The Meeting Place has a scruffy sort of charm about it. Only a short bike ride for me along the seafront cycle path, I’ve been coming here for years attracted by its promenade location. Being completely outdoors, in the summer the cafe has hordes of tables and chairs spread around its terrace. When it’s cooler, like now near the the winter solstice, then it’s the hardy few who venture here well wrapped up to grab a beach side table. Its bold, canary yellow wind breakers give shelter from the breeze. Pigeons and seagulls abound here so you can’t be too squeamish about them coming close daring to scavenge a few morsels of your food.
Some years ago the cafe was demolished and reborn a few yards further east along the seafront, significant in that those few yards now mean that you can buy your tea or coffee in Brighton and drink it sitting in Hove. The Angel Peace statue also straddles the boundary between the two towns and heralds this popular cafe.
All the staff are Polish, friendly and eager to practice their English. The cafe is open 365 days a year from dawn serving breakfasts and hot drinks to the dog walkers, joggers and early risers in general to dusk where it catches those reluctant to tear themselves away from the beach. It’s even open on Christmas day and I’ve seen the queues stretching back in their masses with customers seemingly impervious to the long wait. There are so many food and drink deals they are too many to mention but if it’s no nonsense fillers and home baked cakes you’re looking for then this is your place.
Christmas is nearly upon us again and it seems to come around quicker and quicker each year.The early setting sun was transforming the watery blue of the sky into a peachy glow while the skeletal West Pier slumbered peacefully on the calm December sea. At least down here by the The Meeting Place Cafe you can take some time out, swapping the demands of last minute present buying at the shops for breathing in the fresh air and wonderful seascape for the price of a cuppa.
There is something special about getting up that little bit earlier and getting a taste of early morning. Just A gentle bike ride along the seafront cycle path and I am at Morrocco’s in just a few minutes. The ice cream counter is what first welcomes you on entering. A chilled cabinet with a rainbow of rich colours representing around two dozen different flavours of their home made ice cream to choose from. Over the years I’ve tried most with the chilli chocolate being a favourite.
The sun is getting quite strong already but with cup of tea in hand I’m lucky enough to get a seat on the small front terrace which is still in the shade. I love the musicality of the Italian language and hearing the banter of the staff as they get set up for a day’s trading. Having studied Italian at school I can usually pick up a few words here and there but unfortunately that’s about all.
Watching the cyclists pedalling by on the cycle path directly in front of the terrace. I hear the whir of chains turning and the bur of rubber on tarmac. I wonder how long it will be until I spot someone I know. Only about ten minutes as it turns out. The sea is just a few yards away and the sound of the waves on the shore blend with the hissing of the coffee machine behind me and the chatter of the nearby customers. A couple of yachts are sailing on the horizon on a calm and clement sea. Breakfasts, seems to be what everyone is ordering to set them up for the day ahead.
I’ve been coming to Marrocco’s for years now since I first moved down to Brighton & Hove. The original couple who established the cafe in the late 60’s have since passed the business on to their son, Peter Marrocco, to run. Marrocco’s describe themselves as bringing a touch of Naples to Hove. So, in the summer it is not unknown for queues to stretch right along the block for the famous Marrocco’s ice cream with people waiting up to half an hour for their choice of flavour. The cafe is mainly known though for its Italian seafood, pizza and pasta but you can just as easily pop in for a coffee or tea. Now open till 11pm at night it’s a honeypot for late night cafe and ice cream lovers. When I’m cycling home late in the evening after a night out it’s cheering to see Marrocco’s lit up and still buzzing with life.
In Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Julia Roberts in the movie, Elizabeth goes to Rome on the first stage of her voyage of self discovery and indulges in the local pasta and ice-cream. I’d venture you wouldn’t need to go as far as that. Just cycle down to Hove promenade to savour a little bit of Italy and ponder on life while watching the world go by.
The last place on earth you would expect to see a cafe is right next to a nuclear power station. The background hum of the power station and its brooding mass must be the biggest elephant in the room for Dungeness tourism. I travelled to this isolated spot on the Kent coast by the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch miniature railway where as you alight at the end of the line you’re welcomed by the Light Railway Cafe.
The cafe serves all sorts of breakfast options, fish and chips and jacket potatoes and sandwiches so a good stop for the hungry. Once inside it was the wildness of the views outside through the windows that drew my attention. Ready for a tea before exploring the area I preferred the outdoor seating with the majestic views of the pylons stretching out from the power station into the distance to the cacophony of the radio indoors.
To say that Dungeness is a place of contrasts is understating this vast and surreal area of shingle which encompasses weather battered homes amid a rich bio-diversity of wild flowers and is a designated National Nature Reserve. I wandered up the patch work road past washing on lines being whipped by the wind and homes assembled from wooden sheds and former railway carriages. Being in high summer the wildflowers were at their fullest bloom in hues of pink, yellow and orange.
I chatted to an artist who was welcoming passers by into his studio. His study of a former nearby shed disintegrating through exposure to the elements was the main exhibit. The isolation of his chosen home’s location seemed to accentuate his mania or maybe he was always a little like this. To choose to live in this starkly beautiful and remote landscape yet cheek by jowl with the nuclear industry isn’t your regular housing option so why would he be ‘normal’ anyway?
I wandered further along the road and came across Prospect Cottage, the former home of Derek Jarman, the acclaimed film director. The new owners have maintained the garden made famous by its eponymous book. With driftwood sculptures, masses of wild flowers and rusted metallic artworks it’s well worth the meander.
You come to realise how prosperous the modern western world has become compared with the recent past on reading a book like Jeanette Winterson’s riveting autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. It tells of her growing up in the grim North of England in the 60’s and how it’s made her the person she is. Walking around Dungeness you can’t help but ponder on why people would choose to live here in such bleak isolation. I can only surmise that it’s to get away from some of what the modern world deems progress and find their happiness in a slower and simpler pace of life. Yet with the conundrum that one monstrous edifice of that modern world drones just yards away .
A change of scene always gets your mind moving, changes your perspective and gives you a chance to mull over new ideas. We’d spent an invigorating day’s walking along the stunning Holkam beach from Wells-next-the Sea to Brancaster Staithe along the Norfolk coastal path. Huge, wide open skies and miles of dunes backed by pine forests. All very different from my usual stroll along Hove promenade. Though with one main similarity, a tea stop at the end.
A chance to sit down and rest our weary muscles and drink some tea was top of the list after an exhilarating day in Norfolk’s great outdoors. Though strictly a small hotel, bar and restaurant The White Horse also does a fine pot of tea. The indoor setting reflects the natural vista beyond being all driftwood mirrors, comfy wicker furniture and with a colour scheme of dreamy washed out blues and creams with a dash of sun burnt red. The seating area looks through the conservatory restaurant facing directly northwards over the vast area of fens and marshes. Over the late afternoon the tide gradually came in lifting up the small wooden boats from the mudflats and changing the view out entirely. The music was as mellow as the gently shifting seascape outside making this stop a very chilled out one indeed.
I’ve been reading The Job Delusion, a book written by a fellow Scot and now Brightonian like myself. Kevin eschews the notion of jobs bringing financial stability to our lives and instead embraces the idea of personal financial freedom. There’s loads of ideas to mull over and I agree with lots of the suggestions the book describes. Time to move on my life another step, in a bolder direction. In the meanwhile I can sip on another cup of tea as the tide slowly flows in closer still. But not for too much longer as it’ probably about time to act and make the life changes happen.
We stayed at the wonderful Deepdale independent hostel
Its all about the beach huts these days. I’d been to an evening hosted by the Brighton Beach Hut Writers, a collective of local authors, talking about their books and how they’d got where they are with their success in being published authors. Brighton and Hove beach huts though are not just an inspiration for local writers they also play their part in a most unusual creative arts project every December.
There’s nothing like getting you in the seasonal mood than to visit a Beach Hut Advent Calendar. The evening was chilly but with not a breath of wind and a sea as calm as a sleeping baby. Beach hut number 227 was just setting up on its appointed evening as part of the advent calendar art project as I was cycling home along the promenade. The small wooden hut was lit up in changing hues of green, pink, blue and violet. Inside it was set up as a traditional nativity scene but with a golden star spangled voile lining the wooden interior. With a crowd starting to gather the host was singing a haunting seasonal melody in soft harmonious tones. We warmed our hands around cups of steaming mulled wine and munched on mince pies and Santa Lucia cakes, the spicy sweetness of the hot drink an antidote to the sharpness of the air.
The ukelele was brought out to accompany Silent Night sung in Japanese, Spanish and German as different people from the gathering offered their talents. A change of tempo had the poet Jack Psychosis performing some work specially written for the evening. I even met someone from the audience I hadn’t seen for years and we caught up on the usual family news, delighted to be running into each other again.
A warm and inviting get-together on a becalmed December evening. This was my first Beach Hut Advent Calendar and there is a different one open every evening from 5.30 – 6.30 until the 24th December along the promenade. What else will the humble Brighton and Hove beach hut inspire?
Looking around the new Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate at Tracey Emin’s work the question did occur to me as to why some people are famous and not others. I loved the neon works and some of the sketches but the tatty old mattress on the floor would stretch most people’s credulity as to what is art and what isn’t. Being Margate’s most famous daughter she has most definitely earned her place in the contemporary art world.
Situated right on the seafront by the west harbour, the new Turner Gallery holds the promise of Margate’s renaissance. The gallery building is stylishly modern but the rest of Margate, in my view, will take a while to catch up. Becoming somewhat fazed by the juxtaposition of sketches by Turner, Rodin and Emin the chink of crockery and the hiss of steam from a coffee maker beckoned me down to the cafe on the ground floor.
The cafe is wonderfully light with uninterrupted views right over the harbour, beach and towards the seafront. On two sides the cafe is completely glass fronted with the rest of the walls starkly white. Any colour comes from the multi-coloured industrial style seating in hues of red, blue, gold and silver. There is seating outside too so you can take in all of that fresh Kentish air from the point where the Thames Estuary becomes the North sea while you drink your tea or coffee. There were some lovely cakes and savouries to be had but after a full English breakfast at our B & B we didn’t have the stomach for any more food that morning.
We’d come to Kent for a few days of cycling discovering the Sustrans cycle routes both inland and along the coast. Having never been this far east in Kent before we wondered why not as we were enjoying the cycling so much and the discovery too of such spots as Whitstable and Herne Bay along the way. Margate was our mid point for a rest day and the gallery was our culture trip for the day. Later we would walk along the coastal path all the way to Victorian Broadstairs with its Dickens heritage for ice-cream 99s at the harbour wall cafe.
The boy band Bros famously sang ‘When will I be famous’. Whether Emin’s art will still be talked about decades and centuries from now as Turner’s work is only time will tell. For the time being Tracey Emin is certainly famous and full marks to Margate for making the most of its connections with her.
Town seemed so busy. Swarms of international students , hordes of tourists, packs of shoppers all out thronging through Brighton’s narrow old town streets. I couldn’t seem to find a cafe that suited me, spoilt for choice in some way but I just cannot stand the crowds and couldn’t work out why everywhere was so busy. It wasn’t yet the school holidays or the weekend. After a chilled out meditation over lunch I was expecting to be relaxed and laid-back but it didn’t take me long to work out that town just wasn’t what I wanted . The great thing about being a cyclist is it just takes a few minutes and I’m on my way again. The seafront beckoned and I was out of the crowded streets before you could say ‘freedom’. Then I understood why it was so crowded in town – the seafront was deserted! The day was overcast for sure but still fairly warm and pleasant but the masses had decided and it was just not sunny and warm enough for them. I breathed in the fresh sea air and zoomed breezily along the seafront cycle path glad to leave the town centre behind.
Al Fresco cafe-bar is on the ground floor of Alfresco Italian restaurant, housed in the former milk maid pavilion and sandwiched between the children’s play area and the land side of the old West Pier. I took my mug of tea to a window- side table and settled in for some reading and writing. The cafe is spacious, light and with wonderful 180 degree sea views from their full length windows. The tables are light ash with white bucket shape chairs which are more comfortable than they look . There is also some great purple banquette seating to the rear. As Al Fresco is a cafe-bar there are plenty of cocktails to choose from as well as a condensed food menu from the main restaurant upstairs.
The interior is cool and stylish but its the outside that grabs your attention. The hulking wreck of the West Pier sits marooned just off-shore, a skeletal remnant of its former glory. Today the sea is a milky green and fairly calm with a mist hanging in the air hiding the top of the fairground rides at Palace Pier to the east. Empty bold striped deckchairs sit forlornly on the empty pebble beach. Five minutes later I looked up again and the mist was clearing, the sun was breaking through and the sea was more blue in colour.
One day last year I had been holed up at home with the dreadful weather and storms raging overhead. Thinking the weather had abated I ventured out but only got as far as Alfresco’s until the heavens opened again. I dashed indoors to shelter from the rain and sat mesmerised by the display of forked lightening before the electric storm blew itself out to sea.
So basically I’ve worked out that I tend to go in the opposite direction to the masses. You’ll find me in the shops and quirky streets of Brighton when the crowds are down on the beach leaving town relatively quiet. Or I’ll be down on the seafront enjoying the calm of the empty promenade on an unseasonal overcast day.