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Whitstable: My Kind of Town

Updated on September 20, 2017
CJStone profile image

CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.

Mentioned in the New York Times recently, Whitstable is a unique Kent coastal town just over an hour by train from central London. CJ Stone liked it so much he decided to move there.

Harbour Street
Harbour Street
The sea wall where I ate my lunch in 1981
The sea wall where I ate my lunch in 1981

There’s something about Whitstable. It’s not only its physical appearance - those white-painted, weather-boarded fisherman’s cottages in their homely terraces, or the Victorian Christmas card shop-fronts up and down Harbour Street, or even the network of back alleys that embroider the town in a criss-cross pattern of secret destinations (some well-established enough to have acquired names) - but there’s something else too, something less substantial, but no less real. It’s an atmosphere, perhaps; a mood, a feeling. A sense of history, not as some dry academic thing, confined to the library and a dusty book shelf, but alive, in the very streets, in the lay-out of the town and in the people who choose to live here.

People’s first sight of the town is usually coming down the hill from the A299, London to Margate road. You see the town below you, strung out along the North Kent shore at the confluence of the Medway and the Thames, with the Isle of Sheppey dividing them. On a clear day you can see the far-off hotels and tower-blocks of Southend glinting on the Essex coast. But whatever the light, the view is dominated by the estuary, the colours always shifting, from iron-grey, to green, to brown or blue.

I first came here in 1981 or 1982. I was visiting a friend in Canterbury. We caught a bus to Herne Bay, about six miles further along the coast, and then walked to Whitstable along the sea front. It was early Summer. We had cherries and soft cheese with us for lunch. And, when we arrived in the town, we sat down on the sea wall in a place backed by off-balance wooden sail lofts, looking out across the ruffled estuary, and ate our lunch. I knew then that I would like to live here.

Most people fall in love with Whitstable at first sight. I’ve been living here since 1984.

The first thing you notice about the town is that it is very much alive. It’s not like many towns in the Southeast, a mere dormitory for out-of-towners working in London. The High Street is brimming with bustle and its own particular style. There are enough people left in Whitstable who prefer to walk to the shops to make the High Street still viable. So, along with the obligatory Co-op (at the less fashionable end of town) and a number of quite ordinary butchers shops and green grocers and newsagents, you have the odd glimpse into a forgotten world of gentleman’s tailors and oyster parlours with a distinctly nineteenth century feel.

When I first moved here there was a little shop called Hatchard’s on the high Street, now sadly closed. It was a gentleman’s outfitters of the old fashioned kind, a family business for a hundred years. Prior to that it was a pub.

Stepping through the tinkling front door was like walking back in time. Wooden floorboards and shelves stacked with traditional items: from flat caps to fisherman’s smocks, from trousers with turn-ups, made of mole-skin or heavy-duty corduroy, to a rack of fluorescent waistcoats to bring colour to a gentleman’s otherwise discrete wardrobe. You would notice that the staff all wore waistcoats too, with handkerchiefs in their breast pockets, and crisp shirts and neat ties. There were three of them, all immaculately turned out. They advertised their ware by wearing it.

Most appealing was the atmosphere. It wasn’t just traditional clothing for sale but traditional values too, of politeness and good-service. Alterations to clothing were done free of charge.

Wheelers Oyster Bar,

8 High Street,
Whitstable,
Kent.
CT5 1BQ
Tel: 01227 273 311

Well Hatchard’s is gone (it closed down a number of years ago) but Wheeler’s Oyster Bar is still very much alive.

Oysters are what Whitstable is famous for, of course. As John Hollingshead wrote in “All Year Round” on the 29th of November 1859: “Many important towns in many parts of England exist upon one idea, and Whitstable, though not very important, is one of them. Its one idea is oysters.”

That remains a fact. And the one place to eat them is Wheelers. Don’t bother going anywhere else. Wheelers is the original oyster parlour, first opened in 1858. We can only guess whether John Hollingshead visited or not, but it’s fairly likely that he ate oysters in a place not unlike it.

Behind the bright pink and blue facade, Wheelers offers us a taste of real history, with a parlour that truly lives up to its name. More like someone’s living room than a restaurant or cafe, it is homely and comfortable, with plenty more on offer than just oysters: a range of gourmet dishes at reasonable prices. Bring your own beer or wine (there’s an off-license across the road): corkage is free. But beware: trade is very brisk all year round, but particularly in the summer and at weekends. We recommend you book well in advance.

I say “ordinary” to describe some of the day-to-day shops on the High Street, but, of course, unlike a number of town-centres nowadays (take Canterbury, for instance) where shopping has become a mainly out-of-town experience, and the High Street is left to chi-chi restaurants and souvenir outlets catering for tourists, the presence of these ordinary shops has become a quite extraordinary thing. Not that Whitstable is entirely free from the requirement to serve out-of-towners. It’s just that, amongst the continental delicatessens and croissants caterers - no bad thing surely - you can still buy a plain white loaf, a bag of potatoes and a joint for the Sunday roast.

The reason for the presence of delicatessens and croissant shops is that Whitstable has become fashionable of late, particularly amongst the London media-set. So part of your browsing experience might well be celebrity-spotting, in the process of which -like any good twitcher - you could mark your card with a fine example of the pop-star type (Jarvis Cocker, say), or the comedian type (Alan Davies, who began his career in the town) or even the much rarer Newspaper Editor type, such as Janet Street Porter, who, rumour has it, has a weekend cottage here. Certainly she can be seen occasionally, wearing walking boots and an anorak, striding purposefully out of town on one of her regular rambling expeditions.

But none of this is new, of course. Although Whitstable has been a traditional place to visit for day-trippers from the East End of London since the nineteenth century at least, it has always seen its fair share of famous visitors too. Charles Dickens came here, as did Turner - both as famous as any pop-star in their own day - and Somerset Maugham lived here too, and celebrated the town in two of his famous novels: Of Human Bondage and Cakes and Ale. He called it, not too subtly, Blackstable. And, more recently, that doyen of camp Hammer Horror movies, Peter Cushing, spent his retirement years here. There is a Cushing’s View - a platform with benches overlooking the sea - and even a song to mark his connection to the town.

The Old Neptune
The Old Neptune

As for those sea-views: the next thing you notice about the town is how difficult it is to find them. You can drive right through it and never get a glimpse of the sea. This is one of its charms. For a well-known sea-side town it reserves its sea-views with a notable discretion. It’s as if, like a huffy pantomime dame, the whole town has lifted its skirts and turned its back on the sea. Finding it is a real adventure involving complex negotiations with back streets and alleys. You can be walking within yards of it and still not know it is there.

But - to give you directions - the sea front is behind Island Wall. Take one of the alleys from the High Street to Middle Wall, and then another from there to Island Wall. Try Squeeze Gut Alley, if you can find it. (Make sure you go before lunch: you‘ll soon discover how it acquired its name.) From there, slip down any of the alleys cutting through between the cottages, and you’ll come to the sea-wall and, at last, your unobstructed sea-views.

And from this position you will notice something else too. There is a pub on the beach. Called the Old Neptune, it is a favourite place to drink and take in the sunset, with tables laid out outside, a welcome resting place for many visitors to the town.

Of course, the Neptune isn’t the only pub. Other recommended hostelries are the Royal Naval Reserve, the Ship Centurion and the East Kent (all along the High Street): and my own favourite, the Labour Club on Belmont Road, situated in a classic Whitstable 18th century wooden framed building, and worth a visit, if only for the dry, off-the-cuff humour of its patrons and staff. The beer is cheap too, though you‘ll have to ask to be signed in.

Finally, no visit to Whitstable would be complete without a trip to the harbour (off Harbour Street, naturally) where you will find the fish market, with a range of local sea-food on sale. This is easy enough to find. You have only to follow your nose. The unmistakable smell of boiled whelks is what gives it away.

All in all, Whitstable is a unique Kent town with a distinctive atmosphere, worth a visit at any time of the year.

A markerwhitstable kent -
Whitstable, Kent, UK
get directions

How to get there

Trains leave from London Victoria and St. Pancras International twice an hour, heading to Dover or Ramsgate. Change at Faversham on the Dover train.

© 2009 CJStone

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    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 3 weeks ago from Whitstable, UK

      Thanks Maria. It's the sign of good writing to be able to say several things at the same time.

    • Mariaelizabeth profile image

      Maria Elizabeth 3 weeks ago from Cheshire/Greater Manchester, UK

      I love this hub. You have described a location and a lifestyle at the same time.

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 4 weeks ago from Whitstable, UK

      It's been the Neppy for as long as I've been here: over 33 years now.

    • profile image

      D Trump 4 weeks ago

      The first time I heard the Neptune called the Neppy was when I realised this was its death knell. The characters that made this place are slowly being priced out if not altogether already gone replaced by celebs i.e. Porter, Davis, Hill. What is a celebratory

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 5 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Yes it's a lovely place.

    • profile image

      ILBeason 5 years ago

      Well I have just read this article and am visiting family in Canterbury and will be meeting up with some family at Jojo's on the 1st of Sep and I am thinking I may just take a look around the properties available as need to find a little place to retire and this sounds very me!!!

    • profile image

      Shazza 5 years ago

      Me, the hubby and kiddies (7 & 9) really want to move to whitstable, your comments make me want to even more....lovely xx

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 5 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Yes you should visit it some day.

    • profile image

      quilt827 5 years ago

      Your piece was very nostalgic for me. I lived in East Anglia in the late 70's and early 80's. Wished I'd visited your town! Lovely story, I could just picture my self walking down High Street. Hmmmmmmmmm maybe some day!

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 6 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Hi Jaye, I'll probably write some more on the town and it's shops one day soon. It won a prize as the most diverse High Street in the UK, which is pretty good I think.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 6 years ago from Deep South, USA

      What a delightful hub! This description of Whitstable reads like a love letter to the little sea town you obviously adore. Since it's doubtful I'll ever get to visit, I greatly enjoyed vicariously checking out the shops in the High Street (even the haberdashery no longer there) and trodding the back streets with you. Thanks! JAYE

    • Chris EastMan profile image

      Chris EastMan 7 years ago

      Nice hub !

    • profile image

      steven  8 years ago

      I spent 3 lost years in the bubble

      it is a little universe at the bottom of a hill

      which once you walk down you never want to retrace your steps to the top.

      Shepard neame is the drug of choice for the inhabitants of this wonderful little town.

      whit is old english for single or one

      and there is no other place like whitstable.

      Chris it is good to know that you are alive and well and still as spangled as ever.

      Daniel the psychedelic baby sends his love now a 14 year old heavy metal fan driving his dad round the bend with inane banter about guitar chords.

      take care of yourself mate

      Mr Drennan

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Well thanks to both of you for that. Glad you found it useful as well as appealing. Hopefully my book will read like this too.

    • 2patricias profile image

      2patricias 8 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      This Hub is just about perfect. Your prose flows, you have good links and a news feed - plus good photos. It is obvious that you love Whitstable!

      We will be re-reading this as an example of how to write a great Hub.

      Thanks

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Thank you James. It's nice to be appreciated.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

      This is a beautifully written piece. Thank you for the poetic descriptiveness of your Hub. Pleasing to read it is.

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Yeah Steve, I like Jarvis Cocker too. Maybe you'll get over to vsist me one day.

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 8 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      It's a shame I never got to Whitstable, Chris! I can see from your description why you love the place! The Old Neptune looks my sort of pub too!

      BTW I am a big fan of Jarvis Cocker!

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      You sure those weren't winkles you were winkling out GW? Whelks aren't usually served in their shells... though, saying that, I have known it.

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 8 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      There is a special feel about Whitstable. My granny always gave me a pin to winkle out the whelks. Oh! nostalgia. Thanks for bringing it on!

    • Whitstable Views profile image

      Whitstable Views 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Whelks are basically sea-snails. You see them live and there's a bulky shell, with one "foot" sticking out which wriggles. They are served boiled, and down-town Whitstable smells of boiled whelks at times. Oddly enough I love them. But then I love oysters too. (This is CJ, by the way, just noticed I'm signed in under my other name.)

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Whelks? Are they like mussels? Those are not bad, even though they look like something that should not be eaten. I think al of those things need to be cookekd gently or else thay can be used as pencil erasers.

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Glad you liked it Rochelle. You can get all sorts of other seafood here, although boiled whelks are an acquired taste too, like fish-flavoured rubber.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Glad you shared this special place. It gave us all a chance for a quick taste of Whitstable. I love seafood, though not too fond of oysters.

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Hi FP, actually I've tried to leave it a number of times, but something always drags me back. I'm kind of resigned to staying here now. And yes, I do love it.

      Hi JamaGenee: I think maybe some people never do find their way back to their homes, and are condemned to drink in the Neppy forever.

      Hi Joseph, next time you feel like a jaunt down to Whitstable send me an email.

    • profile image

      Joseph Heaven 8 years ago

      Fond memories of Whitstable trip with my late father about 15 years ago are rekindled... It is a lovely place and definitely has some kind of magic, certainly for me. I was drawn there more recently when I spontaniously decided it would make an ideal jaunt on a new motorcycle and rode there, soaked up some sea air on the sea wall, reminisced nostalgicly about that lunch one balmy summers day with my then girlfriend and parents way back...then whizzed back to Brockley. Soon after I discovered that an old acquaintance, Harmony Blake, from the days when I lived in Cambridge had moved there with her husband and another friend had moved his office there from Brick Lane! I've always had a little fantasy about living there too....but then the Welsh Borders and Wales in general hold the same magic for me too. Nice piece though Chris. Makes me want to revisit, have an ale at the pub and try some Oysters!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      That it still has a High Street that really is a High Street is good enough for me.  The rest, being near the sea and all that it adds to the ambiance, is just frosting on the cake. 

      btw, is the Old Neptune as hard to get to as getting to the sea through all those alleys?  How do its customers get back to their homes or hotels at closing time without getting stuck or killing themselves??

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 8 years ago

      What a lovely description of what sounds like a remarkable town. You obviously have great affection for it...this line says it all..."It’s as if, like a huffy pantomime dame, the whole town has lifted its skirts and turned its back on the sea.":)

    • CJStone profile image
      Author

      CJStone 8 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Hi Paraglider, yes it's a great place to sit and contemplate the world.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi Chris - thanks for this introduction to a character town. I think I could be very comfortable outside the Neppy in this week's weather.