Area Guide: Gillingham

Chatham is turning the tide on its maritime past. Modern art, grain-to-glass breweries and The Kell right by the water. Hop on the train to be at St Pancras in 30 or exploring the Kent countryside in the same time.

To Do

Morning swims and the quayside views are worth getting up for at The Kell. Practise your breaststroke in the Strand Pool, one of Britain’s oldest lidos, or grab a coffee from the Riverside Café then take a walk across the mudflats. Runners: cross the marina and loop St Mary’s Island.

For a peek into Chatham’s history, head to The Great Lines Heritage Park. Spot the scars where 18th-century cannons defended the peninsula or explore Fort Amherst. It’s not all subterranean tunnels and reenactors – you can’t beat the views from the Command of the Heights.

There’s always something to do around the Historic Dockyard. Get your art fix at No. 1 Smithery, which has hosted exhibitions featuring Turner and Tracey Emin. And The Dockyard Apiary is a literal hive of community, with beekeepers and volunteer gardeners working hard to improve local biodiversity.

To Shop

Yes, there’s an Asda Superstore on your doorstep. But shop around and you’ll find small businesses and traders peddling local, sustainable produce. Drive 10 minutes to Rochester (13 by bike if you’re really polishing that eco halo) to fill reusable containers with zero-waste chickpeas, coffee beans and laundry liquid at Naked Products Co. And set a reminder for the monthly farmers’ market (every third Sunday) for produce fresh from the ‘Garden of England’.

Spotify’s great for running playlists and stumbling across new music. But there’s nothing like the crackle of real vinyl on a slow Sunday morning. Stroll into Gillingham to flip through the crates of Medway Record Centre – owner Phil really knows his music. Best for pre-90s numbers: vintage Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix and plenty of Elvis.

For more time-honoured finds: Baggins Book Bazaar. Its half-million titles make it England’s largest secondhand bookshop and a mecca for bookworms. Come to explore its warren of rickety shelves stacked with fiction, art tomes and travel paperbacks. Hang around for its calendar of book signings and author talks.

To Drink

Drop into the red-bricked Copper Rivet Distillery to get a taste of Kent’s grain-to-glass spirits. Tour gleaming stills bubbling with small-batch whisky, vodka and gin before finding a perch at its Pumproom cocktail bar. The dry Dockyard Gin makes an excellent martini.

For a quick pint, Mast & Rigging’s sun-trap beer garden is dangerously close to The Kell’s front door. Deck shoes, not required. Come on Sunday and you’ll be tempted to pair those cask ales and craft beers with its piled-high roast. Pub classics get a plant-based spin on a dedicated vegan menu.

In a short train (or car) ride, you can be exploring the Kent countryside. Spot Iron Age forts, oasthouses and wildlife on the Downs or dip your toe in Thanet’s riviera. In a half-hour drive, Elmley Nature Reserve feels as far from city life as you could imagine. And there are plenty of wineries around here if you’re in need of a bottle or two. Tillingham’s vineyard is a go-to for biodynamic tipples.

To Eat

You’ll work up an appetite exploring Chatham’s Historic Dockyard. Head to The Mess Deck for beer-battered fish, chips and chunky mushy peas. Room for dessert? It has to be Kentish ice cream from The Wagon Stop Canteen nearby. It’s handmade down on the coast near Romney Marsh. And if the brown-bread flavour is on the menu, order it.

It’s not just spirits that the Copper Rivet Distillery does well. Seasonal produce gets the fine-dining treatment in its cavernous bar and restaurant, the Pumproom. Think scallops with samphire, bone marrow topped with chicken crackling and sticky-toffee pudding laced with its Son of a Gun whisky.

Nights in at The Kell go well with a delivery of Fireaway’s Neapolitan-style calzone. The dough is made fresh every day, sauces cooked in house to decades-old Italian recipes and pies fired at 500°C so they cook in less than three minutes. Don’t forget the pistachio cannoli.

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