When it emerged Whitstable was to lose one of its most popular and vibrant music venues, there was uproar among locals who branded the plans “cultural vandalism”.
It was announced earlier this year the quirky Duke of Cumberland pub in the heart of the town was to be transformed by owner Shepherd Neame as part of a major refurb – with seemingly no hint of its live gig offering being retained.
Regulars – who described the lively High Street spot as “the beating heart of Whitstable” - feared it would be replaced by a bland gastropub, which they said the town needed “as much as another pebble on the beach”.
Several months and £1.8 million later, the “historic pub hotel” has now reopened to the public, rebranded as a “place to dine, drink and stay”.
I went along to sample the new offering, and see what’s been created in the wake of such a controversial overhaul.
The unique art may have been stripped from the walls and antique treasures and memorabilia long gone, but the pub certainly has a more open, uncluttered and airy feel upon entering.
My husband and I arrive on an unseasonably warm autumn Saturday afternoon and the place is buzzing with families dining and friends meeting for drinks.
Following the extensive refurbishment, the pub has been divided into a bar area to the left and separate dining room on the right, with a fresh, coastal decor befitting of its seaside setting.
As far as location goes, it could not be more central.
Perched at the very top of the High Street, the Duke sits where the road forks into Harbour Street with its independent boutiques and eateries, and Horsebridge Road, leading directly to the seafront.
We enjoyed an evening walk on the beach, stopping for a drink at the Old Neptune to watch the sunset, before heading back for dinner to find the Duke doing a roaring trade.
The sound of laughter and chatter filled the high-ceilinged dining room as we were shown to our cosy table in the corner.
The pub’s focus has undoubtedly shifted more to good food than entertainment, with the menu featuring dishes including freshly-caught seafood and a “hop-picker’s sharing board” made with local ingredients.
We opted to share the whole baked Canterbury Chaucer’s cheese to start, served with sourdough and 1689 ale and caramelised onion chutney.
Although slightly on the small side for a sharing plate priced at £16.50, the gooey cheese was delicious and paired perfectly with the zingy accompaniment.
Next, I went for the 30-day aged 8oz sirloin steak with herb butter, peppercorn sauce, watercress salad and chips (£24), which was tender and flavourful.
My husband said his melt-in-the-mouth whole grilled lemon sole with seaweed butter, samphire and buttered new potatoes (£28.50) was fresh, delicate and perfectly cooked.
He rounded off the meal with the £12.50 cheese board (yes, more cheese), which showcased yet more Kentish produce – Canterbury Cobble, Canterbury Chaucers and Kentish Blue – while I chose the rich but light Eton mess (£8) made with deliciously sweet strawberries and cherries from Maidstone’s Clock House Farm.
It was far from your average pub grub, with local ingredients very much taking centre stage.
After our meal and a few glasses of wine, we were feeling very tired and full – and grateful our room for the night was just a flight of stairs away.
Each named after a historic oyster fishing vessel, the eight boutique bedrooms over the first and second floors come with luxury touches such as pocket-sprung mattresses, flat-screen Smart TVs, high-speed wi-fi and Drench waterfall showers.
We stayed in the Gamecock, a family en-suite room beautifully decorated in midnight blue and mustard, with antique-style furniture, high ceilings and huge windows looking out onto the bustling high street.
It offers everything you would hope for, and that little bit more. The complimentary refreshments are far from bog standard, with Nespresso machines, Tea Pigs teabags and even a couple of bottles of Whitstable Bay provided in every room.
Other thoughtful details, like oversized fluffy bath robes and luxury miniature toiletries from artisan Kent-based business Mitchell and Peach elevated our stay into something that bit more premium.
It’s difficult to argue with the logic of capitalising on the pub’s prime location in one of the country’s top staycation hotspots, and its accommodation – that had not been available to guests for several years – is now a key part of its offering.
And while live music has clearly taken a back seat, I’m told there are plans for regular jazz and swing nights as well as sunset acoustic evenings.
In an increasingly difficult climate for the hospitality industry, pubs must adapt to ensure their survival. And if foodies and staycationers are where the money’s at, the live music scene will have to make way.
Click here for more information about the Duke of Cumberland, High Street, Whitstable.