We met at the village of Cliffe, which feels like a village at the end of the world. The road ends at the church, and then there’s mud, and marsh, and channels of water leading down to the grey old Thames. But humans have live here a long while: there is record of settlement in AD43, during the Roman occupation, when there was a crossing point over the river.
Our walk did not start well. We took a path through the edge of a field, which headed gradually uphill, passing grouse pens and dogging spots. Eventually we admitted defeat and doubled back, but not before being rewarded with a view of birds and the river from our chalky vantage point.
The view is of Cliffe Pools Nature Reserve. If you like birds, there are plenty of them available here. Avocets, lapwings. Little egrets. Lagoons filled with teals, wigeons, shovelers, mallards, gadwalls and pintails.
After a few more wrong turns, we finally found the path down to the nature reserve, and the landscape opened up on front of us. We passed a birdwatcher armed with binoculars and a tripod, and some cyclists trundling the uneven paths, until we could at last stand on the estuary wall and wave at cargo ships bound for the North Sea and beyond.
Today’s bike jaunt took me to the edge of Thanet, and the remains of the Roman fort at the head of the Wantsum Channel .
It’s a lovely spot. It reminds me of Dunwich, with its ruined monastery and the sense that this place used to be more important than it now is. And this is of course true: it was once a thriving port and market, but the geographic eddies of time were not kind to Reculver. Now it’s a pub, a cafe, and a few caravan parks, one advertising over-45s living with a photo of the sexiest pensioner couple I ever did see .
The cycle down was an easy four or five miles, with Herne Bay and its village-suburbs melting away into a quiet country lane with high hedgerows and occasional glimpses of the ruin to come.
From the fort, one has an excellent view of the offshore wind farm, which sits solidly where once the bouncing bomb was test-bounced. Ah, the bouncing bomb: a morale-boosting gimmick rather than crucial turning point of WW2, to be sure. But it feels exactly the kind of naffness that belongs here, for all of Reculver’s ghostly timelessness.
I got lost in a new-build housing estate on the way back. I was trying to find another route close to the dual carriageway, and fully expected to find at least a footpath or a pedestrian bridge taking me back to Herne Bay proper. But nothing linked up, and I was forced to retrace my pedals, as this Strava map makes clear.
I felt sorry for everyone who lived here, on the edge of town, only accessible by car, with no shops or community life anywhere near. So much of the housing we build is like this now: cheap, sprawling, and utterly unsustainable.
I made my way back out of the estate, along the road which slaloms back and forth to encourage drivers to slow down, which mixed results. You wouldn’t want your kids playing in the streets here.
Heading back across the bridge over the railway line, I was greeted with a glorious sight: the concrete Herne Bay water tower, standing mighty and proud on Mickleburgh Hill despite its lack of actual water based function. It does at least seem to be providing excellent mobile phone coverage.
From here, it was a lovely downhill jaunt back into Herne Bay itself, with its mildly frightening roundabouts and large population of white vans and extremely old pensioners hobbling across the road without looking. I admired these people for their bloody-mindedness and the irritation they caused to some of the aforementioned white vans .
Post-travels, it was a joyous evening, for the most part . My friend won a translation prize. She said she had no chance of winning. I said she would win. I guess this means I can claim at least part of the credit, right? I made her a congratulatory meme of her with the pixelated sunglasses and the massive joint so popular with the internet I remember existing ten years ago. I will publish it below and hope she never sees it. 
 Long since silted up, but once the divider between the isle and the rest of Kent.
 I didn’t get off my bike to take a photo, but trust me: these sexy retirees were not moving to this executive caravan park to settle down, oh no. Relentless, non-stop septuagenarian boning was heavily implied.
 Here I have fallen into the local newspaper trap of describing white vans as autonomous, even self-aware vehicles. Like in the headline, “van drives into pensioner”. Or “Woman carelessly walks into HGV’s blind spot”. I mean white van *drivers*.
 Today the post-lockdown tiers were announced. Kent is stuck in tier three, making various Christmas plans either unlikely or downright impossible. Also, emotions.
 Congratulations Ruth. I am unjustifiably proud…
I cycled to Canterbury and back today, out of desperation to get further than half a mile from the house.
From Herne Bay, the easiest route by bike takes you out past Greenhill and over the Thanet Way. A sorry-looking ex-pub decomposes in its plot next to the dual carriageway.
You then pass up through Thornden Wood, on a road that meanders pleasantly and stops most passing drivers from picking up too much speed. This joins Hackington Road, which brings you up to Tyler Hill and, from there, the delightful drop down into Canterbury from St Stephen’s Hill.
The city centre was very quiet for lunchtime. The straw boater-ed man in his sausage van was not doing a roaring trade in sausages. Without its usual gaggle of tourists and English language students, the streets of Canterbury took on a spookily deserted air, as though the world had ended and no one had got around to telling me yet.
I cycled on some cobbles and ummed and ahhed about buying a coffee. But buying coffee was a retroactive justification for a trip that didn’t need one.
So I got back on my saddle and returned to Herne Bay. St Stephen’s Hill is less fun on the way back – particularly when a woman in the passenger seat of a Ford screams at you as they pass, in an attempt to get you to fall from your bike – but from the top, it’s downhill all the way, through the woods and fields, until the view opens out and you can see the line of blue and the offshore wind turbines of home.
The title to this blog post could have been written by an algorithm, but it is an accurate summary of my weekend. I glued together the latest episode of Next Level Sketch, like a cut and shunt but with clown cars. I edited out the silences, and added some jingles and an intro. I’m super proud of it, and would be honoured if you would listen to the finished episode below.
And now, onto the important business of cats.
The cats are not mine, but one of them has taken a liking to me. I post these photos in the hope that the internet still has spare capacity for more cats, and that this doesn’t tip us over the edge of a cat photo event horizon.
The idea was to get guests on who are happy to discuss their own failed sketches, which we’ve achieved in the past; but when people are shy, it seems I am always happy to oblige with my own sketches that are fundamentally a bit broken in some crucial way.
This particular creative gambit definitely qualifies as an eccentric lockdown invention, but I’m really pleased I’ve stuck with it, and really grateful to the special guest stars from the Next Level Sketch gang who have taken the time to come on and give their thoughts. In the process, I think we are all learning something about how not to write sketch comedy.
The latest episode is about fish, existentialism and crash test rabbits, and features Paul and Muireann as the sketch inquisitors. It’s available on most podcast platforms, or you can listen via the embed below.
Author’s note: This Wimpy trip took place before London entered into a Tier 2 lockdown.
London goes beyond any boundary or convention.It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.
Peter Ackroyd, London: a biography
London. Home of the cockney.
The narrator of Dangermouse
I have lived most of my life in London, but never felt like a Londoner.
There are a few reasons for this.
One: my formative years were spent in Nottingham. I was there from 7 until 15: a crucial, but shrinking percentage of my life, like the Great Red Spot on Jupiter.
Two: I was born in Kingston Upon Thames, an outer borough of London that has lingering and wrong-headed pretentions of being in Surrey. It is a place of its own, and London felt like a far-off, separate thing.
Three: impermanence. The longest I’ve stayed in any one place in London is five years. And, as is in common with all my living situations, I was renting.
Renting, at least in England, means more than simply being ripped off.
It means feeling like a second class citizen, as our society and culture are now so centred around the fading dream of home ownership. It means having no rights. It means knowing you could be moved on at any time.
It means understanding that the longer you live somewhere desirable, the less likely you’ll be able to afford to live in that place long term. And, unlike in more civilised countries with regulated long term rents, at all times, like you don’t *really* belong in an area. You’re just passing through.
The place I’ve lived longest in London is Streatham. No rapacious landlord here: I was a lodger for a kind friend, paying cheap rent and sharing a maisonette behind a pub just off the A23.
Struggling as I was with depression and basic life maintenance, I don’t think I was an easy person to live with. But I’ll always be grateful for my time there, sharing the love and the peculiarities of my friend and her extremely odd cat, Swinton.
The house, and its neighbours, were once part of of an infamously enormous beer garden. And the association with boozing lingered: our car park was a popular one for street drinkers. Brandy and coke out of plastic glasses; cans of lager off the bonnet of an Audi. Impromptu parties with car stereos blasting out into the night.
Streatham just means town on the road, and boy, is it ever. Its defining feature – the longest high street in Europe – is now its witch’s curse, as the West End of south London (Theatres! Bowling Alleys! Dancehalls!) was slowly choked by an eternal traffic jam.
There were good things about it. I loved:
– The common. It hosted kite days, dog shows, and views of Croydon. Every time we had a meteor shower, I would wander up to a clearing, lie on my back, and stare into infinity. I was rewarded with streaks of light at the periphery of my vision.
– The Hideaway jazz club, where local legend David McAlmont would host his yearly Bowie, George Michael, and Prince tribute nights. David, striding on stage holding a single candle, dressed magnificently, singing like an angel.
– The Railway pub, with its excellent quiz and stand up comedy nights. A community space that gets everything right, from its local beers (they’ve got ‘em) to its sensible approach to dogs (they’re for ‘em).
And – yes, I got there eventually – the Wimpy. Overseen by long-standing owner Kemal, as featured in Vice magazine, the Wimpy was the most democratic space in town, where people of all ages and backgrounds came together for a bit of peace and some fried potato products.
In my mid twenties, I went there on Wednesday afternoons before daytime all-you-could-bowl sessions  with my friend Alastair.
In my mid-thirties, you would find me there on Saturday lunchtimes, hungover, writing letters to no one in particular.
My Wimpy Companion
My +1 for Streatham was writer, cartoonist, and fellow bubble pipe enthusiast James Turner.
James and I first met in 2003, via a blogging site called 20six.
My blog was about New Malden.
It was a semi-ironic pretence that my drab suburban existence was important, and that this nondescript suburb was the centre of the universe. I never conceived of it having readers outside of our cliquey, incestuous little blogging community.
In these days before the rise of the social media giants and walled gardens like Facebook and Instagram, the internet was a distinctly less corporate affair. The rise of an upstart new search engine – a bit like Ask Jeeves, but actually useful – meant one was suddenly exposed to lots of potential new readers.
Within a few months, the blog was the top google search result for the town, and I was being recognised in pubs and receiving creepy messages telling me which train I took to work in the morning.
These were naive internet times, and I was a legend in my own postcode.
James was a fellow New Maldenite, and he was curious as to who this guy was pretending to be his home town. We bravely met up IRL, at Woodies, New Malden’s only good pub, and bonded over our love of Wimpy and social awkwardness.
James went on to create the much-loved webcomic Beaver and Steve. At one point, these characters worked at a suspiciously familiar-looking fast food restaurant…
Childish Wimpy Rankings
GREASINESS OF CHEF: 6/10
BUSY-NESS OF RESTAURANT: 5/10
PROXIMITY TO MY HOUSE: 9/10
It is lunchtime, and the Wimpy is moderately busy. My preferred two window tables are already occupied, so we head further in, near the counter. As a sign of the times, there is an enormous, plastic, Wimpy branded hand sanitiser stand dominating the room.
While we study the menu, I remind James that he once made me a home-made Wimpy plate as a birthday gift.
“I went through a plate making phase”, he admits, as I covet the excellent Wimpy baseball cap worn by the servi. One day one shall be mine, as will a Mr Wimpy suit – the holy grail of all serious Wimpy memorabilia collectors.
“There’s probably one rotting in a shed somewhere”.
As James weighs up whether to get what he would have ordered as a child, or what he would like, right now, as a fully grown adult, I daydream turning up for a Bender in a partially decomposed Mr Wimpy costume, and imagine the nonplussed reaction of the waitress.
“Sitcom idea: someone running a 50 year old Wimpy franchise with a museum in the back,” James suggests. The dream – to be boss of Wimpy’s answer to the pork pie museum in Melton Mowbray, which is a few information boards in a pork pie shop. Well worth a visit if you like a slice of regionally specific history with your pie.
As our food arrives – quarter pounders with cheese and chips – I put James to work describing Streatham Wimpy’s ambience and decor.
“Original built-in seating. A bit more modern than the New Malden one, which admittedly I didn’t visit long before its close. Maybe it feels a bit like a hotel or an airport in the early nineties.”
“Or a motorway service station?”
“Motorway services were an absolute highlight of my childhood. These were magical oases, where you’d stop off, probably get something bought for you… that never happens.
“If anyone told me what adulthood would be like, I wouldn’t have expected ‘the same, but no one takes me to motorway services any more’”.
Childhood haunts Wimpys like Banquo’s ghost eating a full English. This explains the company’s heavy use of nostalgia in its marketing, and why our conversation turns frequently to the past. My own early years are pretty hazy, while James remembers the exact moment he decided to no longer cry.
“I went to a Wimpy birthday at the big Kingston branch ones,” says James. “They had a big tapestry of the Wimpy mascot on the wall.”
I couldn’t remember this.
“Were there other wimpy characters that he interacted with Mr Wimpy? A Wimpy Hamburgler? I thought he acted alone”.
“You’re asking a lot. I think it was just him, in a pastoral situation, possibly with children…”
I’m not sure you could get away with that these days. Even Captain Birdeye’s private island can’t escape the fishy finger of post-Epstein suspicion.
Our meal is coming to an end, and so I ask James for his verdict. He is not complimentary, so I’ll spare all of our sensitivities and ignore his hateful words. Me? I thought it was pretty good, as Wimpys go.
Deciding against a Brown Derby or Knickerbocker Glory, and lunch time  running out, we end up circling back around to the New Malden blog, our own personal origin story.
I confess to James that the persona never felt quite right. After all, I lived in Nottingham for a big chunk of time. I always thought of myself as a semi-fraud.
“That’s how I’ve always thought of you.”
Grown-up Wimpy Rankings
FRIENDLINESS OF STAFF: 8/10
QUALITY OF MEAL: 7/10
VALUE OF MEAL: 7/10
Due to various reasons too personal to go into here, it’s taken me a while to write this Wimpy up, and the new lockdown means I can’t visit any further Wimpys until early December at the earliest. Please bear with me, and why not patronise your local Wimpy with takeaway and delivery orders in the meantime?
Also, my living situation is up in the air, which is both useful for visiting geographically diverse Wimpys while also making a mockery of the “proximity to my house” rating.
For example: I visited the Streatham one when I was dog sitting just down the road in Tooting. I am now in Kent. So to avoid confusion, that rating now officially refers to the distance from New Malden. As, perhaps, in my heart, it always did.
 £5.99 for unlimited bowling, 12-6 weekday afternoons. We’d frequently be the only people bowling, and old ladies sheltering from the cold would sit in the plastic moulded seats of neighbouring lanes and pretend to watch our games. The building is now luxury flats, but it lay abandoned for some time, leading to some excellent “abandoned London” style photography from this internet denizen.
 “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” So wrote Douglas Adams, but that was the 1980s. Lunch was very different in the 1980s.
We did it. We actually returned to a stage and put on a show!
As I’ve written about before, I’m a producer for Next Level Sketch, a sketch comedy collective founded in late 2019, with a mind to do regular sketch comedy nights, as a) we enjoy writing and performing them and b) we felt like there was a dearth of sketch comedy spaces in London, and we wanted to provide a new one. We’d seen so many excellent sketch and comedy acts on bills alongside stand-up comedians, which is fine as far as it goes, but the rhythms of sketch are very different. We wanted a little place of our own.
Our first two shows were sellouts. The set-up was simple: the first half was our gang, with fresh new sketches from our collective of writers and performers. There was then an interval during which we encouraged people to drink and talk to each other. Then, we’d have a headliner, who would provide their own excellent sketch and character comedy stylings.
And to be honest, writing the above feels a bit like a transmission from another world, because as we all know, 2020 turned out not to be the best year to start a new live sketch comedy night.
Fast forward eight months, and Next Level Sketch has been a source of perpetual joy during a really challenging year, thanks to our regular Zoom meetings and outpourings of WhatsApp nonsense.
Our gang agreed to put together a sketch comedy podcast, and the quality of the writing and performance has been staggering. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we’ve never tried to do anything like this before, and the end result is a beautiful and strange little show, with its own cast of returning quirks, personalities and themes, but with entirely new sketches and ideas in every single episode. We are really proud of it and you should have a listen.
But we had really missed live performance. And with Hoopla Impro working their collective butts off to make live performance a Covid-Secure and socially distanced possibility upstairs at The Miller, we decided to put together a show for October, even though at the back of my minds we knew there was the possibility of another lockdown coming along and stopping it from going ahead.*
We limited our onstage cast to six humans, and loved the cabaret style, households-only table set-up that awaited us at The Miller. Capacity had been reduced from 70 to a mere 16 for the shows: we were curious to see what that would mean in terms of atmosphere and CPM (chuckles per minute).
And we needn’t have worried. Both audiences* were wonderful, warm and appreciative, as we put on sketches involving spooky ghost stories, incompetent submarine captains, and energetic boxercise coaches having on-stage emotional breakdowns.
Thanks so much to all the lovely humans who wrote, offered amazing sketch feedback, directed, and performed at our show on Tuesday. This year has been so difficult, but it’s been such a joy getting to know you all and reading and listening to all those strange and mysterious things that you have dredged up from the bottom of your minds.
Below are some more photos from the show.
*And a day after writing this, rumours of a November lockdown began to fly around, like plastic bands in the wind in 1990s movies about late capitalist ennui
The Heygate estate is now the miserable Elephant Park, and now the shopping centre itself is coming to its end. It is to be demolished and replaced by a shiny new development.
Rest assured this unique community space, with its accompanying market, will be fully incorporated into the building due to replace it.
There’ll be a bingo hall for the old folk, a bowling alley for the young, and the affordable rents will be maintained so independent traders won’t be moved on to somewhere else, or forced to give up their businesses entirely.
Masses of social housing will be built as part of the new scheme. Locals will still be able to come for a cheap bite to eat, some hair accessories, or a gossip.
Old ladies will continue to be allowed to sit around in plastic chairs chatting about this and that. The spirit of the space, crucial in a rapidly gentrifying city, will be cherished, supported and maintained.
Nah, only kidding.
I wasn’t able to make it down for Thursday’s farewell protest, well covered by the Guardian’s Damian Gayle, but cycled down at the weekend to have one last strong Latin American coffee and say my own goodbyes to Europe’s first indoor shopping centre and one of south London’s last substantial working class hubs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
“Can you get a beer in a Wimpy?” Ruth asks post swim, as we prepare for our cycle. Maybe?*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.**
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 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.
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.
“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.
“Oh. I thought you were asking if we have a back room.”
I think of that wall flipping around, and say nothing incriminating.
Grown-up Wimpy Rankings
FRIENDLINESS OF STAFF: 9/10
QUALITY OF MEAL: 8/10
VALUE OF MEAL: 8/10
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.
* 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
For years, I’ve had an idea for a “Wimpy book”. Obsessed with the retro burger chain as a teenager, I would rate and rank every branch via crucial, exacting and childish criteria like “greasiness of chef”, “busy-ness of restaurant” (the emptier the better) and “proximity to my house”. From what I remember, the Penzance branch fared a lot worse in the latter category than the New Malden branch, particularly as I lived in New Malden at the time.
Both the New Malden and Penzance Wimpys are now gone. One is now a mediocre Korean / Japanese restaurant, the other a Dominos pizza. When I returned to the idea of visiting every Wimpy in the country in my late twenties, with a slightly more sophisticated rating system and state-of-Britain narrative behind it, it felt imperative to get the thing done quickly, before they all disappeared.
Both the burger chain and my idea to write about it seem to have been heading into obscurity together.
I should probably explain a little bit about what Wimpy is, in case it hasn’t had the same impact on you as it had on me.
Wimpy is a bastardisation of American diner culture. It came to us via Lyon’s tea shops, a venerable cafe chain with locations all over Britain by the 1930s. A Lyon’s Corner House was the sort of place P.G. Wodehouse would send one of Bertie Wooster’s hapless friends to fall in love with a waitress, with hilarious consequences.
By the 1950s, Lyons needed something a bit less staid to pull in the young folk, who were emerging from the grey swamp of postwar austerity with strange modern haircuts and a love for American music and amphetamines.
And so the Wimpy Bar was born. Obtaining a license to use the brand in the UK from a Chicago-based chain, J Lyons and Co opened the first Wimpy within one of London’s Corner Houses – specifically the one on Coventry Street pictured above. At its peak, Wimpy was flipping [burgers] everywhere.
In the late eighties, when I started visiting regularly, Wimpy was a franchise in decline. An American burger upstart with a terrifying clown mascot had been making inroads, making Wimpy’s own disturbingly eyeless beefeater seem behind the times, despite starring in his own video game.
Then the Burger King came in and bought up a bunch of Wimpy’s prime, city centre, counter service locations. I remember this vividly, as a kid in my class at school was the son of a Burger King big [royale with] cheese, and I hated him for it. This nameless dad was going around converting all of Nottingham’s profitable Wimpy outlets into non-Wimpys.
Andreas, if you’re out there: I have still not forgiven him for this. Or you, for not stopping him. I don’t care that you’re probably now a middle-aged accountant living in Cheshire. This isn’t over.
The remaining Wimpy Bars were the more traditional, table service ones; these were the kind that you would find in dull suburbs, concrete and windswept shopping arcades, and fading seaside resorts.
I loved them. For me, they were the height of class and sophistication, partly because they were the only restaurant I ate in that had table service until my eighteenth birthday (Pizza Express). My family were fussy, uncomplicated eaters, with a working class English/Irish palette. What I’m trying to say is, we ate a lot of chips. Garlic was, and is, still treated with suspicion and fear, a weird bulbous interloper from a strange and smelly land.
Wimpy was more than the Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and the surly service, and the knives and forks. My local branch, particularly when I moved back to London as a strange and introverted sixteen year old, was a sanctuary. Too young for pubs and too old for amusement arcades. It was a place where I learned to overhear, to people-watch, and to write about the things around and inside me.
This was before the dreary democratisation of chain coffee shops. The Wimpy was the only place I could go and be alone and be myself, and not be bothered, provided I had enough shrapnel in my pocket to afford a cup of tea or some chips. The place was never busy, my table was never required for anyone else. To someone who had moved around a lot, it was home.
As I got older and more middle class, in my culinary aspirations if not my social and economic capital, my relationship with Wimpy became more complicated. I worked for the Guardian and didn’t fit in: not posh enough. I went to the pub with my Dad’s painter and decorator mates and didn’t fit in: not cockney banter enough.
Did I belong in Wimpy either? What, now, did I have in common with the people on the other tables? My visits were fading into ritual, and I was a man who went to communion even though I no longer believed in God.
My obsession with Wimpy – always tinged with irony, though quite how much I could never be sure – was at an end. All the branches I had a nostalgic connection with had shut down. The one in Nottingham’s Broadmarsh Centre was the last to go, even though the owner had been assured they’d be able to move downstairs while the redevelopment was completed. He told me this, with cheery confidence, on my last visit.
The last incarnation of my hitherto non-existent Wimpy book was dreamed up around cycling and Brexit. As the number of Wimpys dropped below a hundred, I began to notice that they tended to survive in clusters: the Essex cluster, the Surrey cluster. Perhaps I could cycle to every remaining Wimpy, talk to the people I find.
As Wimpy increasingly embraced the flag and “proudly British” language in its endearingly half hearted corporate communications, perhaps there was something in this. Wimpys seemed to be surviving in predominantly Leave-voting areas. Maybe I could visit them all before we left the EU.
I got hold of Wimpy’s PR, and explained my idea to her while realising mid-conversation that explaining my idea to her was a terrible idea. Wimpy themselves no longer did anything in-house: she managed the social media presences and the press requests alongside a bunch of other intellectual properties.
What I wanted to know is did Wimpy have an archive, maybe a bunch of materials I could have a look through. I wasn’t imagining a museum of Wimpy, in a proud neo-classical building by a river, but I thought they might at least have a Mr Wimpy suit. They didn’t, but: “if you do end up obtaining one, can you let us know?”
Unfortunately Wimpy had changed hands far too many times for there to be a Benderumptious* Smithsonian. All this (very friendly and professional) PR could do was tell me some pro-Wimpy facts I already knew, or promise to put me in touch with some of their poster-boy franchise owners. Who would, of course, be nice, but would not tell me anything interesting.
The air in my Wimpy tires deflated again. Time passed. I climbed quite a lot of trees, and gave offensive names to video game characters. Some kind of pandemic happened.
Then I crashed my bike.
I lost two thirds of a front tooth, some confidence, and my beautiful red Dawes Galaxy Tourer. The latter was pronounced a “write off” by my taciturn local bike shop owner the following morning, as he handed me a leaflet for a solicitor specialising in bike crashes. He could value it for me, for the insurance. But he couldn’t fix it.
Although, he said, his manner warming slightly, he did have an old Dawes frame he could maybe give me. He bought it for himself, as a project, and his eyes glazed over as he imagined the glory days when his shop wasn’t forever full of infuriating customers.
The past few weeks without a bike have been tough. My already difficult relationship with motor traffic has moved from fraught to frantic, as every revved engine or beeped horn or mounted pavement reminded me of the crash. I’ve long since been heading down the road towards a middle age of writing furious letters to the local council, but I’m now that guy who taps on your window if you’re idling outside a primary school.**
I needed to get back on a bike, that miraculous 19th century avatar of freedom, good health, and women getting ideas above their station. For as we all know, the roads were not built for cars.
I bid for a new, old tourer on eBay, which, in case you’re reading this from a far-future socialist utopia, is an auction site where middle aged men make a few quid by selling the things in their garage.
My middle aged man was a builder. Work had taken its toll on his back, so he didn’t have any further use for his gorgeous, blue, Surly Long-Haul Trucker. Only problem was: he lived in Portsmouth, a place you never go on purpose.
On the train on the way down, I excitedly WhatsApped my group of male university friends (and my main connection with the normcore middle class suburban lifestyle I both envy and fear), to tell them I had found a replacement bike and was heading off to pick it up. And that I might kill some time by taking the ferry over to the 1950s Isle of Wight.
One friend, Nathan, had an alternative suggestion:
I had some wheels. I had a starting Wimpy. It was, finally, time to embark on my Wimpy journey.
Wimpy #1: Southsea
GREASINESS OF CHEF: 8/10
BUSY-NESS OF RESTAURANT: 8/10
PROXIMITY TO MY HOUSE: 5/10
Dominated by past and present associations with the Royal Navy, Portsmouth is the kind of place where even the plastic pirates on the crazy golf courses fly union jacks.
England has the “Churchill Zone”, that subtopian area around London where the taxi drivers live and all businesses seem to be named after the old problematic cigar muncher. Portsmouth has Nelson, and incessant reminders of glorious Victory in pubs and cafes and plumbing vans. This feels incongruous for a town that has a tired, defeated air, thanks to forty years of neoliberalism, austerity and – whisper it, I wouldn’t – Brexit.
As a kid, I was obsessed with warships, and my Irish grandfather was a retired British Rail worker with a free go-anywhere pass.*** So he’d often take me to Portsmouth Harbour on the slam-door train from Clapham Junction. On arrival I would peer down at the sea through the wooden boards of the pier-like terminus, amazed. And then it would be time to go and look at some fucking boats.
Thirty-odd years later, the journey was just as exciting as I remembered: the viaduct that takes you up and through the city, and the feeling that the train was taking you as far as it absolutely could take you, with ferries waiting to help you cross the Solent and beyond.
Crashing me back to earth, the first thing I saw when I got off the train was a poster advertising Morrissey’s new album. As augurs go, the racist Mancunian crooner-in-exile was as welcome as birds flying backwards into a propeller. I performed a quick anti-Morrissey rite and headed out of the station.
To the north, the Historic Dockyard, where the childhood, pro-military version of me would go every summer for “Navy Days” with my family. Navy Days was an open weekend of patriotic propaganda, where excited kids got to clamber all over modern destroyers and aircraft carriers, and to watch Harrier jump jets performing gravity-defying tricks. This was only a few years after the Falklands war, when the navy still had plenty of ships and a recent victory to be triumphant about.
To the south, Gunwharf Quays. Car-choked and impossible to circumnavigate, this is a soulless mall of the usual outlets, topped off with a naff sail-shaped tower which gives the area all the charm of a slightly more twee Dubai. While Portsmouth’s past was trade and war, its present is the usual pivot to leisure, shopping, and what is euphemistically known as property development.
From here I passed into Portsmouth point, the fortified mouth of Portsmouth Harbour. Spice Island, as it was once known, was once a place synonymous with boozing, sex workers and men waking up hungover to find they had been press ganged into Nelson’s navy.
As I walked through, on a hot summer’s afternoon, two chubby children were throwing themselves off the old battlements into the Solent, ignoring the posters warning them they would probably be killed. They shouted abusive words of encouragement to their hesitating friends, then swam back round to the pebble beach as ferries and small boats sailed on by, thrillingly close.
I expect some of you are now impatiently wanting to know when we’re going to get to the Wimpy, like The Simpsons’ Millhouse and Itchy & Scratchy’s fireworks factory. I don’t blame you. Look at it:
It is close. Passing along the seafront past more fortifications and danger-seeking children, I soon arrived at Southsea and Clarence Pier, home to fairground rides, amusement arcades, patriotic pirate golf, theme pubs, and the Wimpy of a postwar planner’s dreams.
To add to the atmosphere of retro-future, this Wimpy is right next to a Hoverport. This is a grand title for the hut and pebble slipway that mark England’s last commercial hovercraft service, but Hoverport it is, like a miniature village version of the huge concrete hangars that once housed the car-carrying cross-channel hoverbeasts in Ramsgate and Boulogne-sur-mer.
The Hoverport and the Wimpy are separated by a little jetty, from which sixty-somethings video the craft‘s arrival on their smartphones. Where is the hovercraft in the English imagination? Is it a last gasp of pre-Thatcher engineering ingenuity, like Concorde or the Advanced Passenger train? To me it belongs in a Supermarionation world of Gerry Anderson hydraulics and unnecessary automation, not to day trippers losing their hats whenever the fans are cranked up for the short trip across the Solent.
Enough postwar melancholy. Time for a Wimpy.
Social distancing had come to my favourite burger restaurant. My old local Wimpy, in New Malden, was not Covid-ready. The seats and tables were all moulded and welded to the floor; a trip to the bathroom was a tight, thrilling affair, past the chip fryers and the guy you suspected of squeezing himself into the Mr Wimpy costume for your sixth birthday party.
Back in present day Southsea, the seats were free agents, and so were sensibly scattered around and about. Ordering was a simple process of writing down your phone number, home address, national insurance number, blood type, favourite colour, and what burger you wanted onto a Wimpy branded form. You then took this to the cashier, a friendly young man who checked you were ok with your “coke” actually being a Pepsi, and apologised that your drink would not be covered by the government’s “eating out” subsidy.
Hang on. The what now? But it was true. The Man, in this case represented by the current Tory administration, were paying for 50% of my meal, in an attempt to lure me out so do some consumerism and get the economy moving again.****
My food arrived… on a plastic tray. This was a shock to the system. Where was the cutlery? The knife and fork? The fizzy drink in the enormous glass, slightly cloudy from its many trips through the dishwasher?
I then remembered the Bowling Alley Wimpy subset. Those Wimpies that popped up in out of town retail and entertainment parks, where you ate off plastic to a banging disco, arcade machine beeping and ten pin clatter soundtrack. Places we snootily considered not to be true Wimpies. This one, located above an amusement park, was clearly part of that disappearing world.
I tucked into my chips. They were cold, and tasted of disappointment, like splashing out all your pocket money for a video game you swiftly realise is rubbish.
But no one goes to Wimpy for the chips. It’s all about the Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and the alchemy between burger, bun, and special sauce. I bit in, with my cyborg post-crash tooth.
It was perfect.
We’re in a world where people increasingly crave the same experience wherever we go. We plump for Starbucks over the unfamiliarity of a local cafe; we shop via Amazon and complain that our high street is boarded up. And when I say we, I mean: you. You do that.
But I understand this need for the uniform and the familiar. Wimpy is my little unit of comfort. And this Southsea burger, tasting of hundreds of burgers I’d had before, in 1980s Beeston, 1990s New Malden, or 2000s Whitechapel, was exactly what I needed.
Quality of meal: 6/10
Friendliness of staff: 8/10
Value of meal: 10/10
* The Wimpy Sausage-In-A-Bun burger was once known as the Bender. The kids’ value meal equivalent was called the Benderumptious Bendy Bender meal. Both of these have since been renamed, for obvious reasons.
** I am not a member of the in-group that is blind to cars, vans and lorries. I wish I didn’t notice these smelly, ugly vehicles everywhere, these vehicles taking up ever more space as they uglify streets, poison the air and maim children. But I do see them, and their drivers on their phones, tailgating, left hooking, idling, pavement parking, speeding, failing to indicate, and occasionally driving into hedges.
***When they were younger, he and my Grandma would take train trips to Italy – for free, due to the solidarity of European rail unions – and stay with similarly Catholic Italian rail humans. My grandma still talks about it as an idyllic time, and I marvel at an age of comprehensive and affordable rail travel.