Tag Archives: England

Wandering In Whitstable.

Whitstable's beach huts.

Whitstable’s beach huts.

The steely green water dragged millions of small rocks and shells back into the ocean, sounding like a stylus at the end of a record that keeps going around and around. A thin and wispy cloud blanket crossed a cobalt sky and seagulls soared and dipped. Their screeching echoed across the beach. Behind me a row of pretty beach cabanas, each one named and painted a bright and different color sat locked and waiting, like debutantes itching to get to the ball. I was in Whitstable and even though it was March in England, I was happy as a clam to be on a shoreline.

Spring came early to Southern England this year and the counties around London are beaming. Daffodils and their cheerful faces greet you from front walks and along the motorways. Here on family business, I had a free day before flying home and as much as I’d have liked to roam around London, I wasn’t up for being around crowds. Staying in Hertfordshire, a northern suburb of London, I was looking for a place that wasn’t too much of hike but far enough that it would feel like I’d gone away. I stumbled upon Whitstable, a beach town on the north coast of Kent known for its seafood. Just over an hour by car, it was the perfect getaway so off I went.

The drive south along the M25, to the Dartford Bridge Crossing, to the M2 was a breeze. I suppose it being late morning on a Thursday might have had something to do with it. The sun was blazing, the windows were down and the borrowed car had a Hollies cd in it, so, really, what more could you ask?

Horses grazed along the shamrock green hills that rolled along either side of the motorway and cherry blossom trees stood out like cotton candy amongst gloomier neighbors. Manicured rows of apple orchards and other fruit farms made for a pretty journey and before long I was turning off towards Whitstable.

Within minutes I was driving along the high street towards the harbor, passing flower shops, bakeries, interior design stores, galleries, pharmacies, and all of the traditional goods needed for everyday living. It was a relief to be in a town that hasn’t been malled by big box stores. Before you reach the seaside, there are loads of little hotels, restaurants and cafes. It’s a bustling street and with its proximity to London once the summer season opens it must be jammed. As much as I’d have liked to stroll around, with only a few hours to spare the ocean was calling.

Wonderful Whitstable. (Photo credit: D. Powell)

Wonderful Whitstable. (Photo credit: D. Powell)

Crunching along the gravely beach, I picked through oyster shells bleached white by the sun and the tides. Tiny nautilus, other baby seashells, and smooth rocks in hues of blue to pale gray carpeted the beach like confetti. Heading west along the paved shore promenade, locals walked their dogs, and bicyclists and joggers did their thing. Inspiration to get off the couch just might be easier in this stretch of paradise.

Fresh good stuff.

Fresh good stuff.

Low slung hotels and “rooms to let” with ocean views are sprinkled all along this coastline and even though it wasn’t high season, this part of Whitstable seemed quieter. I found Jo Jo’s, a café with lots of yummy food, ordered a honey pistachio cake and coffee, then made myself at home on the patio at a weather-beaten wooden table, smiling at the superb view. It was a slice of heaven, this Whitstable. Moments later a waitress asked some locals at the next table, “Who ordered the fish finger butty?” All I could think was—I wish I did! This sandwich, a comfort food for Brits of all ages, is traditionally made with cooked frozen fish fingers and placed between two slices of bread but what was being served here was all grown up. Battered pieces of fresh haddock with arugula on a golden roll had me rethinking where I’d eat lunch.

A grotter.

A grotter.

Harvested since the Romans set up shop in England, Whitstable is most famous for its oysters. During the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival, held every July, the town teems with locals and international travelers who come to celebrate this hometown bivalve. This four-day celebration features an oyster blessing, an oyster parade, crabbing and kite-flying competition, and loads of other seaside activities. Grotter building, a local tradition where small mounds of sand are decorated with oyster shells and lit with candles, and a fireworks display wind down the festival. Parking is limited but Whitstable is easily accessed by public transportation and it’s an easy town to walk around. Anyone spending time in London looking for a retreat can hop a train from Victoria Station and within an hour and a half be on the beach. And that’s what I’d come here for.

The beloved bi-valves.

The beloved bi-valves.

Walking back past the harbor, I wove in out of little lanes leading to the sea. The scent of vinegar hung in the air where an older couple shared a bag of fish and chips on a bench that faced the ocean. An old, black dog soaked up the sun at the feet of two crusty local men with red and ruddy faces that gave them a look far older than their years. The Forge, a seaside shack has a counter where you can suck and slurp away Whitstable oysters shucked right on the spot for you. It doesn’t get fresher than that.

Ahoy matey!

Ahoy matey!

Passing the harbor boats and fish market, I made my way along Whitstable Harbor Village with its pop up shops and children’s seaside toys, towards Crab & Winkle Way where I’d seen a sign for The Lobster Shack back on the beach. Facing the water, it was a secluded spot, at least for now, and it seemed like the perfect place to test the seafood waters. Outside, fisherman prepared oyster beds and wooden picnic tables set on the shingle beach welcomed visitors. A Whitstable Brewery Pilsner wet my whistle, and while I couldn’t go for a swim, the half-dozen rock oysters, cod-fish soup, and a perfect bowl of mussels, sweet and coral colored, in a broth of white wine, butter, garlic, onion, carrot, with fresh thyme, provided an altogether different immersive experience.

Fisherman's huts.

Fisherman’s huts.

There are lots of options for overnighting in Whitstable but it was the 150-year old converted fishing huts that caught my eye. Located directly on the beachfront, they were once used to store cockle-farming clutter. Today, these cozy cottages have all the comforts necessary for a short or long stay. Next time, I thought.

Sea Belles await you.

Sea Belles await you.

Elliott’s Coffee Shop provided the perfect excuse to sample some more local sweets. A pretty café that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, I made off with a carrot cupcake and a coffee for the ride home. But before getting in the car I took a walk along the beach where those colorful cabanas sit simmering for that slow boil towards summer when their doors will burst open to welcome swimmers and sun worshipers.  Hopefully, I’ll be back.

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Mousehole Memories.

The Mousehole Cat, Mousehole, Cornwall

Mousehole. (Illustration: Nicola Bayley)

One Christmas many years ago, I woke way too early and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I ended up watching British Christmas stories on Public Television. One stuck with me, The Mousehole Cat.

Tom & Mowzer. (Illustration:  Nicola Bayley)

Tom & Mowzer. (Illustration: Nicola Bayley)

It was the story of Mowzer, a cat, and of her fisherman, Tom. They lived in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole,  (pronounced Mowzal) named for its tiny harbor with a narrow mouth that hid the town’s small boats  safely behind the rock wall. The vivid illustration was eye-catching and the narrated story told the curious tale of these two soul mates that sailed the sea together to bring back a daily catch of hake, ling, launces and fairmaids. It portrayed a town life of community, animals, of sustenance from the sea, the cruelty of Mother Nature, and of love. At the end of the story the illustration dissolves into scenes of real life taking place in Mousehole during Christmas. It was inviting and if you’ve ever visited Cornwall, you’d appreciate everything you might think the season would look and feel like in this small, seaside town. I was hooked.

The following Christmas my boyfriend’s parents, who live in England, gave me the book, The Mousehole Cat. A year later he took me to Mousehole and I felt like I was in the book. It was just as picturesque, inviting, and charming as it appeared in the story. Mousehole is a hilly and curvy town with winding alleys and there were cats everywhere. Cats on cars, cat sitting all about the cobble-stoned lanes, cats in gardens, cats lounging in front of shops. We drove very slow. And there was also the mouse-hole shaped harbor, just like in the book.

The Mousehole Cat, Antonia Barber, Nicola Bayley

Mowzer’s & Tom’s daily catch. (Illustration: Nicola Bayley)

Such a safe and pretty harbor.

Such a safe and pretty harbor.

We booked into an inn that looked out over the harbor where colorful fishing boats bobbed about. Then we freshened up and strolled the town. Us Americans seem to fall easily for the quaintness of English culture and here I was surrounded by it. My guy, born and raised across the pond, seemed to get a kick out my enthusiasm.  Seeing as how he’d never been to this part of Cornwall, he gave into the magic of it all as well.

At a small café we enjoyed Cornish pasties and, even though I didn’t need them, afterwards I stuffed my face with fresh cream and scones. We popped into a few local art galleries and passed gardens exploding with flora and fauna typically seen in warmer zones.  Stone cottages with flower boxes overflowing with bright purple petunias, scarlet million bells, and host of other bright petals in various hues of blues and yellows were inviting.  The cliff walk welcomed us with briny air and a carpet of wildflowers. Mousehole is designated an “Area Of Outstanding National Beauty” by the British National Trust. With its natural beauty, charismatic culture and atmosphere, it easily earns that distinction. Because of its sheltered coast and mild climate, there’s a whole ecosystem going on here.

Mousehole, Cornwall, England, United Kingdom, cats

Mousehole cats chilling out.

Back in the room I gazed out on the harbor, thinking about Mowzer and Tom. That night we enjoyed dinner in a local pub, The Ship Inn, surrounded by locals. Fisherman hugged the brass rail, drinking amber lager or ale with thick beards of foam. We had cider, shared a bowl of Cornish mussels and sopped up every drop of the garlicky, white wine sauce with granary bread. I ordered the John Dory but I really wanted star-gazy pie, a traditional Cornish dish made with pilchards, eggs and potatoes but it wasn’t on the menu that night. It’s baked in a pie dish, with fish heads and tails popping out the pastry crust, just like in the book.

Each year on December 23 Mousehole welcome locals and visitors to celebrate Tom Bawcock’s Eve. The festival is a celebration of this legendary Mousehole fisherman who risked his life during a severe storm to end the famine that had come to the town. The festivities include a lantern procession and lots of star-gazy pie. Antonia Barber, inspired by the legend and the tradition, made Tom more famous when she wrote The Mousehole Cat and partnered with Nicola Bayley who created the fine and imaginative illustration.

Mousehole, Cornall, Christmas, England, illuminations, Britian

Christmas time in Mousehole.

This year, Mousehole celebrates its 50th anniversary of Christmas illuminations. This little town puts on one of England’s most spectacular displays that lights up the harbor, raises money for charity and draw people far and wide. The celebrations kicked off this past Saturday and will run to January 4.

Tintagel Caste, Merlin's Cave, Cornwall, Cornish coast, England, United Kingdom, ruins

Tintagel Castle.

We traveled by car from London to Mousehole. The trip took about four hours and we stopped along the way for treats. I almost caused an accident when my guy said, “There’s Stonehenge” and in my excitement slammed on the breaks and asked where? But come on, it’s not every day you see a historic druid monument just off a motorway.  And I was driving on the wrong side of the road, on the road side of the car.  After Mousehole we tripped along the Cornish coastline, drove through pretty towns along single lane roads tunneled by hedges so high all you can see is the sky above you.  We passed through Land’s End and visited the ruins of  Tintagel Castle, where Merlin’s Cave is said to lay beneath along sparkling, cobalt blue water.

My visit was a treasure and as much as I’d like to be in Mousehole right now, I’m content with my own little tradition. I’ll curl up on the coach with a steaming cup of English tea and The Mousehole Cat. I may even take a crack at whipping up a star-gazy pie this year, although I may have to substitute the pilchards.

Ever been to Mousehole? If so, I’d love to hear your stories. If not, here’s a peek (but if you don’t see the link below then just click here):

Seeing the Awe, Not the Ugh.

Take me to the river. Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest.

Take me to the river.   Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest.

Back in the fourth grade one of the assignments given to my class was to research the history of a country.  I wanted England.  I was nine years old and I was really into English novels and all things British.   England was mine.

The teacher passed a hat around and asked us to pick a folded slip of paper from it and pass the hat to the student behind us.  My turn came and I dipped my hand into the hat, closed my eyes and willed England.  Instead, I got Hungary and the only thought that went through my head was—you gotta be kidding me (actually it was something else).

I asked my teacher if I could swap Hungary for England.  She said, no.  She was the teacher, I was the student, and this was Catholic school.  Back then, no really did mean no.   So I had myself a little pity party on the way home, got over my bad self and sucked it up that I was stuck with a country that I had no interest in, much less to write about.

I thought of that experience recently when I met with a group of travel counselors to discuss the value of them writing about their travels.   Many of them don’t think that they can write or they’re uncomfortable with the idea of it.  For others, there’s no interest or they just don’t see the value in it.  I get it, it’s not what they signed up for, it’s not in “the box” that’s their profession.  Throwing foreign stuff into the game of what we do every day and what we think we know can be startling and icky.

Recently, I wrote an article about developing your skills and interviewed career coach Kathy Gonzales.  She told me, “The thing that repulses you has gold inside.”  What exactly does she mean by that?  Basically, that we put roadblocks in front of ourselves that might prevent us from seeing an opportunity.  We assign an “ugh” instead of awe to an opportunity.   She also offered this advice, “Do something that you don’t want to do. Do something that you’re afraid to do because in the process of doing that you’ll open yourself up to removing certain blocks, you’ll open up perspectives, and you’ll learn something new.  Mostly, you’ll learn something that you thought you knew but don’t know.”

I get that doing something you don’t want to do is uncomfortable.  I also know that travel agents who take the first step and put pen to pad will discover a world inside themselves they didn’t know existed.  They’ll see the gold.

I reluctantly researched Hungary and the more I learned, the more I burned with curiosity about the place.   I begged my mom to make goulash but that wasn’t happening in our house.   In the end, I turned in my paper and turned out an A+.  It felt good, I felt good, I was on fire.

Decades later, I found myself in Hungary gazing at the magnificent stone, Széchenyi Chain Bridge that reaches over the Danube River connecting Buda to Pest.  I felt a connection to this place.  I also remembered my stubborn, younger self.  Funny how things shake out.

Yea, sometimes we have to push ourselves kicking and screaming into doing something we don’t want to do it.  But try it.  Give yourself a chance.  You just may discover you’re on fire.