For many of us it seems like Whitstable only really appeared on the map 15 years ago with a Guardian article, extoling the virtues of the untouched seaside town, however, as many locals will tell you, Whitstable has been a popular and vibrant town for many centuries.
The most telling historical markers are Whitstable’s native oysters, which have been harvested since Roman times. Apparently, Caesar, who “veni, vidi, vicied” just down the coast, was particularly partial to them. Throughout the following centuries these famous bivalves would be a staple part of most inhabitants’ diets. Nowadays our oysters are celebrated in the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival in July, where the town and its visitors gear up for a week of seafood and locally brewed bear, beautifully assisted by art and community projects.
Another industry created in Whitstable is deep sea diving. Charles Dickens commented in 1860 that “If it had not fallen to the lot of Whitstable to be celebrated for its oysters and its company of free dredgers, it might have claimed a word of notice for producing that rarest of all workmen, the sea diver.” A gruesome job, involving salvaging from sunken ships in the Estuary and North Sea, the early divers wore suits based on a prototype created by the Deane brothers from Whitstable.
The story goes that the brothers were trying to save their horses from a barn fire and came up with the idea of using a fireman’s helmet and a water hose to keep the smoke out. Insurance companies weren’t interested in buying the design, but salvaging companies showed much more interest, with the first diving suit being used in 1829. John Deane was later the first man to discover the Mary Rose in 1836.
Diving and watersports are still a popular pastime in the area although avoiding the original equipment. If you want to see how heavy it was check out Sarah Millican on ‘Who do you think you are?’ Her great great great? Grandad was one of the original Whitstable divers.
For railway and history buffs out there, the town was also the site of the world’s first steam powered passenger railway service The Crab and Winkle, operating from the Harbour (you can still see the station gates today) to Canterbury. With it came Invicta, the first steam locomotive, designed by Robert Stevenson, which is currently on display in the Canterbury Heritage Museum. It’s a short drive from Whitstable, or if you prefer you can hire a bike in the town centre and cycle along the route of the railway. There are a number of steep hills on the route, which just adds to ones awareness of the impressiveness of engineering in 1830.
For an interesting day exploring in the town, it is worth investigating the secret alleyways crisscrossing from the main High Street towards the beach. Each alleyway has a story behind it, and all of them date back to the days of smuggling. One particularly notable alley is Squeeze Gut Alley. The story behind the name goes that naughty boys used to run in to the alley and hide from an overweight policeman. Because of the tightness of the alley, he could never catch them. It’s worth trying to see if you can find the entrance to Squeeze Gut Alley from Island Wall.
Nowadays the town is less full of smugglers although there are still some characters that frequent the local pubs and restaurants. There is a thriving arts and music community and some of the best places to eat in the area. The long, pebble beaches are unspoilt and Whitstable’s sunsets have been voted in the top 10 in the world.