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It’s not often that you get that big sky perspective in this country but a visit to Oare Marshes may just help. The North Kent marshes are an undiscovered treasure. They make up a large area of low lying land on the banks of the Thames estuary. I feel rather embarrassed to admit that having lived in South East London for so long, well over 30 years, I have only just discovered them. The combination of wet grassland and mudflats is exactly the type of landscape you think about when you read or watch a film version of Dickens’ Great Expectations. They provide the perfect habitat for many varieties of birds as well as providing natural flood protection for London. They have been designated an Environmentally Sensitive Area.
If you turn on to the Harty Ferry Road at the Three Mariners in just less than two miles you come to the Oare Marshes. You will see cattle and sheep grazing on the wet grassland. The marshland is home to many other species of wildlife. When I visited earlier this month just over 159 different species of birds had been recorded since the beginning of the year. The latest sightings included the Bearded Reedling, Hobby, Garganey and Cetti’s Warbler. A common sight on the marshes are the twitchers that walk in groups from one view point to the next burdened by large telescopic lenses.
At the edge of the marshes you come across the Saxon Shore Way which traces the coast as it was in Roman Times. In this section it hugs the Swale and you have good views over to the other shore and the Isle of Sheppey. Up until the Second World War an on demand ferry was available from Harty over to the Isle of Sheppey. There is no longer a ferry service. You can walk from Harty Ferry, through Oare and into Faversham.
If you approach the marshes from Oare I would suggest that you make a stop at St Peter’s Church. Its location, just overlooking Oare Creek, ensures that you get some stunning views. There are a couple of well positioned benches available so that you can really take in the scenery. The church dates back to the 13th Century and is beautiful in its simplicity. The walls are napped flint with a striking clay tiled roof. It is often open for visitors.
The newly commissioned Allan Beckett memorial window is a poignant reminder of Kent’s strategic role in the Second World War. A mulberry tree is the central feature of the window. This represents the Mulberry harbours that Alan Beckett helped to design and build. These were floating harbours towed across the English Channel and assembled on the Normandy coast soon after D Day. Alan Beckett was a civil engineer and a local yachtsman who lived and sailed in this area.
It was with some trepidation that I went to lunch last Monday afternoon at the Sun Inn in Faversham. My apprehension was based on previous experience as the last time I went we were turned away as we were 5 minutes beyond the lunch deadline. My husband and I were deeply disappointed as the food looked particularly good especially the scotch eggs which many, more fortunate, customers were eating with relish.
Even though it was a Monday afternoon there was a steady flow of custom. A very welcome sight in these hard times for local pubs. There is a restaurant or you can get bar meals. We went for the bar meal option. The scotch egg formed part of the The Sun Local Board which also included Ashmore cheese and Fidgit Pie. I subsequently found out that this is a traditional English dish served to workers busy in the fields.
When the waiter brought our food we were surprised at the size, they were exceptionally large. He explained that they were meant for sharing, but no one had informed us nor was there anything on the menu board to explain this. The waiter then unhelpfully commented that it wasn’t his fault as he had not taken our order. It was a remarkable display of disregard for the customer which did reinforce our previous experience of this pub.
The food itself was very good and the bread, which is baked on site, was particularly delicious. There was just far too much of it for two people. I could see why the Fidgit pie would have been a staple for the hop pickers in days gone by. The scotch egg also lived up to our expectations. It was such a shame that we had to leave so much of this wholesome fare.
The bar staff were talking very enthusiastically about the forthcoming closure of the pub as it is to be used as a film location and the staff will also be working as extras. I do hope that they make more successful actors as their skills as hospitality workers falls well below the mark.
If you ever want to be reminded that you belong to a maritime nation make a visit to Faversham. Even if you don’t it is well worth a visit. Back in the 16th Century Henry VIII’s fleet were anchored in Faversham as signposted on the site of the Bear Inn. This pub is the oldest in the town but now sadly, is a hairdressers. However, as you would hope in the home of Shepherd Neame brewery there are many thriving pubs in the town and its surrounds. The buildings both domestic and commercial remind you of the town’s heritage; one of the shops opposite the Guildhall has a plaque dating from 1570.
When visiting Faversham I normally start at the docks. You get a real sense that this was once an important port on the Thames by the collection of interesting buildings along the southern shore. Most of these are now used as shops or artisan workshops. Aladdin’s Loft is well worth a visit if you are interested in antiques and memorabilia. It is open 7 days a week 10am to 4pm. There is a monthly Saturday auction with viewing on Friday. The classic vehicle restoration workshop is well worth a visit. There was a NYPD classic car on view the last time which generated much attention from passing visitors. There is a small but interesting garden centre that sells very reasonable terracotta pots. A tea room and a woodturning workshop are also housed in the old black pitched sheds. The Mitchell Art Gallery is a recent addition at the dock. The most breathtaking aspect of the docks, however, is the opportunity to see Thames barges at close range. These graceful vessels do give you a glimpse into a past way of life on the Thames and its Estuary.
It is a short walk from the docks to the town centre. The brewery is positioned prominently on the main road that leads to the market square. Tours of the brewery are available. I last visited Faversham in September and many of shops and pubs were celebrating the town’s brewing tradition with lavish displays of hops. What I really like about the town is that its shops are interesting and many are unique and on top of that it also has a market three days a week (Tuesday, Friday and Saturday). Not many towns can boast this at a time when most high streets are struggling to survive. The market is centred around and under the Guildhall in Market Place.
I visited Whites of Kent on my last visit. What a delight. The staff were so helpful and even introduced me to Mr White the present owner. The family run store has been there since 1954 when Mrs White, the present owners mother, started the shop for the repair of lisle stockings. Not everyone will remember these but amazingly you can still buy them on the internet. These were the only stockings that were available during and after the second world war. The store continues to sell lingerie and household linens.
I would also recommend a visit to Haselden Hats and General Miscellany another unique shop. It is the place to go if you are looking for a hat as there is quite a large range of both men’s and women’s hats. In my opinion the real test of a high street is if there is a butchers and the quality of it. This prejudice is based upon my personal preference for flavoursome meat that is only really achieved if it has been hung for sometime. Faversham boasts two butchers shops. I have only been into Barkaway’s family butchers which was very good and the staff very helpful.
With its significant number of listed buildings, transport links and Thames waterfront Woolwich should be a more attractive place than it is. If you visit, and it is well worth it, you will see that it is in a state of transition. If you walk through the the town centre you will see the good and the bad of British architecture. The bad being most of the soulless box buildings so prevalent in the 1960s. The well signposted “Rediscover Woolwich” programme points to the welcomed regeneration of the town. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative building established in 1868 and re-built in 1903 has recently been refurbished into a Travel Lodge.
The Royal Arsenal Co-operative (RACs)was set up by 20 workers from the Royal Arsenal. A full size statute of Alexander McCleod, one of the founding fathers, is set above the RAC’s statement of moral purpose:
“Each for all and all for each”.
The department store opposite was opened in 1938 and prospered for half a century. It merged with the Co-operative Wholesale Society in the 1980s following a period of decline. The actual store was abandoned some time in the new millennium. The scale of this old store is striking. At their peak the two buildings must have presented an impressive vision of mutualism. Sadly, the old art deco co-operative store opposite will not survive redevelopment.
At the corner of Powis street there are two art deco cinemas. One is now a bingo hall the other is home to the New Wine Pentecostal church. If you walk past the New Wine Church you can enter the church yard of St Mary Magdalene from here you get fine views across the Thames.
Hidden under the trees in the grounds is a stone lion which is the memorial to Thomas Cribb (1781-1848). He was an English bare-knuckle boxer who became world champion. A fitting sporting heritage for the town which hosted Olympic shooting.
The new Woolwich Centre, the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s one stop shop, is juxtaposed with the old Town Hall. You can still see in this area the old buildings that once formed the old Woolwich Polytechnic. A further reminder of the town’s proud industrial and technological past.
The future of Woolwich is promising. The new Crossrail station planned at the Royal Arsenal will consolidate the good transport links to Woolwich. The town is served by overland rail, DLR, The Clipper service on the Thames and the famous Woolwich free ferry.
Most of the shops are located on Powis street. There are a good range of shops although they are targeted at the lower end of the market and a new TK Maxx is due to open. Further along Powis Street you come across that other bastion of mutualism the Woolwich building society. Sited on Beresford Square it is another fine art deco building. It is currently partly let. The daily market,held in Beresford Square, is lively and helps to celebrate the rich mix of cultures living now in this area. The imposing Royal Arsenal Gatehouse looks down upon the market. The Gatehouse is physically separated from the Royal Arsenal by the A206. The Royal Arsenal has undergone significant refurbishment and more of this in a future posting
From the outside the Three Mariners looks like any other local Kent village pub. Step inside and you are still inside a typical Kentish pub what is so different is the food. The cuisine at the Three Mariners is amongst the best I have had in any gastro pub. The atmosphere is relaxed and you immediately feel welcomed and at ease. It is gaining in popularity and booking is recommended.
The waiting staff are attentive and you don’t wait long before you are given the freshly home baked bread, olive oil and butter. The bread is so good you could be tempted to fill up on it – resist this temptation.
There is a “walkers” three course lunch available Monday to Saturday and at £11.95 it is very good value. As local skate wing was on the a la carte menu we went for this. There were four in our party and three of us opted for skate as a main. I had previously had this so knew just how good it was. The waiter did confirm that when skate is available it is one of the most popular dishes. Starters on the a la carte menu range from £4.95 to £7.50 and mains from £12.50 to £15.95.
One of the most memorable restaurant experiences I had was at Den Dyver in Bruges which specialises in Flemish dishes cooked in beer. Each course is served with a carefully selected beer. In England we tend to forget our tradition is to drink ale rather than wine. So one of the real delights of the Three Mariners is the opportunity to get a really good ale. The close proximity to the Shepherd Neame Brewery in Faversham ensures you have a good range of excellent beers. I chose a Whitstable Bay beer which proved to be the perfect accompaniment for the fish. Our other companion opted for beef cooked two ways which he assured us was as good as it looked.
As far as possible they use locally sourced produce and the seasonal vegetables of courgettes and spinach were particularly well seasoned and presented. The puddings were seasonal and Kent strawberries in an Eton Mess lived up to my expectation. My companions had a passion fruit pavlova which was very good and a ice cream sundae which was good but not outstanding.
Our visit was on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and many diners were taking the opportunity to eat in the garden and enjoy the glorious views of the Thames Estuary. Our bill for four people who had three courses and drinks came to £108.70. This was much less than I had anticipated. Given the quality of the food and the general ambiance the Three Mariners provides excellent value for money.