Whitstable History: the Post Office inside St Peter’s Church, Sydenham Street, Whitstable

A fond farewell as post office saga goes full circle

As one Facebook post put it: it’s the end of an era.

This was under a picture of a queue lined up outside the post office modules in St Peter’s Church, Sydenham Street.

Well it wasn’t really an “era” as such, since it only lasted fourteen months, but it was a memorable period for all that.

I mean: how many post offices do you know on the inside of old Victorian brick-built churches such as this? I imagine there can’t be that many.

I will miss it. It became an integral part of my life for a while, not least because I was the postman there. Still am, but I won’t be delivering Local Collect and Special Delivery packages to the church any more.

Nor will I be issuing a hearty good morning to the staff while jumping the queue and going straight to the counter: my privilege as the designated postal worker.

It was quite bizarre in there. I’ve never been a fan of Christian iconography, particularly of the grim 19th century variety, so it was always a relief to get to the counter to see the image of Ganesha, the colourful Hindu elephant-headed god, in the post office: obviously the proprietor’s personal deity.

But the church was warm and dry compared to the Portacabin in Gladstone Road it replaced, so I guess we shouldn’t moan.

According to Wikipedia, Ganesha is the patron of letters and learning and the remover of obstacles, so a particularly apt figure to oversee to proceedings at a post office, albeit a temporary one.

One thing it made clear was how under used some of these old church buildings are. Good on Simon Tillotson for making it available as a home for the post office, but it makes you wonder what other community needs the building might serve in future.

The new post office inside the Co-op on Cromwell Road is now open, two counters to serve the whole of Whitstable, on the site of the old Royal Mail delivery office.

Things have come full circle. People will be popping in to collect their packages again, as they did for many years, on almost exactly the same spot.


From The Whitstable Gazette 22/02/18

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.

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Whitstable Heritage: the Invicta Engine

Invicta would be wasted, and in danger, at harbour

I’ve just read the Whitstable Area Member Panel (WAMP) report on the relocation of the Invicta Engine, in which they recommend that it be moved to the proposed new development on the South Quay.

The report actually identifies four possible locations, two in Canterbury, and two in Whitstable, but then proceeds to dismiss all but the last: wrongly in my opinion.

First things first: it is obvious that it should be in Whitstable.

You don’t often associate our quaint little town with the epic landscape of Britain’s industrial past do you? And yet here it is: a steam engine, built by Robert Stephenson & Co, who also built the Rocket, pulling the world’s first scheduled passenger train along the Crab and Winkle line, from Canterbury to Whitstable.

In fact it only worked the Whitstable end of the line, from South Street to Bogshole, being far too puny to make the Church Street gradient. The rest of the way was served by static engines hauling the carriages by cable. Nevertheless, it is a significant artefact from Britain’s industrial heritage, and intimately connected with the history of our town.

The first problem with the WAMP report is that it simply wrong on the facts.

It dates the engine from 1825, when it was actually made in 1829, and then says that it was delivered to Whitstable Harbour in 1832, when it had already been working for two years by that time, long before the Harbour was even built.

This doesn’t bode well for the report’s conclusions, does it?

It also fails to take into consideration the fact that the Harbour location is actually five feet below the sea defence wall. If – God forbid! – there was ever a major flood, then this priceless object could be significantly damaged. Or even worse. The South Quay was last flooded in 2013.

Meanwhile we already have a museum in the town, with room to house the engine immediately, and enough space outside to build a custom made home for it in the future.

What would its purpose be in the harbour? It would sit in a glass box and serve as a backdrop to people’s shopping and dining experience.

In the museum it could be so much more.



From The Whitstable Gazette 25/01/18

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, Room B119 Canterbury College, New Dover Road, Canterbury CT1 3AJ

fax: 01227 762415

email: kentishgazette@thekmgroup.co.uk


Whitstable People: Julian Spurrier

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again,
Let it be known there is a fountain,
That was not made by the hands of men.

Ripple by The Grateful Dead

Something tragic always happens at Christmas. This year it was the death of my dear friend Julian Spurrier, who passed away on the morning of December 31st 2017.

Typical Julian, courteous to the last. He wanted to get the grim stuff out of the way in time for the New Year celebrations.

His illness was sudden and catastrophic. Barely a month ago he was still out walking his dog, or going to the Labour Club, having a few drinks and catching up with the gossip, as was his wont.

Then one day he was overwhelmed with tiredness while out on a walk. He had to lie down on the footpath in the woods to recover.

He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A few days before Christmas there was still talk of treatment, but the cancer had spread throughout his body by then and it was already too late. He went into a hospice, and within a week he was dead.

He died without pain. A friend, who went to see him, told me his eyes were soft, at peace.

What can you say about Julian? He was extraordinary: possibly the most kind, the most welcoming, the most generous person I ever knew. He was funny, irreverent, anarchic, mischievous and an old fashioned gentleman, all at the same time.

He liked nothing better than being the host at an impromptu party. My most abiding memory is of him preparing wine glasses in the kitchen. He had a whole ritual around this: pouring hot water into the glass, then polishing it till it shone; after which he would emerge, tea towel draped over his shoulder, a tray full of glasses, sparkling and filled to the brim, to serve to his guests.

I knew him for 40 years or more. I shared a house with him. He taught me to drive, and helped to bring up my son.

The last time I saw him was was on Thursday the 19th October 2017. I know this because my brother was over from America. We went out for a drink and ended up at the Labour Club.

Julian was at the bar before I even had chance to order. That was one of his tricks. He always had to make sure he got the drinks in first.

He said to my brother: “Thank you for bringing Chris out. I don’t see enough of my old friend.”

Those were almost the last words I heard him speak.

The night before he died I couldn’t sleep. My heart was pounding in my chest. I was restless and itchy and my brain wouldn’t stop churning, I didn’t know why. I had to get up. I went and sat in front of my computer.

There are two songs I associate with Julian. One is Ripple, by the Grateful Dead. I’d been singing it that morning in Tesco, no doubt to the annoyance of everyone at the delicatessen counter.

The other is I’ll Fly Away by the Kossoy Sisters, from O Brother, Where Art Thou, the Coen Brothers movie. It was Julian’s favourite film.

I’d sent a friend a link to it earlier in the evening. So I dug out the email and clicked on the link to listen to the song.

The words are very precise and very apt.

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away, fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away, fly away

I’ll fly away, fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away, fly away, in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away, fly away

I wasn’t thinking of this in a religious way. I don’t know if there’s a God or not. I don’t know what lies after death. But I wanted Julian’s passing to be swift, for him not to have to suffer, and the idea of him flying away into the clear blue sky, like a bird, seemed the perfect image of what I wished for him.

When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away, fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away, fly away

I was thinking of my Mum’s passing. Her last few months were spent bed bound in hospital, her body a twisted, useless wreck. It was like her spirit was shackled to a corpse. She could do nothing for herself. She was utterly dependent. She was, indeed, in prison. When she died, it was as if she had broken free.

So I was wishing this for my friend. May he break out of the prison of his bound and broken body. May he be free to journey to the next realm, wherever, whatever, however that may be.

After a while I went back to my bed and tried to sleep. I was not very successful. My heart kept thumping in my chest and I dozed fitfully for the rest of the night, the words of the song echoing in my head.

I’ll fly away, fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away, fly away, in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away, fly away,
In the morning…

It was when I got up in the morning that I heard that he was gone.

So now it’s goodbye Julian, my old friend. I saw you drunk a hundred times, but I never saw you angry or aggressive. I never saw you violent. I saw you make any number of mistakes, but I never saw you lay the blame on anyone else for your own shortcomings. I saw that you lived your life according to a routine at times, but you never lost the light of possibility from your eyes, and you never gave in to hatred or scorn.

I only lived around the corner from you, no more than five minutes walk, but I never came to visit. That’s because I always knew you were there, and I could visit any time.

How wrong I was. I won’t make that mistake again. I will cherish my friends from now on.

Every minute of every day, every heartache, every pain; every smile, every laugh, every moment of joy; every weary step along the way, by the same old roads through the endless changing days: it is all so precious, it is all so alive. Let me know the value of everything that touches on my life, and let me never forget.

You, my friend. Let me never forget you.

Friends pay tribute to local Labour stalwart Julian Spurrier:



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.

Continue reading…

Whitstable literature: Playing Possum by Kevin Davey

Another literary figure to watch

I’ve just finished reading Playing Possum by Kevin Davey. It is a new novel, set in Whitstable.

It is an intriguing book, but also quite disorientating as the story keeps fracturing across time and genre in a way that makes it difficult to know where you are.

“The central character is an American poet, Thomas Stern, who astute readers will quickly recognise as T.S. Eliot”

I suspect this is deliberate. The central character is an American poet, Thomas Stern, who astute readers will quickly recognise as T.S. Eliot.

Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land, was supposed to have been written in a shelter in Margate, and it is to Margate that our fictional character is travelling before his journey is cut short and he finds himself in Whitstable instead.

The year is 1922, the same year The Waste Land was published.

That poem famously made use of overheard conversations and found quotations, and there is a fair scattering of this in Playing Possum too. Part of the pleasure, particularly for students of Eliot, will be in tracing the references.

The novel reads like a series of clues to a story you have to construct in your own head and is full of the most astonishing and vivid writing. It’s almost as if the author is channelling the spirit of the dead directly onto the page, as if he’s fashioned a time-telescope through which we can look in on the scene all those years ago.

Most of the action takes place between the Duke of Cumberland and the Bear and Key and many of the events really did take place. So there’s a film, The Head of the Family, which was shot in Whitstable in the early 20s, and a political rally under a gas lamp between the two hotels, in the place known as the Cross, the forgotten omphalos of the town.

The novel also cuts to scenes taking place in the present, with drunken conversations of the sort you would recognise in any pub.

Our town is currently marking its place on the literary map. Not only do we have Julie Wassmer writing detective novels set in Whitstable, and a thriving literary festival, but there are an ever growing number of writers and artists working here as well.

Kevin Davey is definitely one to watch.

You can buy the book here.


From The Whitstable Gazette, 29/06/2017

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





Negative Ions

An old story from The Big Issue January 9th 1995, set in Whitstable

Defending Diversity

The Government is acting like Britain is a culture under siege, clamping down on anything vaguely eccentric or alternative. CJ Stone looks at how protecting the myth of old England with its middle class values is likely to breed a country at war with itself.

If the town is like a mind, and the roads are like the to-ing and fro-ing of everyday consciousness, then the back-alleys must be the unconscious. Our town has a rich and varied unconscious life in that case. It is riddled with back alleys. It’s here that the teenagers go to snog, out of sight of their parents. It’s here that cats prowl and foxes lurk in the dead of night. Where the rotting detritus of the everyday world is scattered in little piles. Where thieves wander to eye up the properties that back onto them. So familiar are we with the byways of the unconscious in this town that we even give them names. Squeeze Gut Alley, and Beach Alley. And Stream Walk, the Grand-Mother of them all, almost a thoroughfare.

Joseph and I are walking down there one day, on the way to the Station. He’s 14 years old. My son. The beauty of wandering around the town with a 14 year old is that he knows all the footpaths, all the out-of-the way places, and the quickest and most interesting route from here to there in every case.

Stream Walk meanders down from the top of the town to the sea front. In some places, naturally enough, it follows the line of a little stream, now coursing through a concrete gutter and covered with a filthy green scum floating with bottles and cans and discarded copies of Hello! Magazine. Perhaps it is symbolic of the state of consciousness in our time. Or perhaps I’m just a pretentious old git.

“Why is lightning zigzagged?,” Joe asks.

“I don’t know,” I reply; probably a little peevishly as it’s yet another question I don’t know the answer to.

“It’s negative ions in the air,” he says.

I don’t even know what negative ions are, let alone why they cause lightning to zigzag. “If you knew, why did you ask me?” I say.

“I just wanted to see if you knew or not.”

Anyway it was some such conversation. When he’s not talking about lightning or negative ions or asking questions of such equally momentous imponderability, he’s telling me the blow-by-blow plot of some movie – literally blow-by-blow – or rehearsing some advertising slogan which irritated me the first time I heard it, let alone the 200th. Actually we get on surprisingly well. He takes my general impatience as some kind of a joke and knows perfectly well how best to wind me up. The mere mention of “widget” is usually enough.

So we’re trundling down Stream Walk, happily immersed in our own little world, when we see somebody approaching from the other end. It’s a bloke, with slicked-back, greased hair and tinted spectacles. He’s wearing a black tee-shirt under a leather jacket, and black jeans held up by an alarmingly wide belt with a monstrous buckle. I wouldn’t have paid any attention to him if it wasn’t for the old lady watching him go by from the road. She has grey, permed hair and a smart coat, and we’re close enough to the two of them to see that she tuts as he passes, and rolls her eyes. The look on her face is the picture of disapproval. You can see it in the pursed lips, in the flared nostrils, in the way she follows him with her eyes: “I just can’t understand the younger generation,” she seems to be saying. “What does he think he looks like?”

The thing is, this bloke must be in his 40s at least.

Well the boy and I are still walking. I’m probably the same age as the bloke, but dressed as a crumpled Somerset Maugham in jacket, baggy trousers, collarless shirt. The whole style is my mad idea of the dignified older man. More deranged than dignified I expect. And my son is dressed casually but comfortably in a sweat shirt and light jeans. That’s the way he likes to dress. He’s also very fussy, unlike me, and can’t abide stains. It has something to do with his age I guess. Luckily he knows how to use the washing machine or his clothes would end up looking like mine.

We’d forgotten the old woman by now. Still engrossed in some complex manoeuvrings around subjects I don’t fully understand. Still chattering, gaily or peevishly depending upon our age. But she hasn’t moved. She’s standing there, primly starched, with her arms folded, watching us as we pass. I glance towards her and – you know what? – she tuts at us too, and rolls her eyes, and gazes at us as we walk by with that same, tight-lipped look of disapproval on her face. I laugh. At least it gets my mind off negative ions. I look towards Joe and he’s noticed it too. We laugh together.

The whole episode reminds me of the sense of disapproval I have lived with all my life. I’ve always had the feeling that people consider me somehow disreputable and dangerous. It bothered me. Until I realised that it’s probably because I am disreputable and dangerous.

But something else occurs to me about that old woman too, that she lives her whole life in a state of disapproval, with that “tut” in her head, unable to see beyond the particularities of style or appearance, unable to accept people for what they are. And I expect she disapproves of most things. The traffic. The way the old shops are closing down. The lack of facilities in the town for people of her generation. Dogs that foul the pavement. The breakdown in communication between the generations. The way the young people no longer seem to respect her. Hippies and Punks and people with dreadlocks, as well as ageing Teddy Boys and crumpled Somerset Maughams and – even – smart young lads in casual clothes. I don’t know. I get this feeling of a generalised disapproval, a state-of-mind rather than just a thought. But it’s not my fault the world is like it is. It’s not Joe’s, or the guy in tinted glasses. We’re another bunch or ne’er-do-wells on this confused planet, not the cause, the victims like her.

And it also occurs to me just how much the world has changed since her day. It’s not just the dress sense, it’s the attitude. Middle-aged Rockers are expressing something profound about their sense of identity. The Myth of Queen and Country isn’t half as potent as the myth of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis is King after all. Their loyalties are split in other words. Later generations went further down this road. Younger rebels have no split loyalties at all. They simply don’t believe in the Establishment any longer. They are looking for something new. And the old lady is right in thinking that she doesn’t understand the younger generation. And neither, of course does Michael Howard.

And it is this exact attitude that lies behind the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) isn’t it? Disapproval. The CJA has nothing to do with protecting the community from crime. It has everything to do with attempting to hold onto a myth, the bourgeois dream of respectability and smartness and generalised home-ownership. It is a bulwark against the rising tide of change, against the future and it’s uncertainties. Disapproval as a mental state is merely endearing in the elderly. As legislation it is far more sinister.

What’s that about negative ions again? The beauty if lightning is that it clears the air.


Whistable shops: the new Aldi

High Street shouldn’t worry about shops up the hill

I bumped into one of my customers the other day. It’s been a while since I’d seen her.

“Where have you been?” I asked. “I was worried about you.”

“I’ve been lying low,” she said, doing this ducking motion, like a soldier in the trenches avoiding incoming fire: “keeping my head down.”

She was pulling one of those shopping trolleys. It was obviously packed to the brim.

“I’ve just been to the new shop,” she said. I guessed she must have meant Aldi. She lives on the top of Borstal Hill. Even so, it’s quite a trek.

Shopkeepers in the town are worried about the new shops at Estuary View. I don’t think they have much to fear.

It’s not Champs the Baker or Longs the Butcher who are threatened: it’s Tesco and Sainsbury.

People who live near the town will still use the High Street. The threat there is from the High Street supermarkets.

Personally I never shopped at Morrisons and I was pleased when it failed.

I had a flatmate who was signing on at the time. He’d been threatened by the Job Centre. He was told he had to take a job at Morrisons, despite the fact he’s a qualified teacher.

It was minimum wage, and virtually a zero hours contract. He was told if he didn’t take the job he would be sanctioned.

Such is the relationship between Job Centre enforcers and the low-wage economy.

At least Aldi pays its workers well and offers all the proper benefits, like sick pay and holiday pay.

It’s a German company, and that is one of the reasons for its success. Aldi workers are much more relaxed than people who work in other supermarkets, which contributes to the atmosphere in the shop.

Anyway, back to my customer. She said: “I’ve only got one complaint.” And she mentioned the name of a well known TV magazine and told me its price. “£1.75!” she declared, in mock outrage.

She said she’d spoken to the Assistant Manager and suggested a much cheaper magazine.

“It’s for the workers!” she added, only half-jokingly. You could almost imagine her doing the clenched fist salute.


From The Whitstable Gazette 23/03/17

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 whitstablegazette@thekmgroup.co.uk

Whitstable Travel: A Taste of Whitstable Culture


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.


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!


Whitstable Birds: A Turf War

Malevolent priests

I’ve been growing some lawn. It’s a long stretch of turf running the length of my flat next to the wall which had died off. I scraped off all the old dead grass, broke up the soil, scattered grass seeds along the length of it, put some compost on top and then began watering it. I’ve been watering it every evening as the sun goes down.

After about two weeks the grass began to sprout, and the lawn began to take hold. Instead of the dusty strip of scrubland which had previously been there, there was a lush, green lawn.

Then something strange happened. Bits of the lawn started to go missing. There were chunks of it dug out along the length of the wall and, occasionally, abandoned bits of turf lying on the grass a few feet away.

After that I began seeing these two crows lurking about. They had a sort of shifty look about them. Evil-looking creatures, like malevolent priests, with an arrogant gait and long, vicious-looking beaks, they were strutting about outside my flat, clearly up to no good.

I watched as one of them seemed to take the position of look-out, while the other disappeared under the eves. I banged the window, and they flew off, and I could see it clearly: one of them was clutching a lump of turf in its claws.

I guess they are using it for their nest. So now I am at war. They can find some other bits of turf to use.

Ragged black shadows

During the day the crows appear on top of the buildings opposite, like ragged black shadows flapping against the sky. I lie in wait concealed beneath my window sill. They are reconnoitring the site ready for the attack.

When they land, I leap up and shout through the window. You don’t want to hear what I say, as this is a family newspaper. The crows scream back at me, cawing vicious curses over their shoulders as they fly off. They are trying to break my nerve, waiting for me to surrender.

It’s what you might call a “turf-war”. I am defending my turf.

From The Whitstable Gazette.

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