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Just days after the south coast had been bathing in the warmth of an Indian summer, I was acting as a windbreak for my two children as we tried to fill nets with bait and hurl them over a silky, timber groyne on Whitstable beach.
White horses galloped across the North Sea as waves charged at the shingle beach, pebbles clashing harmoniously with the howling wind.
Mark Stubbs was enthusiastically explaining the art of crabbing to our two-year-old and four-year-old and in doing so had missed the incoming wave that engulfed his kitchen clogs and soaked his chef’s trousers to just below his knees. “I hope you’ve got a change of clothes” I gasped.
Head chef at the Kent seaside town’s oldest restaurant – Wheelers Oyster Bar, founded in 1858 – for the past 20 years, Mark was dashing between the dinky, pink-fronted high street restaurant and its even dinkier beach hut to entertain my family, cook us lunch and serve his steadily lengthening queue of customers. The pandemic has reduced his offering to two tables, while we were being treated to a lesson in crabbing before a seafood lunch in the much-photographed sky-blue Ed’s Dream beach hut, guarded by a voluptuous mermaid relief above the door.
Wild conditions had swiftly concluded our beach activity, and we didn’t need much persuading to retreat to the hut. Native oysters, cockles, whelks, crab, shrimps, prawns, smoked salmon, fish cakes, rollmop herrings, homemade focaccia and hot goujons with chips to placate the children filled the tiny fold-up table as we closed the doors to the wind and lit the candles. The freshest of feasts delivered straight from fishermen to kitchen to our plates.
After lunch, we wandered along the shore to Lifeboat Station. The doors were open, revealing a bright orange Atlantic 85 lifeboat, rows of wellies and neatly stored safety equipment. While not currently open to visitors, it offered a glimpse of the crucial role of the RNLI in keeping the nation safe at sea.
The crucial work of the RNLI
With an unprecedented increase in visitor numbers on Britain’s beaches this summer, lifeguards were presented with big challenges on the 249 beaches they patrol, while also adopting new Covid safety precautions, including wearing PPE and maintaining social distance. Their assistance ranged from finding lost children to casualty care for medical incidents and responding to incidents in the water. The charity continues to report an increase in incidents involving inflatables – to put it bluntly, don’t bring them to the beach.
To help visitors stay safe this summer, RNLI partner Ford created custom tyres for their patrol vehicles that imprint key safety slogans into the sand, warning against inflatables as well as “float to live” – simple, but effective.
Having shuddered at the sight of Mark’s wet feet, we were unlikely to dip a toe in the water while exploring the north Kent coast and instead joined “Dr Forager”, aka Hannah Scott, further east in Westgate-on-Sea for a coastal cookery course.
Fruits and foliage of the seashore
She’d saved the children the misery of another blustery beach walk and collected a bounty of foliage and fruits from the shoreline in neighbouring Margate – following the code of conduct not to uproot plants and to select lightly and for personal use only. Together, we set to work to create supper.
After picking the leaves from sea purslane, we blended it with pine nuts, olive oil and garlic to make pesto, while my daughter pricked sloe berries to put into a Kilner jar for sloe gin that would be ready for us grown-ups at Christmas.
We were all allowed to indulge in the syrupy wholesomeness of elderberry tea, whose antiviral properties make it a powerful winter warmer. Fresh dulse, or sea lettuce, gently fried with walnuts and olive oil was a deliciously salty appetiser.
Coastal delicacies were also on offer in Margate, where Angela’s cosy restaurant offered refuge from another blustery day on the coast. As the children wailed into the wind, we hauled open the door and ushered them in for another seafood feast – plump, juicy mussels, meaty ray wing with bisque sauce and hake with leeks and brown shrimp butter – all ethically and sustainably sourced from Hastings.
The owner also aims to eliminate plastic from the supply chain and waste as little as possible, with the wellbeing of the sea and the life it supports a priority.
Surprised by seals
The wind settled on the final day of our trip to allow a boat trip from industrial Ramsgate, past fishing vessels, yachts and brawny Border Force patrol boats in the harbour out onto the sea and around the Thanet coast. The boat pitched back and forth, as skipper Tony Thatcher pointed out Victorian cliff tunnels in the distance, explaining that Thanet was once an island, separated by the Wantsum Channel.
We traced its shore back into the calm waters of Pegwell and Sandwich Bay at the mouth of the river Stour. Industrial framework was replaced by mudflats and saltmarsh, roamed by egrets, oystercatchers and ringed and grey plovers.
Then, close to the boat, a shiny, dog-like head appeared in the water. Behind it, between 40 and 50 of its common seal companions, curled up like shiny boat hulls on the mudflats, snoozing in the breeze. They’d been the aim of our boat trip, but seeing them at such proximity took us all by surprise.
Back on shore, we celebrated in the next-door town of Broadstairs at the unpretentiously retro Morellis gelato restaurant. From this cliff-top perch we gorged on elaborate sundaes.
A couple of surfers were braving the cold, but we were content to watch, then fly a kite on the beach before heading home.
How to stay safe on Britain’s beaches
If you are planning a visit to a beach or the coast, the RNLI recommends following this safety advice:
- Have a plan – check the weather forecast, tide times and read local hazard signage
- Keep a close eye on your family – on the beach and in the water
- Don’t allow your family to swim alone
- Don’t use inflatables
- If you fall into the water unexpectedly, FLOAT TO LIVE. Fight your instinct to thrash around, lean back, extend your arms and legs, and float
- In an emergency dial 999, and ask for the Coastguard
How to get there
Whitstable, Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate are served by Southern and Southeastern trains, nationalrail.co.uk
Where to stay
The writer stayed at Beachside Hideaway, Broadstairs, available through kentandsussexcottages.co.uk from £740 per week for four guests.