Windy Whitstable welcomed us (my parents who were here for a weekend visit, Jorge and I) after a 90 minute train ride from London, with the distinctive scent of seafood wafting from the colourful harbour.
Chalkboards announced the best jellied eels – “five bits for £3.50”, lobster tails for £1 or 50p for a crab claw. As kids, we visited England’s beaches and nibbled on such strangely named creatures as cockles and winkles. We opted this time for styrofoam pots piled full of chewy welks and mussels drowning in vinegar, which we picked at with tiny plastic forks, savouring the unmistakeable taste of the seaside.
It was a cloudy day, a typical British summer day (unlike this scorching week!), and as the afternoon wore on we added extra layers – light sweaters, jackets.
Leaving the chaos and noise of London was a brilliant idea and something we should do more often. The city feels isolated from the rest of Britain sometimes, even though the extensive train lines make much of it very accessible.
And so we zipped along the edge of the River Medway and finally passed the colourful wooden beach huts of lining the shores in Whitstable. My dad and I simultaneously guessed that these tiny shelters without running water or bathrooms were about £30,000 to buy and we were about right, in case you were wondering.
From the station, we wove through the residential streets with their tiny, quirky front gardens and followed signs to the harbour. Men with weathered hands fixed orange lengths of netting damaged in the sea – a tedious task. Tourists and locals were sipping down slippery, salty oysters for which this area is famous.
Tucked in a far corner, we found the black huts of the craft market where stands full of cardboard boxes of green veiny gooseberries and luscious juicy strawberries sit alongside antiques, photography, driftwood candle holders and curry stalls. Jorge pointed out an American candy-filled space called Yankee Doodle Candy. There’s stained glass gifts, a Greek delicatessen, a dog deli, bunting, kites and rockabilly retro fashion.
My favourite stop was to see the work of illustrator Lilli Langtree whose work was printed onto plates and coasters. I bought a colourful lobster mug for my desk at work to remind me of the freshness of the air by the sea and the possibilities of more peaceful lifestyles.
From there, we strolled down to the beach made entirely of shells and pebbles and other bits washed up from the ocean floor. A few orange crush cans and crisp packets, but mainly clean. Kids were playing in the water – all power to them; it was freezing!
We took photos, watched dogs trot by shaking their wet tails, admired the old boats with their layers of peeling paint from years outdoors in the blustery wind and plenty of time bobbing along on the water.
Further along, we stopped to smell the roses poking over the low garden walls of pastel painted homes near the beach. Couples huddled together against the dividing walls along the beach, sheltering against the chilly breeze while kids piled rocks into buckets and chased each other along the shore.
We passed by piled of oyster shells which we learned from a chalkboard style sign are called cultch. Apparently “baby oysters have a free swimming larval stage but need shells or some substrate to attach to.” Learn something new every day.
Eventually, we came to a black and white pub with an old slanted bar, rowing oars along the ceiling and rugged wooden picnic tables on the beach. We sat outside with plates of fish and chips and mushy peas and sandwiches.
Sea gulls squawked and swooped in for scraps tucked between the pebbles. Windsurfers and paddle boarders took to the water in wetsuits. Dogs bounced between tables waiting for a pat on the head or for someone to quietly slip them a sliver of fish.
We spotted a bright yellow boat called “Dry Rot” amongst a row of others, near a section of homes with colored bird and fish mosaics on the front. And finally we came to those picturesque rows of beach huts I was longing to see. They were striped like Neapolitan ice cream or red and white like candy canes, painted with graffiti, bright shades of blue with yellow flowers popping against the dark wood. Each was slightly different, quirky in some way. I loved the individuality of them, their character.
Heading back toward the town, we spotted a trailer park area with a basic seaside tea house. We were the only customers but we sat at a lovely round table at the back where the wind was weaker. The tea was welcome and served in mis-matched floral cups with saucers. There was an old bakery delivery bike parked near the door.
After warming our insides with some good old English breakfast, we followed a back route passed some houses with well-maintained gardens and on to the high street. There were the usual bookies, Morrisons, banks and estate agents, but also quite a lot of independent shops with small town charm, butchers and grocers and cosy cafes.
Before catching our train back to Victoria, we had one last mission: try those famous Whitstable oysters. It didn’t take us long to hunt down a plate of half a dozen, squeezing lemon juice onto the squidgy white flesh and tipping them into our mouths – delicious!