Sunday morning, only 14 hours after having left the town, I arrived back at Gillingham station with that sense of déjà vu that has haunted me on this journey. My first destination today would be The Paper Mill micropub in Sittingbourne, about 8 miles distant. I rejoined Sustrans Route 1 and continued my journey East where I had left off the previous day. More déjà vu: Up ahead was a familiar-looking figure. I recognised those panniers. Theo had evidently not made it to Seasalter the previous day; he explained that when it had grown dark he had put his tent up near the trail and wild camped. He had distance to make up and so could not be coaxed into stopping for a beer in Sittingbourne. Of course, beer being my raison d’etre , I needed no such coaxing and so we said goodbye again. Theo, if you read this, I hope you had an amazing journey home – who needs planes?
As I approached The Paper Mill, I spied dozens of bikes outside, their riders filling the pub (micro as it was) and spilling out onto the pavement. This was the handiwork of Mimi and Rachel, two members of Swale Cyclists Touring Club who had somehow found out about my bike ride and had been communicating with me for the past few months. The plan, after a pint, was for the group to accompany me to the next pub, The Heritage on the Isle of Sheppey, and then see me safely back onto the “mainland”. It made a pleasant change to be able to follow others (who knew where they were going!) and the group were great company. And, yet again, I found myself learning about an area that, if not for this ride, I probably would never have visited. Much of this learning has been fascinating but useless: For example, I am gradually gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of the affectionate but slightly self-deprecating nicknames used for people from certain regions (such as: Teessiders = Smoggies, Hartlepool = Monkeyhangers – look them up if you don’t believe me!). And so I came to learn that the inhabitants of the Isle of Sheppey are known as Swampies – and proud of it!
We crossed onto Sheppey via the old bridge, which does interesting things like raising vertically to allow taller ships to pass below, and carrying a railway line that also must be raised vertically. Though interesting (and I would have dearly loved to see the bridge lifting, despite the delay it would have inevitably caused us in reaching our next pub), the novelty must wear off after a while, especially for the commercial traffic from the container port, and so in 2006 a new, much higher, bridge was opened. This now carries almost all motorised traffic, leaving the old bridge to cyclists, pedestrians, trains and the odd car.
Melvin, the landlord at the Heritage, gave us a very warm welcome, and had laid on live music and bar snacks. A photographer from a local paper came down to take pictures, and then we all headed back across the bridge.
One by one, the Swale CTC riders gradually peeled off and headed home for their Sunday dinners (I’ve become accustomed to my own being beer and crisps!). Big thanks to Marianne of the Paper Mill, Melvion of the Heritage and to Mimi and Rachel for making it all happen. Thank you all the Swale CTC riders for your excellent company, and thank you Dick for staying with me all the way to my next pub stop at Furlongs in Faversham.
After Faversham I was alone again for the ride towards the coast and then along it to Whitstable. I stopped on the way to drop into The Freewheel, a newly opened “cyclists pub” that Swale CTC had told me about.
Approaching Whitstable, the road through Seasalter was lined with beach huts, chalets and caravan sites. A cafe I passed was festooned with buckets, spades and all the trappings of the holiday kind and I sensed that I was now riding beside the sea, rather than along an estuary. I freewheeled into Whitstable, and paid a visit to the only one of the three Whitstable micropubs that is open on a Sunday evening: The Black Dog.
And then home on the train. The other two micropubs will have to wait until next weekend.