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 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.


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

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Whitstable People: Ritchie Harnett

House prices are driving people away.

People on Island Wall, Nelson Road and the adjoining streets, will have noticed that they have a new postman.

This is because their old postman, Ritchie Harnett, has moved to Grimsby.

There’s been a lot of talk about house prices in the paper recently. Ritchie’s move is the perfect illustration of that.

He has a growing family to care for and needed more space. He simply couldn’t afford to get a bigger house in the town on his income.

His family have lived in Whitstable for generations. He was born and brought up here. He went to school here. His relatives are here. His roots are here. Everything he has ever known is in this town.

On the other hand, most of his contemporaries have long since moved away. They too, like him, couldn’t afford to live in Whitstable any longer.

It’s a five hour drive from Whitstable to Grimsby, which means it will be very difficult for his Mum and Dad to get to see their grandkids.

On the plus side: the house he has brought up there is four times the size of the one he lived in in Whitstable, with a garden five times the size. He says his new kitchen is the size of the ground floor of his old house.

Also, his new office is within walking distance of his house, unlike the Whitstable office, which is eight miles away.

He probably never would have wanted to move had the delivery office not been shifted to Canterbury.

Ritchie was very popular with his customers. I spoke to one of them who told me they trusted him implicitly. There was even a petition going around trying to persuade him to stay.

Let me assure them: their new postman is just as trustworthy and reliable, just as honest as Ritchie, and will serve them just as well.

Nevertheless it is a measure of everything that is wrong in this world that postal workers and other people doing essential jobs, such as Ritchie, can no longer afford to live in the towns where they were brought up.

There is a chronic shortage of affordable housing in the UK, something which needs to be urgently addressed.


From The Whitstable Gazette 10/08/17

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

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Whitstable review: The Lynching by Jackie Walker

MP must defend Israel free speech

I went to see Jackie Walker’s one-woman show, the Lynching, at the Whitstable Labour Club last week.

Jackie Walker, in case you’ve forgotten, was the Vice-Chair of Momentum, the organisation created to support Jeremy Corbyn, before she was accused of anti-Semitism and suspended from the Labour Party.

The show is obviously still in its developmental stage, and a bit clunky in places, but there were some excellent bits. One in particular stood out: a small questionnaire she handed out during the interval.

It asked three questions: 1) If I criticise a Jewish person, am I anti-Semitic? 2) If I question the legality of Israel to exist am I anti-Semitic? 3) What do you think is meant by anti-Semitism?

I answered “no” to the first question, “no” to the second question and “racial discrimination against Jews” to the third.

Jackie pointed out that how we understand the answers depends upon the context. If the questions were asked of an anti-Semite, then the same answers I gave would, indeed, be anti-Semitic.

I think that was a really clever and subtle point, and it is in this context that the criticisms against Jackie Walker can be understood.

What was most important to me was the opportunity to hear first hand the words of someone who has been hounded so relentlessly in the press, so I was rather astonished to hear that there were voices being raised within the Constituency Labour Party at the fact that the show was allowed to go ahead at all.

Pardon? I thought we believed in free speech? Not so it seems. Or not when there is a slim majority to defend.

Here is Rosie Duffield’s response:

“I could really have done without all this within my first few weeks in an all-consuming new job where my priority is helping desperate, struggling constituents with their asthma-causing mouldy flats or grandparents who’ve been on trolleys in hospital corridors for more than a day.”

To which I reply: well that’s your job Rosie, it’s what you’re paid to do.

Meanwhile it is our job, as concerned citizens, to try to get as close to the truth as possible. Hearing both sides of an argument is the first step in that process.


From The Whitstable Gazette 27/07/17

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

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Whitstable & Canterbury history: Watling Street by John Higgs

Age old question still relevant

Watling Street is a new book by John Higgs.

As the name suggests, it involves a journey along the old Roman road that stretched between Canterbury and Wroxeter, and which was itself laid over a prehistoric trackway which may have gone all the way from Dover to Angelsea.

That, at least, is the journey that our author takes.

Written in the same year as the Brexit referendum, John uses the symbol of the road as a way of examining the conflicts of identity that lie at the heart of the British psyche.

Who are we, exactly?

Picts, Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans, Cavaliers and Roundheads, all fought for control of this road. More recently we’ve seen our country divided along ideological grounds, between Leavers and Remainers, between traditionalists and innovators, between those who “want our country back” and those who seek to give our land a new mythic identity.

The question is: what is the nature of the country we want back? And whose country is it anyway, given that most of it is privately owned and off-limits to the majority?

On the Canterbury leg of his journey John is accompanied by a certain well-known writer and postal worker of your acquaintance; which is how I managed to get a copy of the book before its publishing date.

Of course the most famous story about Canterbury is the one telling of the rivalry between Archbishop Thomas Becket and his former friend and mentor Henry II, which, as we all know, ended in bloodshed.

John and I use this story to illustrate the perennial conflict between politics and spirituality; between the ruthless politician willing to kill for his ambitions, and the spiritually engaged person willing to die.

In the process we draw parallels with a more recent conflict: that between Tony Blair, the politician responsible for the violence in Iraq, and Brian Haw, his most prominent critic.

Tony Blair, of course, is internationally renowned, while Brian Haw is in danger of being forgotten. It is this injustice that we seek to redress.

If you’d like to find our more about Watling Street, John Higgs will be appearing at Waterstones in Canterbury on Wednesday the 19th July at 6.30pm.

You may well spot a certain well-known postal worker in the audience.



Podcast featuring John Higgs and CJ Stone talking about Brian Haw (plus oodles of other interesting stuff): https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/watling-street/id1257578517?mt=2

John Higgs writing about Watling Street for the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170710-the-road-that-led-to-1000-stories

John Higgs’ blog: http://jmrhiggs.blogspot.co.uk/

Oddfellow’s Casino – The Ghosts of Watling St (Official Video): song based upon Watling Street by John Higgs:

John will be appearing at Waterstone’s Rose Lane branch on Wednesday 19th July at 18.30. Details here: https://www.waterstones.com/events/watling-street-john-higgs/canterbury-rose-lane

Further appearances:


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,
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Whitstable politics: Rosie Duffield our new MP

At last we have someone who understands our concerns

First of all can I offer my heartiest congratulations to Rosie Duffield on her stunning victory in Canterbury last week.

At last we have an MP who understands our concerns, who has lived a life not unlike our own, and who will be able to represent the broad majority of her constituents in Parliament.

You can’t say that about Julian Brazier: a person about as remote from ordinary voters lives as it is possible to imagine.

I’ve had a few run ins with him over the years: most notably during our campaign to keep the Royal Mail delivery office open in Whitstable.

About 30 postal workers lobbied him after work. He listened politely, nodding energetically at all our points, and then hot-footed it directly to Royal Mail management and sided with them instead.

That says all you need to know about Julian Brazier. On the side of management and against the workers. On the side of profit and against public services. On the side of a remote and distant decision making process and against local people’s needs.

It was the same during the campaign to keep our Crown Post Office. Sir Julian sided with Post Office Ltd, saying “I have no problem with the Post Office moving into another store as part of a franchise.”

Had it been up to him, and the Post Office been moved into Budgens as was planned, there would not now be a Post Office in the centre of Whitstable, and no prospect of there ever being one in the future.

He was always quick to see a photo opportunity, and slow to give any real, practical help. Thus it was he turned up at the CHEK march against the downgrading of services at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital on June 3rd, while voting consistently with the government on legislation designed to undermine the Health Service.

Finally there is the little matter of his annual courtesy visit to the delivery office every Christmas. People used to run from their desks to hide, so patronising and out of touch was he.

At least this year it will be Rosie Duffield paying us a visit, a much more salubrious prospect.


From The Whitstable Gazette, 15/06/2017

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,
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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.


Whitstable house prices: up by 16%

Holiday lets have eaten the heart out of town

I’ve just heard that house prices in Whitstable are up by 16% and that the average price is now over £350,000.

Isn’t that crazy? How can people afford to buy a house?

My son, who was brought up in Whitstable, can’t afford to live here. Most people I know can’t afford to live here.

If you didn’t buy your house before the property boom, then it’s highly unlikely that you could afford one now: unless you’re a celebrity, a hedge fund manager, or a property tycoon.

Slowly but surely people with ordinary jobs are being driven out. Postal workers, refuse collectors, shop assistants: none of us will be able to live here. We’ll have to commute.

Either that, or the incomers will have to deliver their own mail, collect their own rubbish and serve themselves in the shops.

As a postal worker I’m acutely aware that many houses in the town are second homes or holiday lets. Airbnb have taken over whole streets.

There are are certain roads in Whitstable where you hardly see anyone from one month to the next. It’s getting insane.

In case you don’t know: Airbnb is a website.

It was set up for people to let their spare rooms as bed and breakfast accommodation. It’s called Airbnb because it was originally very down market. An air bed in your living room would suffice.

Aimed at young people and backpackers, it offered affordable accommodation for people from all over the world. It has turned into a global empire.

In order to classify as a B’n’B you only have to make a few breakfast things available to your guests. A packet or cornflakes, a bottle of milk and some teabags will do. After that you can charge what you like.

Prices range from around £50 a night to over £150. There are more than 350 Whitstable houses available on the website, including some of our most characteristic and recognisable cottages.

What this has done is to have eaten the heart out of Whitstable. Whitstable people don’t live here any more. The town is full of celebrities and tourists taking photos of each other, each thinking that the other represents the local colour.


From The Whitstable Gazette, 01/06/2017

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,
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