Whitstable was founded after the Devil tried to steal the buildings of Canterbury - he was caught, and dropped the stolen houses eight miles away, where they stayed.
Satan takes a town (Old Legend)
Horny Boy rung Widders Bel
Stoal his Fathers Ham as wel.
Russell Hoban, ‘Riddley Walker’
All empires fall / all tyrants burn.
I sit and listen to ‘The Dream of Brian Haw’. He, the deceased and famous protester enshrined in a dub, is one of Whitstable’s notables.
There are sunshine days when I slip into coastal fantasies, a future avatar five-to-ten years older, at some sort of content life plateau, Jack Russel at my feet yapping on a lead, a small child of indeterminate gender to whom I will point out keening black headed gulls, darting sandpipers and rotting bladderwrack. Sitting on a wooden table outside a beachside pub, staring out across the Thames Estuary to Sheppey and Essex, sipping Shepherd Neame ales with a sense of financial security and a non-metropolitan future. A common half-dream of the adopted Londoner.
Recently I sat outside an overpriced bar in Dalston, watching angry men throw punches before dissipating into the side streets. I sipped cider, and a poet who drank Whitstable Bay ale told me about her week away writing.
“Where?” I asked.
“A little place on the coast called Whitstable. Like this ale, see.”
“I grew up there. My mum still lives there.”
Often, now, pleased reactions of surprise. No one used to know where it was. I like that ale and drink it myself from time to time. It figures in Sainsburys 3 for £5 offers.
Once there were starfish washed up on the beach, in hues of white, blue and orange. Dead, I presume, but I do not know. In the dream of salt and shingle all is uncertain and facts are eel-slippery, tidal, the texture of oyster flesh. I remember the starfish, but I have no photographs and people move on. All my fictions are dragged back through the Blackwall Tunnel along the M2 to the coast. I have a constant temptation to be elegiac, at only thirty years of age.
I recall scraps of the eighties. My first concrete recollection of the town, exposed storm wounds.
Physical brick and concrete cannot be separated from personal biography. I’d like to pretend I was more worldly, more travelled as a child and teen, but no, this was the place where the world took shape and form. My family’s stories of their exploits in the North West London of the late seventies seemed alien and exotic. Now I often tread those same streets in NW where my mother once worked. Now a Czech restaurant. We visited, a few years back, the house that they left near Stonebridge Park just off the North Circular. Near the biker café, the Ace. Noise, dirt, Wembley stadium rising like a white leviathan out of post-industrial sprawl. I saw, then, why they left, in the days before coastal living became such an affluent bohemian dream. The old Indian man who ran the local shop remembered my mother’s name. We walked on Heather Park.
“This is where I found Josie”.
Josie, the abandoned dog my mother took in, docile and scared, left to die on a patch of London grass, soon to be taken down the coast to snap at lapping waves.
I recall scraps of the eighties. The town was dirty then, run down. First memory, the morning after the hurricane of ’87, being walked by my father to pre-school in what we called ‘The Castle’. In reality a pre-Victorian folly once called Tankerton Towers. Upturned trees, roots exposed to salty air, naked, exposed, somehow embarrassing to look at. My first concrete recollection of the town, exposed storm wounds and the knowledge that what we see is not all there is.
The Castle was built in the 1790s as a residence for the Pearson Family. “…over its long history it has been developed and improved by successive owners” says the tasteful website and I wonder how the eighteenth century Pearsons would feel about that. It’s pleasant to take the short stroll through the grounds, to indulge in a spot of idling, a neatly trimmed and managed micro-scape of bright flowers and amnesiac trees standing strong and proud. The roots, though, the roots remember. There are stories in the soil.
The poetry of herbs: from grass-leaved vetchling to smooth tare, dyer’s greenweed and spiny restharrow.
Sometime around A-levels, we would sit at night in the tea gardens that crouch opposite The Castle and overlook the sea, smoking weed, talking shit, drinking. I recall one clear image from that drugged fug, my friends stoned and dozing on grass in cool summer evening air. A few empty beer cans fanned around us. A hedgehog appearing unobtrusively from the small patch of undergrowth, unfazed, wrinkling its snout. I sat there and observed it wordlessly until it shuffled away.
Fennel and Vetchling
Leading away from the Tea Gardens are the Tankerton slopes. The coast curves away majestically towards Herne Bay and Reculver, two rusted cannons looking blindly out to sea. When winter snows arrive, these slopes are thronged with tobogganists and sledders, happy children, anxious parents and mischievous teens.
The slopes are a Site of Specific Scientific Interest, supporting the country’s largest single population of umbellifer hog's fennel, that sit rustling in the breeze above rows of wooden beach huts; notable owners have included Tracey Emin and Charles Saatchi. They have been said to change hands for £75,000. As teenagers we would remove scraps of wood and half-rotted planks from beneath the huts and pile them into cone-shaped edifices before setting them alight. Drink, smoke, watch the flamelight reflected on the murmuring waves and avoid the popping superheated stones. The hog’s fennel only occurs in sporadic patches on the coast of Kent and Essex. The slopes themselves are composed of London Clay, where the fennel rubs shoulders with meadow barley, false oat-grass and red fescue. Know where and what to look at and you'll be rewarded with the poetry of flora, a multitude of herbs from grass-leaved vetchling to smooth tare, dyer’s greenweed and spiny restharrow. A rare moth can be found - a treat for the lepidopterist - whose larvae feed exclusively on the leaves of the hog’s fennel. Things, here, are site-specific.
At the right time of day – check the tide table, available locally for about a quid –The Street can be seen stretching out to sea in a dirty yellow slash cut through the grey-blue waves. Signs warn against swimming off this stretch of coast. People have died here, dragged down by treacherous undercurrents unpredictable and dangerous. I imagine selkies speaking estuary English, fretful and quick to anger.
The Street is a shingle bank that extends half a mile or so out into the sea, visible as the tide ebbs. Daytrip walkers and locals alike go out there, to watch the rippling waves flow in at impossible angles. Walkers have been caught out by the rising tide, so fast and yet imperceptible. What is The Street? In Kent we remember the Romans, they are dead and gone but not forgotten. I was schooled in a city littered with the ruins from their empire, hanging out with shirts untucked and ties removed on top of the Roman walls, looking out over the bus station at the multi-storey car park (now demolished). Some say, or need to believe, that the Romans created The Street. Some say it’s a natural formation. Oysters were harvested here in Roman times; that much is true and the desire for continuity, a flowing narrative, is irresistible. But history is tidal, and all empires fall.
Our World of Flats and Cafes
The walk from the slopes towards the town proper goes past the old red phone box standing bright and isolated on a traffic island, where my mother, in the eighties, would make phone-calls to her family and friends. My brother and I would jump off the stone walls, play, wait for her. The dog was most often with us. We had no landline then - unthinkable really.
Where Northwood Road begins, in the postcode where I grew up and where my mother still lives, once stood a garage, long gone and now, like everything, flats. The chance to be away from people attracts people. There are more cars now but the garage is gone. Late at night in times of insomnia, I think of these things. There was also once a pet store, with bags of sunflower seed and iridescent guppies swimming endless laps of cramped tanks. More people, cars and pets, less visible services to support an expanding population. Online deliveries and out of town megastores save us time, in our world of flats, cafés and artisan bread. Time is saved and leisure has not increased.
Before the harbour stands the bowling alley in faded faux-Americana. Inside, fruit machines flash amongst the clatter of balls and pins. I was half-decent at bowling, once. My brother worked the bar here, years ago.
Where Northwood Road ends, over Tower Parade and down towards the seafront where the road bleeds into car-park, sits the Hotel Continental with its European aspirations. Once it was the Harbour Lights pub, a much more evocative name, a biker pub and a hangout of boozers and drug dealers (according to my mother). I think I would like it like that now, the tasteful décor and expensive wheat beers from the Whitstable Brewery not providing what I want, but what many others do. I speculate as to whether the bikers had visited the Ace Café. The chances are, yes.
Winter brings Brent geese to The Swale. Gadwall, teal, tufted duck, wigeon and eider. If you’re lucky, snow bunting and shorelark. Knot, grey plover, dunlin, oystercatcher, ringed plover, turnstone, curlew. Joy in merely reciting these names, mantras and incantations to keep the world at bay. In my mother’s garden, I sit in summer, put down feed and watch the dying house sparrows.
The best walk to the town centre is through the harbour. The tarmac plant stands firm and ageless, ugly and unwanted by the craftspeople, olive vendors, naïve artists and curry cooks. I find solace in that this place still has function beyond the ritual and symbolic. Boats bob in the murky harbour water, sandpipers darting over piles of wet orange rope. Gulls pick at discarded mackerel buns, slathered in your choice of sweet chilli or garlic sauce. Last summer, I took a one-day sabbatical from vegetarianism to consume one. It was blazing hot and I was in company, a local experience. That’s how I justified it. Here, on the harbour, is the working fish market with reassuringly authentic puddles of water on the floor, the day’s catches displayed on ice, polystyrene cups of winkles and mussels, cockles and whelks, dead eyed sole, skate and bass peering out at customers from behind plastic price signs and sprigs of decorative vegetation. The boats - Charlie Boy, Lisa Marie and Our Sarah Jane - bring these white fish to the market, to the rest of the south east, to northern France. Whether they go to Billingsgate, I’m unsure.
Starfish wrap themselves in lovers’ embraces round oyster shells, eating that which we eat and which the town depends on.
The air here smells of stale sand, scraped shell and eager tourism. If you come, you must, must, try one of the local oysters. Drown its flesh in Tabasco and lemon, slide it down your throat and imbibe the local culture. Chances are the snotty flesh that slips down the tourist throat is an Irish import, following the herpes plague that decimated stocks a few years back. The OsHV-1 virus was found in stocks at the Seasalter Shellfish company, having crossed somehow over the water from France. In 2010 a containment area was declared in The Swale, the Thames and the north Kent coast. There is no known cure for the disease. Herpes damages the projected image; if you eat an oyster in Whitstable it is a Whitstable oyster.
I have been known to indulge in one of these famous molluscs. Should know what it tastes like, I reasoned. I don’t know whether I consumed one of the local varieties or one of the doppelgangers and I wonder if it matters. I remember washed up starfish, a fallen constellation drying out in the heat of the past.
Something, though, is luring the starfish back. Vattenfall, the company responsible for installing the wind farms, now jostling the derelict Maunsell Forts to capture the eye’s attention as you look out to the horizon, have been criticised by local fishermen. Underground cabling runs out to the wind farms, themselves a controversial eco-eyesore criticised by those without a full understanding of the facts, an unacceptable NIMBYism. The cables warm the water, they attract the starfish, the starfish are voracious predators of oyster and other shellfish. One solution, another problem. Green energy is a must but I do not want the oysters to die, for people to lose their jobs. People wait now to see if the threat is real. Starfish wrap themselves in lovers’ embraces round oyster shells, eating that which we eat and which the town depends on.
Boat trips run from the harbour, journeys up the Thames estuary and through Tower Bridge before ejecting the passengers onto London streets to be taken by bus back down to the coast. My mother has done it - a thrilling sight, she says, and one day I will do it myself.
Dead Horse Morris
On Boxing Day 2012 I took a stroll with my mother alongside the seafront and through the harbour. The skies were grey as ever, and black headed gulls in winter plumage bobbed in the air. We talked of nothing in particular. The harbour was unusually thronged with people, young children in bright coats, parents, old couples fanned out in a half-moon near where the oyster stalls sit. Men in scruffy white shirts and ill-fitting black waistcoats - white men but faces charcoal black - danced ritualised dances and witchlike women, the Broomdashers I was to discover, stood watch. These were the Dead Horse Morris men, 26 years on the Kentish folk scene but eluding my awareness until now. Today was their Boxing Day tour of Whitstable, to end up later in The Old Ship Centurion. I watched dancing fleshly folk figures in the twenty-first century, yearned for warming pints of ale in a pub named after the Romans, observed a flitting sandpiper. All empires fall but some things persist.
The horizon is an artificial line of wind farms and World War Two forts.
Dead Horse. I investigated and their website explained:
“…navy slang for work that has been paid for in advance. Sailors would often be paid a month’s wages in advance to buy clothes required for the trip, although often this would be spent on drink or other vices. Working a dead horse, therefore refered (sic) to working for a month with no pay other than food - the infamous ‘salt house and biscuit’.”
The display finished with the Brussels Sprout Dance. Blackfaced morris men, having stepped out of their normal roles, wore colanders on their heads and gripped stems of sprouts like swords and began a loosely choreographed fight. One figure, clearly separate from the rest wore a harlequin-coloured dress, an element of transvestitism added to an already unstable mix. One of the women threw single sprouts at him and he began to bat the Christmas food, hard, into the crowd. An audience interaction unexpected, alarming for anxious mothers, close to those older folk traditions of subversion and mischief. A sprout thudded into my chest and I laughed. “They could have someone’s eye out.”. A game of rounders meets The Wicker Man.
Christopher Lee, of course, never lived in Whitstable. His most famous adversary. Peter Cushing as the vampire hunter Van Helsing, did. He died in 1994, the year I began secondary school in Canterbury. As children, we would see him cycling around the town unaware of his horror pedigree. Many years later, Mark Gatiss would sit sipping tea on Harbour Street discussing the iconic man for his documentary detailing the history of British horror. Whitstable Museum, tiny and endearingly provincial, has a small area dedicated to him.
I wonder what Cushing made of the Dead Horse Morris men.
Now, on the site of the old bingo hall next to the takeaway where we would devour post-pint kebabs in my pre-vegetarian days, sits The Peter Cushing. A Wetherspoons, busy-looking, and with pints cheaper than the chips you buy on the seafront, opened on the 23rd August 2011.
The dead have been seen alive.
The horizon is an artificial line of wind farms and World War Two forts - designed by Guy Maunsell, placed in the Thames and Mersey estuaries in 1942. Once intended to provide anti-aircraft fire in the Thames estuary to protect against the bombs that would reduce English cities to rubble; decommissioned in the fifties; resurrected into a half-life of pirate radio stations during the 1960s and 70s. They sit there still, out there on the horizon, dreaming of the ghosts of aircraft. They are near the windfarm erected in 2005. Starfish armies gather unseen under the waves. Boats will take you out on a trip there, from the harbour, on certain days. They feature on top thirty lists of gratuitous ruin-porn sites.
Away from harbour the town proper begins with Harbour Street, a firm favourite for visitors with its mix of antique stores, shops selling ceramic gulls, local cheeses, wine and a remaindered bookstore where I’ve picked up many a bargain over the years. Unless you stop to shop it doesn’t take long to walk. Jarvis Cocker was spotted here once.
Blessing of the Waters
A few streets back from Harbour Street, Sea Wall meets Reeves Beach. Once a year, during the Oyster Festival, Christians hold the Blessing of the Waters. Allegedly the custom dates back to 1657, held as close as possible to the Feast Day of St James, the patron saint of oystermen. Or so my sources tell me. I have never seen it.
I am an atheist, but this year I may go and observe the procession of choristers and clergy as they appease the cruel seas and give thanks for its bounty.
Neptune sits a little further along the coast.
The High Street begins with the Duke of Cumberland pub. Wheelers Oyster Bar sits opposite a faintly respectable booze store. What ever happened to Threshers? A bit further up by the Iceland, once a Woolworths where we’d indulge in the childhood clichés of pick’n’mix, there is a Costa Coffee. When it appeared, I have no idea. I still buy my coffee and breakfast in Tea & Times, one of the first aspirational cafés I recall opening in the town. It would fit right in in Hackney, in the best possible way. I’ll often meet my father here when I’m down visiting. Tiny alleyways with memorable names – Squeeze Gut Alley being the best – allow those in the know to slip off the High Street onto Middle Wall where sits The Smack, a pub as yet resisting buggies and lattés (and all for the better, if only to maintain diversity).
On a recent cold Saturday in March I entered with my partner, fancying a pint of ale or stout after a long walk along the seafront. Though only two in the afternoon, a pair of young men sat at the bar, half-cut, ordering vodka-and-cokes from the energetic barmaid who possessed an accent not often found outside of Mike Leigh films. We ordered Guinness and salt-and-vinegar crisps and sat by a crackling fire. An old black cat eyed us placidly. We listened to the young men talk of the future drinking exploits the day held for them and I felt a pang of jealousy – I can’t go the distance like I used to. They grumbled about ‘fucking DFLs’ and were disappointed when the barmaid announced she was from Bermondsey, living down here now to look after her mum. She sounded authentic. Chas and Dave’s ‘Rabbit’ was whacked on the jukebox, a song I enjoy. I thought about mentioning the band’s quintessential London identity but thought better of it.
DFL. Down From London. I wondered how these half-cut daytime drinkers would consider me. A bit of both, but probably falling into the negative category.
The High Street continues, fairly nondescript; a few more expensive cafés and hairdressers these days, though tellingly in times of recession a one-pound shop sits opposite a bakery and a Barclays. Near the library sits Oxford Street Books, a wonderful second-hand and antiquarian bookshop, oddly out of place here. Victoriana and obscure nuggets of local history, orange-spined Penguins, among which I once found T.H. White’s The Goshawk, John Cowper Powys’ A Glastonbury Romance and Robert Holdstock’s Ancient Echoes. Holdstock, a hero of mine, a Kentish writer based his Mythago Woods cycle on the woods of this county, my county. Catapulting a perceived mundane experience into the realms of imagination and transformation.
Dogs bark at waves and pasty English men and women cook their skins in the brief bursts of heat.
Near the bookstore, Nelson Road leads away from the High Street through Island Wall and Marine Gap to my own favourite destination, The Old Neptune. Beyond that lies a Whitstable strangely less explored in my own head: a golf course, beaches where the sand seems coarser, less friendly, more covered in scrub. Follow that coast and Whitstable dissolves into Seasalter, a place quieter, more rugged and unkempt then The Swale and Oare Marshes. Different places with their own psychic states and less popular with the tourists.
The Neptune; a Shepherd Neame pub that rises directly out of the pebbly beach, location for Peter O’Toole and his young acquaintance in Venus. A portrait of Ian Dury created by a famous artist once hung on its walls. On a Christmas Eve I sipped pints of Whitstable Bay with my father who does not live in Whitstable but further up the coast in Herne Bay, a place I never really liked though I’ve spent much time there. The Neptune works in winter and in summer. I’ve always loved it, always take new visitors to the place in summer when we can sit outside on the splintery and crooked tables, drink and look at the waves. Best pub in the country, I untruthfully say. Dogs bark at waves and pasty English men and women cook their skins in the brief bursts of heat we are given. Dangerously red and mottled arms are often on display. Drinking is easy here.
In winter it’s a cosy haven from the biting sea-winds; later in the year a chance for a summer celebration of some of the positive things this overcrowded and often dull part of the country can offer. At these times, the beach hums with tourists. I’m still unsure of my status and anxious as to how I’ll be perceived.
Here, I find it hard not to romanticise.
In those brief bursts of summer I sit in my mother’s garden, a place always on the cusp of order and anarchy. We sit at wooden tables with the faintest of mildew sheen, drying out in the heat. We drink coffee, and I smoke if I want to risk my mother’s scolding. I put out feed for the birds that seem to teem in this place, at least in comparison with the metropolis. I watch the house sparrows and starlings: birds once so common and now dwindling with alarming speed, shifted onto the RSPB’s Red List. Signifiers of the past, a world I had been naïve enough to think stable, but now dwindling, changing, disappearing.
The old wooden shed crouches in the garden, one of its windows still unfixed after all these years. It was shattered in during a game of football with a school friend who is still a friend. He tells me, in 2013 over the internet, of finding a stash of history in the attic of his mother’s home; photographs going back nearly a century, retracing steps and reminding us of the continuities between then and now: his great-grandfather standing on Tankerton Slopes circa 1920, near the fennel and vetchling; His father in 1966 on Harbour Street, bright and smiling. It made me delve into my mother’s own stash of unsorted photography - pictures of a dog now long dead, the town in the eighties, nineties, noughties. Picnics and barbecues on the beach, friends gone and friends still here, The Street looking as it always did, Roman ghosts, a starfish washed ashore, gulls, oysters and me.
Not elegies but celebrations. All empires fall, but for now I remember as I move forward. This was my home.
Gary Budden is a writer and editor based in London. He is Editorial Assistant at Ambit Magazine and Editor and Co-Founder of Influx Press, an independent publishing company focusing on site-specific literature.
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