s at Rock-a-Nore (www.webbbesrstaurants.co.uk), directly adjacent to the festival site. With four restaurants in the area, the talented and ever-enthusiastic Paul Webbe is something of a guru for local fish lovers– a sort of Kent and Sussex Rik Stein, if you will.
Paul’s reputation is not overblown – my panache (stew) of mixed fish, straight from net, to oven, to fork, was sublime.
Indeed, we lingered so long over our feast that our tour of the stalls had to be whistle-stop in nature but was long enough to convince ourselves that there’s a wealth of wonderful fresh local produce available from the fabled Garden of England and its surrounding dramatic white cliff coastline.
Beside all that fish and seafood, we sampled amazing cheeses from local shop Penbuckles, fisherman’s rolls from Tush Hamilton and his massive paella pan, sample dishes from Noble Restaurant and classy Kentish wines from Carr Taylor and Sedlescombe, the oldest organic vineyard in the UK.