I like Whitstable. There is a strong flavour of the sea throughout the town, with its rows of weather-boarded fishermen’s cottages, black-tarred boat sheds and tarpaulin-covered sailing dinghies squashed in between grasping groynes. The harbour, once the port of Canterbury, is busy with an active fishing fleet and is lined with sheds from where fresh fish can be purchased. ‘Native Oysters’ have been collected from beds beyond the low water mark from Roman times. These can be clearly seen at low tide. Oysters are now having a revival and is celebrated at the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival, which takes place during the summer.
One of the earliest passenger railway services from Canterbury opened to Whitstable in 1830. A few years later the company built a harbour and extended the line to handle coal and other bulk cargos for the City of Canterbury. It is now out of use and has been converted into a cycle path. Behind the sailing club, pubs and bars spill out onto the beach. Converted bathing huts and sheds, furnished and decorated by local artisans, and oyster stalls overlook the winding promenade. Twisting little side streets, with quaint names like Squeeze Gut Alley, host a range of small independent shops.
Before the first pier was built in 1831 the town scarcely existed with the exception of a few fishermen’s huts. It was laid out as a resort in the 1830s. The pier is the third one here, designed for landing passengers from steamers. Work began in 1896. When it was finished ran 1.147 km out to sea. A small railway was used to carry the passengers and their luggage ashore. The pier got quite a bashing from the elements. So much so that it was declared unsafe and closed in 1968. In 1978, the pier’s neck collapsed in another storm. It was dismantled in 1980, leaving a stub with a sports centre at the landward end, and part of the landing stage isolated out at sea. The Pier Trust focussed on promoting and developing the landward part of the pier. In 2103 a beach hut village was created on the pier with local businesses selling their wares. More traditional seaside rides and activities are sited at the far end to enhance the pier experience.
On the site of a Roman fort stood the towers of an ancient church which was demolished when the sea threatened to undermine them. The towers were bought by Trinity House in 1809 and restored to act as an essential aid to navigation.
My visit to Margate coincided with the arrival of a sand cloud originating in Morocco (yes, really!) – hence the rather orange hue to everything. The sands here have attracted Londoners since 1753 when Benjamin Beale, a Margate glovemaker, invented the covered bathing machine. The railway arrived in 1846 but before that visitors came by sea in special boats called Margate hoys which docked at a curved jetty built for this purpose. The storm of 1978 destroyed most of it and what was left was demolished.
Margate feels a bit tired as a resort although there are huge efforts going on to turn it around. Despite the flaking paint, the boarded windows and the For Sale signs, the hotels & guest houses and the pubs & restaurants in the streets behind the front, offer the potential of good food and comfortable accommodation. Margate is reinventing itself as the next trendy place to buy a home. Behind the Harbour Arm stone pier, the bland faces of the Turner Contemporary art gallery look over the sands, concealing rotating exhibitions. A sculpture by Anthony Gormley, ‘Another Time’, has been erected on the rocks opposite the gallery and is fully exposed at low tide.