Deciding what to do on the great British Bank Holiday presents its problems. Avoiding the herd and hedging your bets about the Bank Holiday weather are two. If you decide to venture out, having a plan B for if it is raining when you get there is a wise thing to do. Especially if you are on public transport and do not have the luxury of sitting in the car, watching the rain coming down.
A place to go that satisfies these needs is Whitstable on the North Kent Coast. Reasonably convenient for Londoners to get to, an hour and a half on the train from Victoria, and a variety of things to do within walking distance when you get there. Make sure though, that you are in the correct half of the train that divides at Faversham, one stop before Whitstable, The bank holiday train service is hourly in each direction.
When you get there it is a ten minute walk to the sea front, which, unlike most of the UK coastline, is north facing, through houses and the odd shop are vaguely reminiscent of how things used to be in the 1960’s. When you reach the beach there is an offshore wind farm which is far enough back not to be a particular eyesore and definitely not 1960’s.
For the energetic there is a yacht club and there is plenty of activity there with many yachts sailing and many more parked ready to do so. There is a shop with everything you might need for your yacht.
The other side of the harbour there are water skiers propelled not by speed boats but by large kites. Done correctly it looks very stimulating and great fun; done badly it’s a damp kite in the water.
Although it is called the castle, in fact it was the second home of a 19th Century businessman for when he was in Whitstable rather than in London. It is set in gardens, which are really Whitstable’s public park, and very pleasant. There are beautifully kept ornamental gardens and a tea-room which is high enough on the hill to give a good view of the sea and the gardens down the slope. Following these gardens you come to a bowling green, beautifully smooth, with people immaculately dressed in white playing bowls.
Whitstable has a rather interesting history and is still a working port. Its situation on the North Kent coast made it important in the 19th century to receive coal transports from the North of England and one of the first railways in the country was built to take the coal the eight miles to Canterbury. The original railway, built in 1832 preceded the use of locomotives, winching wagons along with ropes driven by stationary steam engines at the side of the tracks. Since it ended in Whitstable, famous for its sea food, it became known as the Crab and Winkle line.
The railway declined as other modes of transport came in during the early 20th century and the use of the railway lapsed. Whitstable was instrumental in this decline because it produced (and still produces) road stone which is the basis of tarmacadam and the tarred roads which are so familiar.
The harbour is compact, having the port on one side and fishing boats on the other. On the quay are a collection of huts used as market stalls. The merchandise includes the usual seaside buckets and spades, but also some shops selling original art, jewellery and antiques. These are fun to spend some time browsing through.
Next to this is the fish market which has a high proportion of sea food as this is local and oysters remain one of Whitstable’s main industries.
At the yacht shop the road divides with one branch going along the coast and the other to the square with its shops until they rejoin at the High Street. A footpath runs along the top of the beach through to the High Street with houses backing on to it. The vegetation is unusual as it consists of those plants able to withstand the salty condition.
The shops and square
The branch of the road at the yacht shop going to the square has great character and it is a step back in time. That is its attraction, and on some buildings partially erased lettering on the brickwork tells you what used to be there. There is a very nice shop with wooden toys and another in whose window I saw a small book, written decades ago by a cook from the Royal kitchens entitled “Wholesome Recipes for the Lower Orders”. It has galleries, a book shop and clothing shops in amongst other necessaries like hardware and food.
Whitstable is very individualistic and slightly bohemian, mixing fishing village and industry with its own strong character. Though only eight miles from Canterbury it is so different it could be hundreds of miles away. It is a place for meandering through and taking in at your leisure until it is time to catch that train back to the metropolis and bring the Bank Holiday to a close.