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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 August 2006, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
Luring the day-trippers

By Lucy Wilkins, Whitstable, Kent
BBC News

Beach hut design
London day-trippers have been coming to Whitstable since 1830
As part of a series of features studying the UK's seaside towns, the spotlight falls on Whitstable in Kent.

Two boys, their t-shirt collars turned up over their faces, cycle quickly past the fish market at Whitstable. The tangy smell hits you before you see the low building on the harbourside.

Inside tourists take photos of fish laid out on ice, before heading upstairs to the Crab and Winkle restaurant. It's part of the Whitstable experience - to eat fish by the seaside - and it's a successful part of the town's appeal.

The opening weekend of the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival, in July, attracted an estimated 40,000 visitors to the Kent town which has a population of just 30,000.

"It's been the best so far, it broke the takings records for previous years, particularly for the restaurants, cafes and pubs," said festival co-ordinator Art Hewitt.

BournemouthNewcastleRhylNew BrightonWhitstableWeston-Super-MareBournemouthScarboroughRothesay
Visitors got through 32,000 oysters over two weekends so much so that "people were running out of food," he said.

But he's keen for the festival not to get out of hand.

"It's not Brighton, it's not Edinburgh, but we want to keep it special and keep the community involvement".

Despite the obvious presence of a busy working port, the town has earned a reputation as "Islington-on-sea" for its influx of Londoners and boutique shops. But how accurate is this desciption?

Tourist highlights

Visitors - mainly day-trippers from London - have been coming, in varying quantities, since the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway first opened in 1830.

Staff at the small Visitor Information Office point out some of the highlights - narrow alleys leading to the harbour; a bench donated by actor and Whitstable resident Peter Cushing where you can enjoy the sea vista and ignore the car park behind you; picturesque beach huts: quaint shops with old-fashioned signwriting and that fish market.

A view from Whitstable

But book in advance as this is not a seaside town stuffed with B&Bs.

Margaret at the tourist office takes a call from a hopeful visitor wanting weekend accommodation.

"There's nobody who will take a one-night booking on a Friday. I could ring round Canterbury for you if you like - for a fee," she offers. The caller declines.

The weekends are always busy, she says, even in winter, and the whole summer is "chocker".

It feels wintery in early August, the heatwave of July having subsided. A gale buffets the streets as hardy picnickers shelter against the groynes, which line the eroding shingle beach. No one is swimming but a life guard is on duty.

Whitstable High Street
Population: 30,000
Famous resident: Actor Peter Cushing
Known for: Oysters

The hundreds of beach huts are locked up securing them against those who might want to shelter.

No such luck for Londoner Johnny Spero, 62. The door of his hut had been kicked in, his "bone-rattler" bike stolen, and he suspected kids had been sleeping there for a couple of months. "If they really want to get in, they will."

As he applies a new coat of bright blue paint, with the wind whipping strands of it off the brush, he explains he bought his 8ft by 8ft hut 15 years ago for about 100.

"No one wanted them then. They were in quite poor condition, but now you hear of people going mad about the prices, up to 10,000.

"Back then they were all owned by elderly folk whose kids didn't want to do it."

Some of his neighbours have left the wood to weather, but he says now "everyone's jazzing them up".

In summer when he visits from London every weekend to sail his boat at Tankerton Bay Sailing Club he says it is "really busy".

This is something that is hard to imagine on a weekday under an overcast sky among a ghost town of beach huts.

Changing times

One brave soul has come from France for the day with his children. He struggles to translate "sauvage" as he gestures at grass slopes of Tankerton, swishing wildly in the wind.

A grandmother, resident in Whitstable since 1959, ponders for a long time when asked if she would recommend her home to visitors. "Well, maybe for a long weekend, but, you know, it's not Blackpool."

Matthew Davies (l) and Ollie Gillatt
Teenagers Matthew Davies (l) and Ollie Gillatt rate the bowling alley

Iris Manning, 51, said the place is changing. "Once it was Londoners in their caravans, but now it's more - well, not yuppies, but modern yuppies".

She wants to downsize from a 130,000 three-bedroom terrace but can't afford anything else in town.

"You wouldn't even get a flat for that price," she said, and despairs for young locals wanting to buy a home. Her three grandchildren - Luke, 12, Joseph, 5 and Joshua, 3 - run around on the beach collecting seagull feathers and shells. Even teenagers enthuse about what the place has to offer.

Fourteen-year-old friends Ollie Gillatt and Matthew Davies, on holiday from Chaucer Technology School, said the harbour was great, but the bowling alley was also fun. The cinema closed years ago.


Such delights haven't changed much since 70-year-old local historian Tony Blake was a lad.

But the harbour was different then, lined with bustling boat yards building and repairing boats.

"It was fascinating to watch and just wonderful for children. There was also a steam railway and they'd let you sit up with them as they did the shunting, but the rail closed in 1952, and now there's nothing to look at."

The amusement arcades of his youth have also shut. The High Street has some betting shops and charity shops, but there are the independent traders such as the butcher, baker, green grocers, a hardware store or two - with plenty of custom despite the lure of an out-of-town supermarket.

Beach hut at Tankerton
Room with a view

They sit comfortably alongside boutique shops and galleries.

As the tourist information officer points out, Whitstable has always had its share of quaint shops and "the quirky things that people miss".

The town and neighbouring resorts, such as Margate, suffered a downturn in the 1960s and 1970s with the advent of package holidays.

"People didn't go on holidays here, they saved up for Spain. But nowadays, people take two holidays - one abroad and one here," said Mr Blake.

He praised the oyster festival for combining the best of the past and present, such as marking the feast day of St James of Compostela, patron saint of fishermen, and the more recent Whitstable Regatta.

"We've got a good future, even if it's a little bit pretend, a little bit fanciful."

Thank you for your comments.

Whitstable, like most coastal towns of its size has to change and move on in order to remain prosperous and vibrant. I have lived here for 20 years and before that visited on a daily basis from Faversham since 1977. I welcome our influx of residents from wherever, be it London, Scotland, Poland, Asia, the Middle East and so on. They provide inspiration to us older residents, broaden our horizons and get involved in local societies, clubs etc. Yes our town has changed but for the better. The Horsebridge Arts Centre, ten pin bowling, Sea Cadets (oldest in the U.K.), sea scouts, kite surfing, sailing, water skiing, swimming ( blue flag beaches). There is a large variety of first class restaurants and pubs, even Mexican and Thai restaurants. I find the majority who complain do not take part in the town's activities and do nothing to improve our community. Maybe they want to return to mud filled streets, horse and carts, Smallpox, Rickets, Tuberculosis and all the fun things old Whitstable residents enjoyed!
David Cavell, Whitstable Kent

I lived in Whitstable for 15 years, although I left 10 years ago now. Since then the town has undergone an enormous transformation, for the better, and whilst it is a lot busier than I ever remembered it I still love going back to visit my parents who still live there.
Simon Baker, Haywards Heath, West Sussex

My nanny was from Whitstable. Her name was Elizabeth Weston but we called her "Goodie". Goodie must have been born around between 1980-1890, was a trained nurse in the Great War serving in a hospital that she said had been covered by nets to catch German bombs. Of all the stories about her life in Whitstable she used to tell me, the one that excited me most was that of her father coming to pick her up from school in rowboat because of a flood. Whenever I complained whining "why" the reply I got was that "Why is a river the other side of Canterbury"!
George Bonanos, Athens, Greece

Im one of many locals forced out of my home town (Whitstable) by the influx of DFL's (Down From London) Who insist on purchasing holiday homes in the town. Like many locals, DFL's are seen a a nuiscance and have contributed to the cliched sea-side town that Whitstable has become. As with Jane Vella, I too avoid the town like the plague in the summer to avoid the arrogant Londoners, however I have to disagree on one point... its not a great town anymore, it used to be...there was a real community spirit, not anymore (just look at all the 'gated' residential complexes - separating the wealthy newcomers from the 'commoners')
Annoyed, ex-Whitstable (now Herne Bay)

I was born and bought up in Whitstable, and remember it fondly! I now live in London. I remember the carnival and regatta were highlights of the year. It is a very pretty town and retains much of its character.
Sue Frost (nee Dadd), Tottenham, London

When I used to live in Canterbury, the missus and I cycled to Whitstable fairly regularly. You know, for fun. It was a nice route. Then we cycled back. There was quite literally nothing to do! Actually, I'm sure there was. The problem was, we weren't able to find it. Whitstable has self-promotion issues which sorely need resolving. Cracking model shop on the high street, though.
Ben, Gillingham, Kent

I've lived in Whitstable all my life and hate how it has changed. It seems now to only cater for the wealthy "Ruperts and Felicities" who are buying up the town. The sense of community has dwindled to almost nothing. Surely this has got to come to an end soon - I can see that Whitstable is heading for the same fate as some of the Cornish villages where properties are all "second homes" and the locals are forced to live in caravans.
Nicola, Whitstable

It is a shame that more is not made of the old Whitstable Canterbury Railway (Crab & Winkle Line) as I think it was even opened before the Liverpool Manchester ie C&W Line opened 3rd MAY 1830 and it had the first railway tunnel and the L&M opened on 15th Sep 1830 I think. And you can still see the old Invicta loco at Canterbury. I think Whitstable is the best seaside town around our coast.
Mr Williams, Gillingham KENT U/K

I live in Whitstable (well Tankerton actually) and I like it best on the beach on a wintry winter's day when all the DFLs (down from London) are still in London! I try to avoid the town on Saturdays in summer but it's still a great place to live.
Jane Vella, Whitstable, UK

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