Wimpy #2: Sittingbourne

The Wimpy roundel outside Sittingbourne Wimpy.

I don’t think it makes no diffrents where you start the telling of a thing. You never know where it begun realy. No moren you know where you begun your oan self.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.

Don’t let the sadness of Sittingbourne infect your soul.

Faversham resident, Adam Boult.

Time for that difficult second Wimpy review. I know what you’re expecting. Bender Stratocasters. A Wimpy journey actually soundtracked by Journey. A lot of cheeseburgers about fame.

And on that note, you’re probably wondering why I’ve started a Wimpy review with a quote from a post-apocalyptic Kentish novel. The quote from Adam, sure. Everyone loves Adam, and this seems like good advice. But what’s with the Riddley Walker stuff?

After getting this long-delayed project off the ground, like a zeppelin filled with flammable chips, I received many, many kind offers from humans offering to accompany me to a Wimpy near them. Dingle, Huddersfield and Dorking. Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this, beyond the standard human reaction of being thankful. Other people? In a Wimpy? With me? With my reputation? I had assumed I’d be continuing to develop this voice of the melancholy solo traveller, peering over his bun at a world he barely understands. Not, as one friend excitedly put it, “the Wimpy version of comedians in cars with coffee”.

While trying to figure out what comedians, cars and coffee were, I made my way to Kent by train, to see Ruth and have one last sea swim of the summer.

You don’t know Ruth yet, but she’s a super sophisticated literary translator with lots of letters before and after her name and lots of words inside her head. She’s got a cat called Gary. Like I said – super sophisticated. How could anyone with a cat called Gary possibly be seen dead in a Wimpy?

Just in case I had somehow misjudged her, I consulted the Wimpy Finder, which is a tool on their website, not some mystical divining rod. It said Sittingbourne was Ruth’s closest branch.

Nice.

On arrival directly into Gary’s bungalow, which his gracefully shares with Ruth, her husband, and a second cat, I found an OS map open on the kitchen table.

A fragment of an OS map.

It took me a few gulps of tea to realise the significance of this, but then it hit me. Sittingbourne.

Because the thing is… you never know where it began, really. No more than you know where you began your own self.

Horny Boy

Riddley Walker is set in a dystopian version of east Kent, seen through the eyes of a 12 year old man (responsibility starts early when you’re fighting off packs of mutant dogs). The reader gradually understands there was a nuclear catastrophe in the distant past, setting the surviving humanity back to an Iron Age civilisation of mud, fear and scattered settlements.

There are no Wimpys, but Subway is still clinging on.

Riddley’s dialect, baffling at first, eventually works its way into your soul. And there’s humour there too, particularly in the degraded local place names. As the author explains: “Horny Boy is Herne Bay; Widders bel is Whistable; Father’s Ham is Faversham; Bernt Arse is Ashford; Fork Stoan is Folkestone; Do It Over is Dover.”

This Kent is built on half remembered things. Punch and Judy are the closest things to Gods; a fragment of a tale from Canterbury cathedral serves as a written testament.

It is a vivid landscape of rain, darkness, and violence. I first read the novel while walking the North Downs, that ridge of chalk which works its way through Riddley’s world on an ancient journey to Dover. Clearly, and unfairly, it influenced my view of this bit of Kent as the end of the world.

Today, it feels a long way from home, but for other reasons. Now, the associations are vigilantes hunting for migrants on dawn beaches, dangerous men channelling primal resentments as a distraction from a more complicated truth, and the prosaic spectre of lorries queuing all the way along the ancient road back to London.

There are good people in Kent too, so let’s think about nice things for a bit.

Ruth lives in Herne Bay, or Horny Boy if you prefer the Riddley Walker version. As you should.

Until 2017, Ruth’s nearest Wimpy would have been on the isle of Thanet, in Margate. This branch is gone, though not due to nuclear bombs forever ago. Instead, we must simply blame the town’s most famous fan of fried food, Pete Doherty, for eating elsewhere.

Margate Wimpy, shortly after its closure.

Back in present day Horny Boy, we swim to a soundtrack of revving jet skis and distant explosions.

The latter, Ruth explains, is Shoeburyness, where the Ministry of Defence test ordinance, and the shockwaves make their way across the Thames estuary to rattle her windows. “There’s a website that tells you how explode-y it’s going to be”.

High tide at Horny Boy.

I met Ruth in 1998. She was a quiet, quizzical woman on my corridor in my undergraduate hall of residence.

Twenty two years later, she’s a quiet, quizzical woman who chooses her words with professional care. I gabble mine into the silences she leaves.

A book translated by Ruth. You should buy it, it’s very good.

“Can you get a beer in a Wimpy?” Ruth asks post swim, as we prepare for our cycle. Maybe?*

Let’s go.

Widder’s bel

Our route to Sittingbourne takes us along the coast to Whitstable, the posh ying to Herne Bay’s yang, and we get stuck in the traffic gridlock that frequently envelops this otherwise pretty little Oyster town.

I ask Ruth what she’s working on. It involves Nazis. Being a German to English translator, it often involves Nazis.

I’m in awe of translators. It’s not just the rare skill of honouring an author’s voice in an entirely different language. It’s also the way I suspect translators put more than a little bit of themselves into these books. If I were a famous novelist, I would insist my translators be buried with me. Just in case. Although I’m not sure how this would work on a practical level.

We’re following national cycle route one, which goes all the way to John O’Groats if you pedal for long enough. Like a lot of Britain’s cycle routes, the planners assume you’re travelling in a hovercraft rather than on a bike, and send you across muddy fields, gravel tracks, cans of aviation-quality kerosene, and shared pavements.

National Cycle Route 1.

Father’s Ham

In Faversham (Father’s Ham), the route twists and meanders through suburban streets and past gangs ofa van beeps and tailgates me for unclear reasons. I slow, and twist around. The driver is pointing furiously to the pavement, where he thinks me and my bike should be. I shrug. The van close passes me, and I catch a vivid snapshot of a man and woman screaming at me to get off the road, their faces both contorted in hate and incomprehension.

I smile back at them.

A much nicer country road following the railway line takes us the rest of the way to Sittingbourne. A high speed train trundles past us on its non-high-speed line, a glorious symbol of Brexit Britain. I wave to it as it gently overtakes, and nearly cycle into a hedge.

A white van thwarts my attempt at a bucolic scene

The local issue of the day ‘round these parts is the Cleve Hill Solar Park. The local nature reserve, home to several baddass species of wading bird and rare marshland, is to be covered in many huge solar panels. Cycling past dystopian signs in the sunshine, I found the issue absurd. Campaigning against a solar park! In a climate emergency! This is peak NIMBY absurdism!

Having read up on the issue, I think the locals have a point. I rescind my exclamation marks, and wish for Graveney Marshes to be rewilded and for the solar panels to find a more suitable home.

Hahaha stupid nimbys… oh shit, they have a point.

Sittingbourne

The transition from rural lanes to dusty out-of-town industrial estates was abrupt and sudden. This, then, was Sittingbourne. Ruth had described her familiarity with the place as “more having been through than been to”; but that experience has historical precedent.

Back when “a mail journey from London in winter was an achievement to congratulate an adventurous traveller upon” – cheers, Dickens – Sittingbourne was a convenient rest stop for those heading to and from Dover or Canterbury on the ancient Watling Street. Now, people just thunder past on the A2, and no one is congratulated about anything.

The High Street.

Sittingbourne has seen better days. An industrial town ringed by bad roads and industrial estates, it’s a place you fear for in an era of Covid and Brexit, unless the enterprising locals can figure out a way to profit off the thousands of lorries expected to queue through Kent in the event of No Deal, Kent passport or no Kent passport.

The Wimpy

The seat in the window, please.

Ruth and I make our way up the old high street to the Wimpy, which was standing proud and, crucially, open. The traffic and the off-road meandering has lead us to arrive much later than anticipated.

Imagine if this post ended with the Wimpy being shut? I’d be chased down the internet equivalent of Watling Street with pitchforks and fiery torches, and rightly so.

Childish Wimpy Rankings

GREASINESS OF CHEF: 3/10

BUSY-NESS OF RESTAURANT: 9/10

PROXIMITY TO MY HOUSE: 6/10

Unlike the Southsea branch, with its plastic trays and unusual amusement arcade location, this is a classic Wimpy.**

I love a booth, me. And also a quote from a 1980s advertising campaign.

Plates. Cutlery. A soundtrack of jangly pop. A reassuring lack of fellow customers.***

One long, thin room for dining, with the kitchen and service area along the side, so you can watch your burgers being flipped and admire the chef’s hat. Table service.

Unfortunately the chef is wearing a trendy flat cap, not a paper hat with “Wimpy” written on it, but there are no ratings categories specifically dealing with staff headwear, so we’ll let that slide for now.

The soundtrack is jangly 1960s pop, the waitress is cheery and welcoming. The restaurant seems to stretch on back forever.

“There’s actually a fake wall,” I explain to Ruth as we sit down. “You adjust one of the pictures of burgers and the whole wall and floor flip around, revealing a space for secret sex parties where you take turns to dress up as Mr Wimpy.”

“I see”.

I order a halfpounder with cheese and chips; Ruth plumps for a spicy beanburger on its own. A burger without chips is like a motorcycle sidecar without a dog wearing goggles: completely pointless. I let this insult slide and ask her about her own experience of Wimpy as a kid.

“There were never any in Cornwall.”

“Citation needed,” I say, thinking of the one in Penzance I used to visit.

“Definitely not Truro or Newquay. We didn’t really eat out anyway.”

Ruth’s first Wimpy wasn’t until she visited the Clapham branch “a bit” when she moved to London in the early noughties. I wonder if I’ve chosen a non-believer for my first accompanied visit.

“I love the idea of a Wimpy, I’ve just not been in many”, she explains. Ah, the platonic ideal of a Wimpy. The Wimpy-like nature of a Wimpy as independent from its physical Wimpy form. This explains why the ghosts of former Wimpys still smell of special sauce.

Our food arrives.

A Wimpy Halfpounder with Chips and a Spicy Beanburger.

Ruth’s review is a masterpiece of economy: “it’s not bad”.

We agree her spicy beanburger lacks structural integrity, but she likes that it comes a brown bap. “Burger buns are really sweet now, like Brioche, or the white bread that collapses into nothing”. She’s happy. And it’s nice to have a fellow reviewer not underwhby the sepia glow of crippling nostalgia.

We discuss the mysterious ingredients of Wimpy’s special sauce, and compare regional chip topping etiquette.

Wimpy’s current branding doth swad itself verily in the flag

“In Herne Bay we have “Shakey Shakey”, which is a special mix of paprika, salt and… something else.”

My chips could do with some Shakey Shakey. Much like in the Southsea branch, they’re a bit rubbish. But the burger is excellent: hefty, substantial, and not overburdened with sauce special or otherwise.

Time to visit the facilities. “Do you have a bathroom,” I ask the passing waitress.

“What?”

“A toilet.”

“Oh. I thought you were asking if we have a back room.”

I think of that wall flipping around, and say nothing incriminating.

Tempting.

Grown-up Wimpy Rankings

FRIENDLINESS OF STAFF: 9/10

QUALITY OF MEAL: 8/10

VALUE OF MEAL: 8/10

Postscript

We finish our visit to Sittingbourne by visiting the independent real ale pub just up the road, the excellent Donna’s Ale House. Outside, there is a cabal of men, sitting at various tables outside, expressing their opinions into the unseasonably warm September evening. Below are a selection of their opinions.

On local traffic:

“You see those mums in those massive 4×4 tin cans? They’re enormous! And their kids are enormous an all!” 

On international affairs: 

“I’m allowed to be racist****, but the Chinese don’t fuck about.”

On me and Ruth being at a neighbouring table:

“These two are just trying to have a nice time, not to hear our bollocks”.

It was time to depart, myself for London, Ruth back to Horny Boy, with its Shakey Shakey and its rumours of Sandi Toksvig.

Thank you, Sittingbourne. You gave us what we needed, and nothing more.

Footnotes

* The answer being: depends on the branch. I still haven’t forgotten the amazement when Twickenham Wimpy started serving bottles of cheap lager. The Twickenham branch has since closed.

** Or, if you prefer, a Wimpy Classic. See what I did there?

**** As explained in my opening chapter, the teenage me resented busy Wimpys, not due to a desire to see it fail but because packed restaurants stressed me out. This explains both the counter-intuitive rating (9/10 = practically deserted) and my failure to understand basic economics.

**** His logic being that he was himself half Chinese. I do not support or endorse his opinion or those of any Sittingbourne drinkers

Published by jamesofwalsh

My past blogs haunt the internet like ghost ships on a digital sea.

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