Whitstable is unique. That’s why we all love it here. It has a charm unlike any other town, what with the wooden framed buildings along Island Wall; the unspoiled Victorian frontage of Harbour Street; the way the town backs on to the Sea, as if in an embarrassed huff; the old sail sheds on the sea front (now turned into bed and breakfast hideaways for our London visitors); as well as the many peculiar shops and the mass of friendly people who mingle here. So many things to see. So many things to discover.
Best of all, to me, are the alleys, criss-crossing the town like a network of secret tracks. You can get from almost anywhere to almost anywhere else by the alleys, and hardly ever see a motor car.
When my son was younger he knew all the ways. Sometimes (and occasionally annoyingly) he would prefer an alley path to a more direct route, adding minutes to our journey just because, as he said, he knew a better way. The alleys have an air of mystery to them, a sense of adventure. I’m sure most (if not all) of the kids brought up in Whitstable know the alleys, not only as linear routes between here, there and somewhere else, but also as the abode of dragons, as places of warfare, where wizards roam and witches creep, where great bears might rise up roaring from the undergrowth to threaten and then (surprisingly) to become allies and friends. These were the kinds of stories my son would tell as we stalked those fretted paths of adventure, on our way to some less exciting task.
Knowing the alleys is knowing Whitstable. The heart of Whitstable is as much in its alleys as it is in its High Street or its beach.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find that one of the alleys had been blocked off. Yes, that’s right. One of our alleys was privatised. There was a brand new gate blocking either entrance, with the word “private” pinned like a declaration of independence to the slatted wood.
Private? How can you privatise adventure? How do you block off someone’s dreams?
The justification appeared to be nuisance, and the fact that one of the residents had been burgled a number of times. But, as a friend of mine pointed out, any reasonably athletic young man could leap those gates with ease, in which case the gates become an aid to burglary – hiding the potential thief from the public gaze – rather than a hindrance. There are very few audacious burglars who would let a couple of wooden gates get in their way. Also – and more worryingly – the same justification could be used for almost all of the alleys of Whitstable.
There’s always been a necessary trade off between freedom and security. No one has an absolute right to either. I might demand the right not to be threatened by traffic, for instance. On the other hand, the car driver expects the right to go on his way along the public highway, and we are both forced to compromise. The same applies in this case. When a path has been used for hundreds of years (as this one appears to have been, there being records going back to the 1850s) surely the right of the people of Whitstable, to follow their accustomed routes, has to be taken into account?
Please note, the alley referred to in this article has since been reopened.