I try to avoid writing about home or anywhere close to it. It’s too personal, too idiosyncratic to the individual, too, erm… close to home. If it’s gushing, deserved or not, then I run the risk of appearing overly partisan. While anything gloomy or pessimistic and I’m a neighbourhood target, my name muck in the community and my house egged.
What does the word “home” mean anyway? I’ve lived in numerous cities in numerous countries, and they were all home at some point. Chatham isn’t quite home, so it qualifies for scrutiny. It’s close to the place of my birth, so I’ve always known of it and kept an eye on local infrastructure and any newbie restaurants or areas of interest.
Back then, it was a riotous and unlawful place, a lethal cocktail of soldiers, sailors, whores and booze
The Romans had a stronghold there, paving a road from the English Channel to Londinium, and then there’s the beer, Kent having grown and cultivated beer hops for almost 500 years – Chatham has had brewery connections from at least the mid-17th century. There’s the Dockyard, of course, which closed in 1984, but its importance can’t be undersold. Established as a Royal Dockyard by Queen Elizabeth I, it played a pivotal role in the defensive of Britain and acted as a refitting base and shipbuilding yard. Thousands of sailors were based there, and hundreds of ships launched, including HMS Victory, Nelson’s triumphant flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Then, there’s Chatham now. I’m afraid to say there has not been a tremendous amount of change since the late-Victorian days. Back then, it was a riotous and unlawful place, a lethal cocktail of soldiers, sailors, whores and booze resulting in rife crime, as chronicled in Brian Joyce’s book, ‘The Chatham Scandal‘. Today, it’s much the same – if scenes are to be believed. The term “chav” derives from Chatham, but you probably knew that already. And they’re here, in droves. You can spot them by the gold hula-hoop-sized earrings, the chunky clown medallions and the tribal cry of “Gat outta ma way!” as they sacrifice a week’s dole money on another Primark tracksuit. The High Street is a wave of scrunchie-topped pineapple hairstyles and pushchairs, boys spitting and smoking and cursing. There are also a lot of people in wheelchairs and on crutches, more so than Casualty and Holby combined.
Now that you know Chatham, to the point of this all – I have news. Beyond the High Street and down by the docks, things are happening. Serious things. Positive things. Truly great things. On the banks of the Medway River is the long, narrow, bricked Copper Rivet Distillery; opened officially in December 2017 by Princess Anne. A former pumphouse from 1873, it stood derelict for years but has now been redeveloped into a family distillery and restaurant, producing hand-crafted English, gin, whisky and vodka. Its soaring windows look out across the water to the charming Upnor Castle, the Elizabethan artillery fort and one-time naval facility. In fact, it’s all rather pleasant down by the river these days.
For 414 years, Chatham stood at the cutting edge of industry and innovation, and now, again, they have something to really get excited about. I was excited, too, as I spent the morning exploring the distillery, accompanied by the founder and man behind its rejuvenation, Bob Russell. “When we found the property, it was in a sorry state,” he tells me. Although that was to be the least of their problems – the building didn’t have a floor. Undeterred, Bob and his two sons, Stephen and Matthew, jumped in with both feet. They installed a new floor, fixed the walls and researched thoroughly, only working with local farmers and studying how grain is grown before selecting the best early harvest wheat, barley and rye – grown only 20 miles from Chatham. They set themselves up as a farm-to-bottle distillery, harnessing the very best local ingredients.
Bob also introduced me to Janet and Joyce, the two copper column distillers. Manufactured in England, they stand at 3.35 and 10 metres tall. Joyce is a beauty, tanned and curvy in all the right places and specially designed to produce grain whisky at 94% ABV and neutral alcohol at 96% ABV. The neutral alcohol produced is gently charcoal filtered to create their Vela Vodka or distilled with botanicals to make Dockyard Gin. The grain whisky is matured and also charcoal filtered to produce their Son of a Gun spirit.
On those rarest of things (a sunny day in Medway), I sat outside on the terrace for lunch at the adjoining Pumproom restaurant, post-spirit tasting – strawberry gin, infused by local, East Malling strawberries; Vela vodka produced using spring barley, soft winter wheat and rye (the holy trinity of grains); a dry, citrus Dockyard gin combining juniper berries, elderflower, lemon and orange peel and filtered through Kent chalk water. Giddy, I smashed through a sublime mackerel ceviche, locally caught, it is served fresh, with diced cucumber and the tangy sharpness of a crisped Kent apple. While a skate wing in brown butter was delightfully meaty as I used my fork to pull away chunks of flesh from the bone. Then, flip the wing over and do it all again – every forkful is glorious and indulgent. An accompanying broth of mussels, chorizo and broad beans added a delightful smokiness. Nothing is complicated or overworked, allowing the ingredients to do their thing.
Willie Freeman is a local boy fronting the kitchen. He puts an emphasis on seasonality – ingredients sourced locally, where possible – and with hints of inspiration filtering through from next door’s distillery. For instance, there’s a beef tartare with Grannie Smith apples and Masthouse whisky, and a sticky toffee pudding with Son of a Gun whisky butterscotch. The results are positive, a varied and exciting menu without pretension, but with utter self-confidence.
A sunny afternoon and Costa del Chatham is a fine place indeed to be. And not a chav in sight. C
The Pumproom at Copper Rivet Distillery, Maritime, Copper Rivet Distillery Pump House No. 5, Leviathan Way, Chatham ME4 4LP
01634 931121; crdpumproom.com