Whitstable: my kind of town


Mentioned in the New York Times, 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.

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.

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Whitstable holidays: American Sea Scouts visit Kent

My brother came over from America earlier in the year. He had a bunch of sea scouts with him. They were from the Sea Scout Ship 876 from the Syracuse region of central New York State.

When they arrived at the scout camp near Maidstone, the manager gave them an American flag which he had in his collection. It was very old, having only 49 stars on it.

They ran it up the flagpole and stood to attention doing the sea scout salute, which is the same as a normal salute, only using three fingers instead of four. Whenever the leader wanted their attention she would hold up three fingers and everyone would go quiet.

There were sixteen of them including the adults. I know this because they had a routine: whenever they had gathered together they would each call out their number with varying degrees of energy and enthusiasm. I quickly became number seventeen.

I had booked a holiday from work, and tried to spend as much time as possible with them. My nephew, Isaac, was there. They called my brother “Mr Stone”, and me “Uncle Mr Stone”.

On the Monday they were supposed to have gone out on the Greta, a working Thames barge moored in Whitstable. Unfortunately the manager forgot to put it in the book and the Greta was in dry dock at the time.

Instead they spent the day in Whitstable with the local sea scouts. My niece, Beatrix, who lives in the town, joined them after school. They went out paddle boarding and also took turns on the back of a jet ski. The driver was showing off, skidding across the water and doing somersaults over the waves.

Afterwards Beatrix decided she wanted to join the sea scouts too. She was breathless with excitement. I could see why. It looked like a lot of fun to me.

Other trips included a visit to Chatham dockyards, home of the British Navy, as well as to Dover Castle and to Greenwich Observatory. Being sea scouts it was Naval history they were most interested in.

The highlight for me was a day out in Canterbury. We went on a punt along the River Stour, which was a revelation. It was the first time I had seen the city from this unusual angle, ducking under the low bridges and seeing the backs of all the old buildings. The talk was entertaining too.

I think the women were far too distracted by the sleek, tanned, muscled legs of the young men doing the talking and the punting, however, to notice the backs of any old buildings.

We also visited the Cathedral and, despite the fact there were works going on, and the nave was shrouded in scaffolding, they were still hugely impressed. Most of them had never seen anything so old before.

They drank in the story of Saint Thomas Becket and the murder in the Cathedral with a kind of hushed awe. It reminded me how deep and compelling our history can be.

Afterwards I took a party of them round the cloisters, where there was a rehearsal going on. A choir were singing to the accompaniment of tuned glasses full of water, which made an eerie, ethereal sound. It was really moving, and a privilege to have witnessed it in the historic atmosphere behind Canterbury Cathedral.

I asked one of the lads what he thought. “Cool,” he said.

You can’t get a higher accolade from a teenage boy.

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From The Whitstable Gazette 24/08/17

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, 5-8 Boorman Way, Estuary View Business Park, Whitstable, Kent CT5 3SE

fax: 01227 762415

email: kentishgazette@thekmgroup.co.uk

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Whitstable Travel: A Taste of Whitstable Culture

Scouts

My brother was over from America a couple of weeks ago. He’d brought a boy scout troop with him. There were nearly two dozen of them, almost as many adults as there were children.

They were staying in the scout camp in Ross Woods, on the road between Herne Bay and Canterbury. It’s a great place, right next door to the Wildwoods, so the kids went to sleep to the sound of wolves howling.

Not that a few caged wolves would have impressed them all that much. They come from New York State, about four hours drive from the Adirondacks, which is a National Park about the size of an average English County. There are no wolves there, but there are black bear, and beavers and coyotes and bobcats and moose and porcupines, as well as mountains and waterfalls and white water rapids and forests as far as the eye can see.

But that wasn’t why they’d come to England. They came here to soak up the culture. So they saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and went on the London Eye. The changing of the guard was so packed with tourists they hardly saw more than the odd bearskin bobbing about above the crowd. They also went to Chatham dockyards, to Dover Castle, and to the Cathedral and the Roman Museum in Canterbury.

Crabbing

Towards the end they came to Whitstable, where they went crabbing on the beach, which they seemed to love. All children love crabbing.

I overheard one of the boys talking. He was perched on a groyne, with the sea slapping at his feet, with a crab line loaded up with raw bacon, dropping live crabs into a bucket full of water. “I could stay here forever,” he said.

After that we took a back alleys tour of the town, down Squeeze Gut Alley, and passed the Favourite, on our way for some refreshments in the Old Neptune. Later the boys had a fish and chips supper in VC Jones’, before catching a bus back to their camp.

Now that’s real culture for you!

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