What a blooming chic! Whitstable’s boat comes in as the train takes off
The Kentish port is riding the crest of a wave, discovers Adam Edwards
There are two types of beach in Britain — the sandy, bucket-and spade shore and the salty, windswept shingle. Padstow has the former, Whitstable owns the latter. This is doubtless why the Cornish fishing village has become the playground of the rich and the Kentish port has not.
Whitstable’s stony waterfront, sandwiched between the protruding Old Neptune pub and a small working harbour, is not for the Range Rover set or for the charabanc crowd, for that matter. There is no fancy promenade or pier for the day tripper. There is no seashore shop flogging Rick Stein olive oil or seafront amusement arcade.
The coastal port once known as the “Pearl of Kent’’ is cockney-tough with no quarter given to the grey sea to its north or the Garden of England to the south. It is a town by the sea rather than a seaside town that sits squarely between the bright lights of Margate and the light industrial Medway towns.
And yet now, improbably, it is emerging as the SouthEast coast’s answer to the South-West’s Padstow. It is, like the native oyster with which it likes to associate itself, moving from whelk stand to well-to-do watering hole.
‘‘It is the jewel in the crown of the north Kent coast,’’ says Andy Smith, managing director of 1st Property Investment, which is currently investing heavily in the area. ‘‘The town is bucking the market trend. It is going through an extraordinary regeneration.’’
Britain’s oyster capital, where Eastenders once tucked into cockles and muscles and drank the alcoholic juice from the hops that they picked, is scuttling towards gentrification faster than a crab to a rock pool.
It is Padstow with attitude, with more in common with the fashionable West Country resort than it might care to admit. Both, for example, are small ports dominated by the business of fish (oysters and Rick Stein, respectively); both have recently had their former disused railway lines turned in cycle trails (the Crab and Winkle Line from Canterbury and the Camel trail from Wadebridge) and both have been targeted by the metropolitan wellheeled. For just as Padstow has become a holiday home for Hooray Henries that has earned it the nickname ‘‘Chelsea-on-Sea’’, so Whitstable is metamorphosing into ‘‘The Islington Strand’’.
‘‘The price of property has risen dramatically, even by comparison with the rest of the market,’’ says local estate agent Christopher Hodgson. ‘‘Whitstable has always appealed to Londoners, but recently its profile has stepped up.’’
What has turned the town into a location worthy of a metropolitan monicker is next year’s promise of a new train service from London’s St Pancras station to east Kent. Testing started this spring for the new Japanese ‘‘bullet trains’’ that are to travel on the line and will make the port less than an hour’s commute from the capital.
‘‘Whitstable is the fashionable corner of a coastline that is going to become London’s smart new commuter belt,’’ says Smith. ‘‘The new high-speed trains will reinvent the area and property prices are reflecting that. Next year it will be easier and faster to get to London from Whitstable than from Windsor.’’
And yet the small port with a population of only 30,000 appears at first glance to be stuck in a different era from the rest of the country. It likes to boast of its old-fashioned high street with a baker, butcher and greengrocer and also, most unusually, a bicycle repairer and an independent record shop. It claims a hardware store and a traditional shoe shop with few of the usual stores — no WHSmith or
Marks&Spencer. And it takes pride in a host of ancient fish restaurants and oyster bars and several nautically named, not-very-gastro-pubs (unless you count a ham and cheese toastie as a gourmet delicacy).
But beneath this 20th-century quaintness are the stirrings of a 21stcentury metropolitan invasion. Nowadays the town also possesses a Michelin-starred restaurant, a new, architecturally admired arts centre and 10 art galleries. It is frequently commandeered as a movie location ( Tipping the Velvet and Venus starring Peter O’Toole were both shot there) and contains a smattering of celebrity residents (Janet Street-Porter and Harry Hill among them).
Whitstable has also boosted its image with the introduction 15 years ago of an Oyster Festival. The nineday celebration, which is inevitably attended by pearly kings and queens and a swarm of Morris Dancers, is held in July — despite the fact that one should not eat a native oyster in a month without an “r” in its name. And the jollity makes up for the perhaps inevitable decline in Whitstable’s oyster industry (and shellfish in general). Nevertheless, the festival has put the town squarely on the gourmet tourist’s map.
Meanwhile plans to regenerate the old quayside with a supermarket, theme pub and a four-storey glass and steel hotel have been thrown out after more than half the population of the town signed a petition condemning the proposals.
‘‘The essence of Whitstable is that it is a non-conformist place,’’ says independent councillor Geoff Bush. ‘‘Let’s demonstrate that by having more imaginative buildings.’’
Companies wanting to develop Whitstable’s quayside have now been issued with new design guidelines to ensure any new buildings sit comfortably in the historic setting.
‘‘If there is so much as a piece of chewing gum on the pavement, a petition will be got up about it,’’ says John Nurden, editor of the Whitstable Times.
‘There is a strong civic pride in the town. There are two separate communities here. There are the people who are born here, known as “natives” after the native Whitstable oyster, and the “DFLs” — down from London — who are a cosmopolitan hotchpotch. And both are intensely loyal to the town that is, thank heavens, not yet a commuter dormitory.’’
This feeling of pride in a place that only 20 years ago was less fashionable than a prawn cocktail was highlighted by a report last year by English Heritage called The Regeneration in Historic Coastal Towns. It claimed that Whitstable, which was in steep decline in the early 1990s with 10 per cent unemployment, has seen an extraordinary revival.
‘‘More than 350 buildings have been restored,’’ said the report. ‘‘A new generation of visitors are now interested as much in the gastronomic experience as the traditional seaside holiday. The town offers arts and culture, retail, activities and high-quality food and accommodation, all in an attractive, historic setting.’’
Earlier this year, it was announced that a campaign to save the shoreline at Seasalter beach, to the immediate west of the town, had been successful. The land and is now a wildlife sanctuary.
That beach may be shingle rather than sand and the town may consume more jellied eels than it does fruits de mer but at least it no longer need feel that it is a poor relation to Padstow. It just needs a celebrity chef with his own olive oil to confirm that fact.
Sea change: theregeneration of Whitstable is gathering pace