diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 21, 2007

Seaside postcard: Whitstable
oystersOn the map it's not the most alluring of early autumn destinations. A seaside town on the north coast of Kent, with north-facing beaches looking out across the North Sea. But Whitstable is a delightful and distinctive fishing port with a long established maritime heritage, and well worth a visit. Especially if you like oysters.

Whitstable's been renowned for its oysters since Roman times. The waters off the shoreline are perfect for this special shellfish, and the town hosts a big Oyster Festival every July to celebrate another successful underwater harvest. Oysters are in season now, and will be until April, should you be interested in sampling some of the local delicacies. Yesterday several boxes of empty shells were piled up beside the sea wall outside some of the seafront restaurants, suggesting scores of diners had been busy topping up their zinc levels inside. Oyster processing goes on down at the harbour, in the rather worryingly named "Purification Centre", and outlets like West Whelks and the Whitstable Fish Market sell a wide variety of seafood to visiting tourists. Oysters are currently selling for 65p each, or £6.50 a dozen, while a small tub of cockles will set you back £2 and local dressed lobsters are two for £25. Connoisseurs dine out at the Crab and Winkle Restaurant, immediately above the fish market. I'm afraid I copped out and went for a fish luncheon in the High Street instead (butter-battered cod and chips in the rear dining room at VC Jones, very tasty).

Whitstable Harbour

This is still a working harbour, with a charming mix of traditional structures alongside. But Canterbury Council have big plans to redevelop the South Quay, imminently, and local residents are up in arms. They fear that the unique character of the harbour could be lost if any of the proposed schemes are implemented, especially when one of the proposed development partners is a company that builds houses. Plenty of folk have been willing to sign a petition against the plans, and there were more adding their names yesterday afternoon. The local paper, meanwhile, seems more interested in its search for an albino squirrel. There's priorities for you.

in the Whitstable TimesAlthough there's quite a lot of beach at Whitstable, it's all pebbly and not perfect for bucket-and-spading. To the west of the harbour, by the yacht club, an extensive carpet of crunchy cockleshells leads down from the lifeboat station to the sea. At low tide a long pebble ridge is visible at Tankerton, just to the east, where rows of beach huts line the foot of a steep grassy slope. Up top is the town's "castle", which is really just a late 18th century manor house with ornamental battlements (now used for conferences and weddings). Watch out for the rat-faced feral lads swigging lager in the shrubbery. And from the flagstaff atop the hill you can look out across a broad 180° panorama, from the Isle of Sheppey round to Herne Bay, with the southeast tip of Essex just visible in the distance. Yes, that's a wind farm, but more intriguing are the clumps of metal tripods poking out of the water several miles offshore. These are the Maunsell sea forts, tall towers that were part of our defences against German invasion, now rusting away in mid-channel. One day I must take a boat trip out to see them, but alas there are no more tours until next spring.

Back in the old part of town there's more to see, including some extremely narrow beachside walkways, Pray you don't meet a fat man with a wheelie suitcase along Squeeze Gut Alley. You might have met Peter Cushing here several years ago - he moved to Whitstable in 1959 and became one of its most celebrated residents. A seat he donated to the town now looks out over West Beach, across "Cushing's View". You can find out more about his life and acting career in a small corner of the splendid Whitstable Museum where, of course, there's also a lot more about oysters. It's easy to see why this has been a favourite coastal destination for many years, so if you fancy a salty treat you know where to come.

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