What to do see, do and eat in Whitstable
PUBLISHED: 12:12 15 July 2019
Nicknamed ‘The Bubble’, we take a look at a place famous for oysters, pristine pebble beaches and stunning sunsets. Whitstable really is one of kind
Turn back the clock some 30 years and Whitstable was a very different place; a sleepy fishing town with greasy spoon cafés, cheap housing and a close-knit community of born and bred locals.
Visitors in those days didn't expect much more than fish and chips on the beach and the very real chance of spotting an aging Peter Cushing strolling around his adopted hometown.
It was a far cry from the trendy 'micro-eateries' and vibrant arts scene we see today - and of course Whitstable's weather-boarded fishermen's cottages now famously change hands for huge sums.
Gentrified over the past 20 years, partly due to the large number of second-home owners who are said to be 'down from London', it's easy to assume that Whitstable has lost touch with its past.
But this isn't the case. A rich heritage, inextricably linked to the sea, is still the driving force in Whitstable. And one thing that has remained unchanged - for thousands of years, in fact - is its status at the heart of the native oyster industry.
The Romans are said to have discovered oysters here and the Whitstable Oyster Company can trace its history back to the 1400s, making it one of the oldest companies in Europe. Seen as cheap fast food during the Victorian era, the industry peaked in the 1850s, when it was sending as many as 80 million oysters a year up to Billingsgate fish market.
So entrenched in the town's culture are they that it's long held the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival. Scaled back in recent years since its popularity spiralled out of control and now reduced to a three-day event, this year's festival is set to take place 27-29 July. Last year much of the action was moved from Whitstable's main beach to nearby Tankerton Slopes.
Meanwhile, another of the town's big events, Whitstable Carnival, will have its first king this year. It's the first time in its 122-year history that the carnival has crowned a king rather than a queen, with five year-old Maurice Houston expected to ride through the town on his royal float during the carnival parade (3 August).
Another celebration of its heritage is Whitstable Harbour Day, set to take place earlier that same day. It's an annual event, with Whitstable Maritime and its volunteers laying on entertainment and experiences on land and sea, with the help of around 50 local and national organisations.
The harbour will welcome all sorts of visiting vessels, from a Bronze Age replica boat to the latest high-tech racing dinghy. Visitors can also explore patrol boats belonging to the Border Force, an all-weather lifeboat, several old Thames Barges and the local fishing fleet. Much of the working harbour remains unchanged and there's a strange charm to the tough fishing vessels, the fresh fish smell of the harbourside sheds and the industrial aggregate works that looms over it all.
But there are signs of gentrification here too. Harbour Market Whitstable is a showcase of small local traders on the South Quay, offering hand-crafted goods, fine art and food and drink - each set in a pretty seaside hut.
One of the empty industrial buildings nearby is being converted into a new restaurant called The Old Engine Shed, owned by the Whitstable Oyster Company, and another huge shed is being redeveloped by the local council as a mixed-use space with room for retail, eateries and education activities, with the aim of creating an all-year-round facility with views of the working harbour.
The town remains a popular centre for water sports too. Whitstable Yacht Club has its headquarters on the western side of the harbour and races are held every weekend featuring dozens of catamarans and dinghies on the water. Look out for members of Whitstable Water Ski Club off Long Beach, as well as kite surfers and surf boarders. Historic Thames sailing barge Greta is moored in the harbour and offers sailing trips around the Thames Estuary.
With its reputation relying on its clean pebble beaches, it's not surprising that Whitstable is also one of the leading lights in the fight against plastic pollution.
Campaign group Plastic Free Whitstable was established in 2018 and in January the town was the first in Kent to be awarded 'plastic-free' status by national charity Surfers Against Sewage.
It's been achieved thanks to local businesses and residents significantly reducing the use of single-use plastics, which all too often end up in the sea.
Shopping and eating
There are so many great little independent shops in Whitstable it's hard to know where to start.
Among them don't miss The Cheese Box, Flory & Black, Duma, Valentine's Vintage, Staines Farm Shop, Whitstable Produce Store, Ruskin, Rock Bottom Records, The Whitstable Shop and Sundae Sundae (see postcard from Whitstable below).
There's plenty of local art to be found, with galleries including Chappell Contemporary, Harbour Gallery, Frank and Fishslab Gallery. And don't miss the excellent array of retail huts and food and drink businesses at Harbour Market Whitstable.
Eating out here is a pleasure. Some places to try include VC Jones for fish and chips, David Brown's deli and wine bar, Samphire, Farm & Harper, Wheelers Oyster Bar, The Twelve Taps ale house, Revival, Birdies, The Monument, Café + Kitchen, Alimo, The Lobster Shack, The Umbrella Café, The Duke of Cumberland, The Old Neptune ('The Neppy'), Pearson's Arms and beachfront shack The Forge.
For a special treat, take tea at Whitstable Castle or head along the beach to JoJo's in Tankerton, overlooking the sea, or to The Bears Trading Company tea room and gift shop (runner-up in the family dining category of last year's Kent Life Food & Drink Awards). And in nearby Seasalter you'll find the renowned, multi-award winning Michelin-starred gastro-pub The Sportsman.
Postcard from Whitstable: Sundae Sundae
Hi, I'm Chris Conway, owner of Sundae Sundae, along with my wife Gemma. We're a seaside store serving delicious real dairy ice cream and milkshakes. We also sell everything seaside: beach goods, traditional rock, souvenirs, gifts, prints, cards, nautical decorations and vintage treasures for every purse. Recently we've been outing all our single-use plastic items and moving over to compostable or biodegradable products and you'll also find us gluten free and vegan friendly.
Previously I was a photographer and was asked by the original owner to photograph 'The Whitstable Dream'. He was putting his whole life up for sale - his house, his shop, his beach hut and his boat. There was plenty of interest but nobody quite met the criteria. The house sold separately and soon after we purchased the business. Six years later we're still going strong and hopefully one of our children will fancy taking it over in the future.
Whitstable is a great place to run a business. When the weather is with us we can have a queue all day long. What with chain stores falling by the wayside through internet shopping it's important to offer a unique experience among other like-minded traders and you'll create something people will talk about and return to. I've always lived in Whitstable and I've seen it grow into something wonderful. We love the pebble beach and beach huts, water sports and the best sunsets. Everything is within walking distance; there's not much you can't buy within town. We have some of the best restaurants in the country and a real eclectic mix of people where anyone can feel at home. I'd highly recommend a stay at The Continental (lovely food too), fish and chips at VC Jones, Jim's butchers for your meat, Dave's deli for all your nice bits, Dukes for live music, Wheelers for seafood and The 'Neppy' (The Old Neptune) for a few drinks to catch the sunset.