Winter by the Sea: Whitstable & the Island Wall Cottage

Winter in Whitstable. A sharp, January wind cuts through the narrow streets and alleyways running parallel to the Whitstable shoreline, as we hastily carve a route through the town.

My partner and I are on our way to Island Wall Cottage (a cosy, coastal hideaway set just off the beach) for a quick winter getaway from the city.

On the short walk from Whitstable station, we weave in and out of the narrow alleys and thoroughfares, once used by smugglers to evade capture. Old wives tales are literally written on the walls of these passages, their namesakes often the result of some amusing local legend or another. Take, for example, the oppressively narrow Squeeze Gut alley, whose name is rumoured to have sprung from the unsuccessful attempts of an overweight policeman to catch a gang of young rapscallions who, instead, would lure him into this bottleneck alley (his being the literal squeezed gut).

Island Wall Cottage feels a part of all this folklore, being a beautiful, 19th Century weatherboard fisherman’s cottage, situated at one end of Coastguard’s Alley. Indeed, once we’re inside the cottage, it feels like we’ve left our time and all its worries behind us at the door.

There’s a storm brewing outside and tucked away inside the cottage, we sip coffee whilst turning our inept, city-dwelling hands to the ancient act of fire building. I can almost hear the grunts and groans of our Neolithic ancestors echo through time, as they look on through parted fingers at my embarrassingly inadequate fire-starting skills. Fortunately, the owners of the cottage have thoughtfully provided ample kindling, firelighters and logs – enough to accommodate my severe cack-handedness; at long last the practice pays off and a fire roars to life.

We find supplies at the Windy Corner, the aptly named shop almost directly opposite the cottage. Inside, fresh fruit and vegetables await us, as does the tempting option of coffee, cake, and a variety of deli options that can be eaten in or taken away. Foregoing the latter we pay for our ingredients and within minutes we’re back inside the cottage, preparing a simple pasta dish to enjoy in front of the now throbbing heat of our third attempt at fire. As we eat we hear the wind whistling through the bushes in the back garden, accompanied by the spasmodic rattle of wind chimes flailing in the distance. Somewhere, just over the hedges, lays the sea. The thought strikes us both in tandem, and no sooner have we finished our dinner than our coats are back on and we’re heading out to find it.

The phrase ‘a stone’s throw away from the beach’ is much abused in travel guides and reviews, and my inclination to test such claims often leaves me with a feeling of deep inadequacy about my upper body strength, so I tend to avoid using it myself. However, I can confidently state here that three, possibly two depending on your fitness, throws from Island Wall Cottage will get your stone to the beach, and once you catch up with it you’ll be glad you exerted yourself.

We arrive just in time to catch the sunset, and stare, gobsmacked at the view. The wind has whipped the sea into frenzy, and the blue sky, a backdrop to fast approaching storm clouds, is lashed with bright red by the setting sun. On the shingle beach lie the stones of throwers who’ve come before us and the sound of the chaotic waves crashing against them and reclaiming them in their wake: a raw reminder of the power of the ocean. The scene is immediate and wild. A dog walker passes, greeting us with a casual remark about the temperature, and I remember where I am: quaint, picturesque, little Whitstable.

The warmth of the fire greets us again on our return to the cottage and we’re soon settling down on the sofa, hot mugs cradled, which is where we spend the rest of the evening. Once the fire dies down, and after we’ve firmly established the full working order of the kettle, we head up to bed. The first floor of the cottage houses the luxurious and spacious bathroom and a good-sized room with twin single beds. Another short staircase brings us up to the attic, master bedroom, a cosy room at the top of the house from which we can hear the wind gusting on the other side of the roof.

As I close my eyes, listening to the wind ruffle the bushes below, my mind begins to slow. I lay there, just a ‘stone’s throw’ from busy London, but really I feel like I’ve gotten much, much further away.

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Winter in Whitstable by Tom Smalley


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