A weekend in Whitstable
PUBLISHED: 16:11 11 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:06 20 February 2013
With its sensational sunsets, art galleries and a famous Oyster Festival this month, Whistable is the perfect weekend away destination
Whitstable's annual Oyster Festival takes place in July, so come and see some grotters, and maybe even 'fish slappers' in the week-long celebration that encompasses a programme of events dating back centuries to the time when the town's inhabitants' survival depended on the oyster catch.
It all begins when thousands of oysters are landed on Whitstable beach and blessed by a priest then taken in a procession through town to mark the start of festivities.
Neil Oliver, presenter of BBC TV's Coast, was filmed at 2008's festival, where he took a lesson in the art of 'grotter building' with local children: this clip will be shown on the new series of Coast (14 July BBC2 at 8pm).
A grotter? It's a mud circle, decorated on the outside with oysters shells, traditionally made and exhibited by children, during festivities week. And a 'fish slapper'? It's a character in the parade dressed up as a fish, who cavorts around and makes music.
Whitstable is awash with upmarket shops and art galleries, there's a large artistic and literary community, more than 40 restaurants, some of them nationally prestigious; and such a burgeoning population of incomers from London that it's being referred to as 'Notting Hill on sea' - in fact it's London's nearest seaside town.
The artist William Turner was inspired by the light and sunsets of the place, Somerset Maugham grew up there, Dickens was a visitor, and Peter Cushing a famous resident. And, no, Dracula never lived in a castle halfway up a cliff in one of those old horror films. That was Whitby.
The Crab and Winkle line
Oyster fishing has always been Whitstable's principle industry, but smuggling and boat building flourished too. The Canterbury and Whitstable Railway line - known as the Crab and Winkle line - was built in 1830, the harbour constructed two years later, presaging its reinvention as a thriving port, eventually shipping Kentish coal.
The harbour and fish market are at one end of town, to the right of which you'll see the grassland of Tankerton Slopes and Whitstable Castle (closed until 2010). Along the beautiful pebble beach you can see the racing yacht belonging to members of the Whitstable Yacht Club, the white weather-boarded Neptune pub, and The Favourite, an 1890's fishing yawl.
Old-style butchers, bakers and greengrocers rub shoulders with art galleries, boutiques, delis, cafés and antique shops. The Horsebridge Community Centre (01227 281174) is the town's cultural hub and local artists also exhibit at the Fish Slab Gallery (01227 272406). And don't miss Whitstable Playhouse (01227 272042).
For sensational fish and chips or cream teas, try The Tudor Tea Rooms (01227 273167), while two of the many excellent seafood restaurants in town are Wheeler's Oyster Bar (01227 273311), and Pearsons Crab and Oyster House (01227 272005).
Whitstable Oyster Festival
18 to 25 July
Held annually since Norman times, this is a ceremony of thanksgiving, traditionally set around the feast day of St James of Compostella, the man who fell into the sea and came out covered in oyster shells. Below is just a selection of the many planned events
18 Landing of the oysters on the beach, which are then blessed by Rev. Simon Tillotson, followed by the Oyster Parade, where the Lord Mayor distributes oysters to restaurants and pubs in the town. Morris dancing, live music, belly dancing and juggling
19 Sea Sunday Service and parade, Scallywags dog show; Caribbean music; Mud Tug (above); songs and sketches at the Linley Playhouse; coastal history themed walk
20-22 Whitstable photographic group exhibitions and other community events
23 A landscape of 'grotters' displayed by local children: mounds of mud decorated with oyster shells
25 EpiCentre: more than 40 stallholders offering their produce. Organised walk around the town and alleyways. Oyster-eating competition: swallow six oysters and half a pint of beer in the fastest possible time!
26 EpiCentre and a Tea Dance
See the fish market
Head for the Fish Market, a huge emporium selling the day's catch, then enjoy seafood at its best at the Crab and Winkle, tel: 01227 779377. Buy arts and crafts at Whitstable Harbour Village, a nest of authentic fishermen's huts on the quay.
Scuba diving was invented here: an iron sculpture commemorates this.
Explore the heart of town
Harbour Street, just behind the harbour, boasts century-old buildings housing a quirky mix of restaurants, delis, boutiques and gift shops. The Horsebridge Community Centre is easily recognisable because its roof resembles an inverted boat; there are two exhibition galleries, and it has a theatre/concert hall and workshop areas, plus Chives café, tel: 01227 281255, perfect for coffee or a snack.
Enjoy top-class cuisine
The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company Restaurant is right on the beach, and one of its restaurants, The Dredgerman's Court, has views across the entire bay. The Fish Restaurant offers home-grown rock oysters, local fish and shellfish and a good wine list. There's a comfortable, cosy, upstairs bar, tel: 01227 276856
Take a boat trip
Bayblast marine offers offshore and coastal tours in its rigid hulled inflatable boats, manned with fully trained staff. Choose from the Sea Forts or Seal Tour, and there's also a romantic Evening cruise, where you can see the sunset over the sea. Booking ahead vital, as the tides govern times.
Tel: 01227 373372 / 07800 745493
Wander along the alleyways
These attractive walkways link the High Street to the shoreline, and there are 23 in all. Look out for Squeeze Gut Alley, a self-explanatory title, Coastguard Alley, named after the smugglers' enemies, Neptune Gap, after The Old Neptune pub, and The Old Favourite, leading to the eponymous restored oyster yawl, also on the beach. The Horsebridge was originally a slipway for horses meeting offshore ships.
Museum and art gallery
Fascinating collection of displays focusing on the town's coastal and seafaring traditions, with special features on oysters, diving and shipping. In 2001 the museum was awarded the international Nautiek Award for services to diving history. There's a special display on wildlife of the local shoreline, plus six special exhibitions a year. Open 1 to 4 pm, Sun during Jul and Aug.
Tel: 01227 276998