Thoughts from Places: Finding calm in Whitstable

I wrote this post over a month ago, but never actually shared it. I hope reading about summer in early October doesn’t upset you.

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Every once in a while, I come into work, look around me and think, I need to book a trip right now, or I will start chewing up my desk
My trusted tools in that moment are the Google search for day trips from London and Trainline; during the most recent of those moments, they delivered me a promotional return offer for Whitstable.

On Saturday 11th August, my alarm went off at 5.20am. I didn’t think my body would be too thrilled about waking up at my regular hour, but as soon as I opened the curtains and saw the garden soaked in sunlight, leaving early felt like a great idea again. I left on the 8.25am train from St Pancras, armed with nothing but a journal, a book and a coffee.

The first thing I always notice when not in London is the air.

The difference is less striking now that I live in the leafy north, but wherever you leave from in the city, getting off the train or plane on the other end is always a little shock to the system. Whitstable was a symphony of smells right from the beginning: the slim streets that had that comfortable, clean smell of a small community (I don’t know how to describe it properly, but the village my grandparents lived in smelled like this: established and content, like laundry and gardens and the absence of litter), the smoke of a fire that seemed to be burning somewhere, and the salty, fresh smell of the sea. Then, further towards the harbour, fried fish.

I’d arrived early enough to come to an almost empty beach. The sun was out, the sky and sea battling out the fight for the deepest blue; small dogs zooming across the pebbles on their first walk of the day, chasing after tennis balls too large for them to hold on to; birds, everywhere. A little girl in a yellow dress stood on her garden wall overlooking the beach, singing her heart out along to the pop song blasting from the phone in her hand. A few houses further up a teenager sat on the same wall singing Lorde’s Royals, guitar case open next to her.

Whitstable is beautiful in its smallness.

I’ve lived in London for so long that I expect everything to be at London scale. As I explored the bustling harbour with its fish restaurants and market stalls, the High Street with its many shops, the castle, and the arts centre where I had my afternoon coffee, I was repeatedly struck by how much smaller everything was in contrast to my expectations. I would barely have checked my phone for directions when I already found myself at my destination. Life in early August was extraordinarily stressful, so being able to find everything I was looking for with such ease and convenience, in such a beautiful landscape, in such calm surroundings, was exactly what my soul needed.

The only time I wasn’t sure where I’d end up was when I headed east on the beach along the Tankerton Slopes, propelled by curiosity and the beauty of the many colourful beach huts that just kept coming, and I started to doubt whether I’d ever see food again. I ended up having lunch in a lovely little café overlooking the sea, where I sat reading for an hour afterwards until my nose (and only my nose?!) was sunburnt.

I enjoy taking these little trips on my own.

There are obvious downsides to going alone, of course. When I’m excited about something I like to share it, so in the absence of someone to share it with, I resorted to Instagram Stories, which made me pick up my phone more often than I would’ve done otherwise.

But alone, I’m able to walk wherever I want and pause whenever I want. I don’t have to find topics of conversation to fill the long stretches of beach to be walked. I can dip into every little shop I see in and leave again after a few seconds. I can sit on the dusty floor to photograph a pile of oysters and play around with my camera settings until I get it right. I can sit on a bench and read for twenty minutes just because I come across a bench and feel like reading in that moment.

Fittingly, this trip’s book companion was The Last Wilderness by Neil Ansell, who writes:

Being alone in the natural world feels like my default setting. On my own, my relationship with the world feels purer, unmediated by social considerations. I imagine that most people’s biographies would contain the history of their relationship with others, and that periods of solitude would be intermissions, gaps of no account in the story of their lives. I feel my own story is that of all the times I have spent alone. [...] Empathy is not a zero sum game; caring about nature does not mean you care less about other people. It is more a matter of self-sufficiency. It is not that I do not care for other people, but rather that I do not depend on having others around me in order to feel whole.

I don’t think I’ve quite mastered the ‘emotional self-sufficiency’ Mr Ansell speaks of, but this passage felt relevant. I’ve never depended on others to entertain me, and I often actively seek out alone time. Could I walk for days and weeks alone in the wilderness? I don’t know. Do I want to? I don’t know! But whenever I go on a day trip alone, nobody and nothing is missing. Not all of the time I spend alone is down to choice; but during those days, it’s exactly what I need. Maybe there is a person out there who will be my perfect travel companion. But until I meet them, I think I’m alright.