Sunday, 9 May 2010
I had a trip to the sea-side yesterday, Whitstable to be precise. The reason for my visit was that I had volunteered to represent West Kent CAMRA at the Kent Regional Meeting (KRM), that was being held there.
KRM's take place every couple of months, and provide a chance for members from all over the county to get together, report on their branch's activities and discuss things such as campaigning issues, beer festivals and Kent breweries (more about the latter later). There are 10 local branches within the county, and each branch takes a turn at hosting the meeting. The pre-requisite for these meetings is a pub (or club), with a separate meeting room away from the main part of the pub, so that the business can be conducted without interruption from juke-boxes, fruit machines, TV's etc. It is also important that the meeting should not disturb the pub's own customers. It was Canterbury, Herne Bay & Whistable Branch's turn yesterday, and the venue for the meeting was Whitstable Labour Club. This was quite ironic, coming just two days after the inconclusive General Election result, and the place seemed quite quiet and subdued when we arrived.
Whitstable isn't the easiest place to get to by public transport from where I live, and the journey took over two hours, and involved two changes of trains. Still the weather was unseasonably cold for early May, so it wasn't as though I was missing out on a day in the garden! Whitstable Labour Club is a converted, former pub, so it was good to see the building still being used for the sale of food and drink. There were four hand pumps adorning the bar, but only three beers on sale. Unfortunately two of them weren't of much appeal to CAMRA members (Courage Directors and Shep's Master Brew); but the other beer, Rudgate Mild, was the saving grace so far as most of us were concerned.
I hadn't been to such an event for over a year, so it was good to meet up with colleagues from other branches and catch up as to what was occurring in their neck of the woods. As West Kent's representative I was able to inform the meeting about the two breweries that are about to start production in our part of the county. Wearing my other hat, that of Brewery Liaison Officer for Larkins, I gave a short update as to what's happening at the brewery. About two thirds of the way through the proceedings, we adjourned for lunch; lunch being a buffet of sandwiches, sausage rolls and pork pies. After that it was pretty much plain-sailing through to the end of the meeting.
Once the day's business had been concluded, it was farewell to the Labour Club and off to sample a few of Whitstable's pubs. First port of call was the Ship Centurion, a one bar free-house and a former Kent CAMRA Pub of the Year. Several cask beers were on sale; I opted for Hopdaemon Incubus, whereas others opted for Elgoods Black Dog Mild.
On leaving the Ship, we made our way to the Smack, a Shepherd Neame house, tucked away down the myriad of narrow lanes and alleyways between the High Street and the sea. At the meeting the Shep's Brewery Liaison Officer had told us about the pilot scale brewery the company have installed. She also described some of the interesting beers being produced on the plant. One of these was on sale at the Smack; Crab & Winkle Celebration Ale is brewed using a proportion of smoked malt, which was evident in the flavour. It was rather good, as was the pub itself; a quirky sort of place with an island bar, comfortable seating and all manner of posters and other adornments on the wall.
From the Smack it was a short step to Pearson's, a Good Beer Guide-listed pub that was shown as selling a range of Gadds (Ramsgate Brewery) beers. Unfortunately there was no Gadds available and the bar-staff were unable to tell us why, but the Harveys was quite tasty all the same. The main thing that struck me about Pearsons though, was that it was full of Whitstable's answer to the "beautiful people"; and that, more than anything else was my lasting impression of the town, an impression that was reinforced by the next two pubs we visited.
The Royal Native Oyster Stores is owned and run by the Whitstable Oyster Company Ltd, and this "gentrified" establishment, housed in the firm's original premises, is now their flagship outlet. Oysters galore were in abundance, being split open and served up on dishes of flaked ice by a couple of chefs. Crabs and lobsters were also being prepared behind this glass counter, ready to be served up to the "beautiful people" in the dining room next door. The Whitstable Oyster Company is associated with the Whitstable Brewery, who brew some extremely good beers. The Royal Native had a cask of East India Pale Ale behind the counter, to complement the keg taps offering Whitstable Bohemina Pilsner and Oyster Stout, so we settled for the former and stood watching the proceedings with a certain fascination.
Our last port of call was the Duke of Cumberland, another Shepherd Neame pub, and one that also seemed home to Whitstable's "Nouveau Riche". I remember this pub from 25 years or more ago as a rambling old hotel, full of character. One of my companion's recollections were much the same, including having to pass through the billiard room en route to the gents! Still, our window seat did give us a good vantage point from which to watch the comings and goings along the High Street.
What appears to have happened is that in recent years, Whitstable has become second home territory for an increasing number of affluent Londoners; colour supplement readers Guardianista's and the like! There has been the inevitable rise in property prices, and this influx of high-spending "outsiders" has led to a sharp increase in what pubs and restaurants are charging their customers. Whitstable isn't quite Southwold (yet), but it's fast becoming so. I'm certain this is good for local businesses and, hopefully, local people, but when such "gentrification" takes place then I can't help feeling that much of the local character and individuality (the very things that attracted the newcomers in the first place), disappears.
The journey home was long and tedious, and again involved a couple of changes of train. Still, at least I got the chance to travel on one of the new High-Speed Trains (but not along the high speed tracks). I am not sure when I'll next get the opportunity to visit Whitstable, but when I do I'll be interested to see how much further the town has progressed in its upmarket direction.