The run from Deal to Dover was one of the best so far. I ran along the seafront before climbing up onto the cliffs and turning back to see miles of trail winding behind me. Perhaps it was those cliffs, the famous White Cliffs of Dover, that shaped my imaginings of the town. As I neared, I began to hear the roar of the ferry port. I still imagined a quaint town lying behind the din. I found Hubert House, where owner Peter was kindly letting me stay for the night, and he told me all about the channel swimmers who stay with him. My room was clean and cosy, with embroidered cushions and biscuits which I ate within about three seconds of Peter closing the door.
I showered and, ravenous as always even after the biscuits, headed out in search of food. It was only around twenty past five but as I entered the town centre, it felt much later. Everything seemed to be closing, the shops already locking their doors for the day and most restaurants seemed to have their shutters down. My options for dinner boiled down to KFC, Burger King or McDonald’s. I circled the main streets for a little while in hope of finding something else but when a man appeared from the opposite direction shouting, “Look at my pitbull. It’s got a knife. It’s going to kill somebody,” I decided it was probably time to retreat back to the safety of the guest house. I reluctantly bought some chips and a bar of Dairy Milk and tucked myself up in bed for an evening of Come Dine With Me.
I want to say that this was a one off, a total anomaly of my experience of Kent, but sadly it wasn’t. Dartford, Gravesend, Sittingbourne, Dover, Folkestone… they all just felt kind of tired, prime examples of a greyscale Britain. That’s not to say these places had no merits, because they did. Dartford will always be special for being the Day 1 destination. I found a cosy corner in Marie’s Tea Rooms in Gravesend and met Iain and Liz, the exceptionally nice couple who run the Beaumont Guest House, in Sittingbourne. Dover had its cliffs and its swimmers and in Folkestone I found the Creative Quarter and ate a brownie that ranks somewhere in my top 5.
It’s just hard when I have to compare these forgotten feeling towns with the gems that they’re interspersed with. Rochester, rich with second hand books and sweet shops that almost put Willy Wonka to shame. The beach huts and oysters of Whitstable and Herne Bay. The narrow Medieval streets of Sandwich and the charming creek of Faversham. Deal, with its fishing history, where I was stalked by seagulls as I ate my first ice cream of the trip. I revisited Margate for the first time since 1997 and rekindled my fond memories of it, eating scones in the old town and having a wonderful night staying with the Warrilow family before hugging the coast tightly all the way around through Broadstairs and Ramsgate.
As far as I can remember, that 1997 Margate holiday is the only time other time I’ve visited Kent and I don’t want there to be any confusion; I have truly enjoyed the two weeks I’ve spent exploring it. On Saturday, a man called Travis from the internet came to keep me company for the day. We ran thirteen miles in the rain. By the time we reached New Romney, a place I’d never really heard of before, we were soaked to the skin and very ready for lunch. We turned inland for half a mile or so before we came to the Captain Howey pub which sat opposite the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway.
We were seated in the pub restaurant at a table with an impressive array of paper napkin origami displayed in wine glasses. We ordered pints of Guiness and Courage ale and took turns to head to the toilets to strip off our sodden layers. The only other diners were two older ladies celebrating a birthday, or so we guessed from the balloon and ribbons on their table. It all felt rather formal, and we felt rather scruffy. But when the waitress brought over my heaving plate of lamb shank and mashed potatoes and nobody complained too much when I staked out a spot and remained there, damp and smelly, for several hours, reading my book and killing time as one does in a place where they have no home, I began to feel rather fond of the Captain Howey. It was the kind of place that you would never find in London and which has probably survived with all its quirks and charms in tact precisely because of the fact that it is out of London.
It was the possibility of coming across places like the Captain Howey that drove my decision to run so many miles around our lovely little island. I wasn’t seeking a uniform experience, or 5000 miles of sandy beaches. It just makes me kind of sad to think of any place being forgotten, and I’d hazard a guess that the building of Bluewater didn’t really do a huge amount to promote the future development of its surrounding towns. Regardless of a town’s aesthetics or the sophistication of its eateries though, I haven’t been to a single place yet and not been completely blown away by the people I have met there, and that’s something you’re going to hear me saying a lot. There’s very little incentive and absolutely no obligation for people to take in a bedraggled runner and offer her a bed, a meal or simply a conversation, yet consistently people have.
So I guess I have to say thank you to Kent. You were full of views and surprises and wonderful encounters. You let me get into the groove of this adventure and find my feet and, above all, you made me excited to see what’s next.