Whitstable: A Town for all Seasons
Words & photos by Deborah Loeb Bohren
I’m hooked on British detective series, so when “Whitstable Pearl” popped up on my Amazon Prime screen it looked like a fun way to help while away those long pandemic hours. Who knew that a year later I would find myself part of an international photography exhibition at the Horsebridge Arts Centre in…you guessed it, Whitstable! Not only was Whitstable real, but to my delight it was a historic fishing town with a working harbor, super friendly locals, and what has been touted as some of the best seafood in England.
About an hour from London by train — and a mere 7 miles from Canterbury by car, or on foot or bike along the Crab & Winkle Way (a converted track bed of the now defunct C&W Railway) it is the perfect day trip, weekend sojourn or base to explore all things Kent for a week.
Situated along a pebbled beach fringed by classic British beach huts, the town is all about the sea. Even shuttered for the season, the rainbow hued beach huts beckon. Fun fact: the huts evolved from the “bathing machines” popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, a person would enter one side of the bathing machine, change into their bathing attire in private before being wheeled directly into the sea for a swim.
Our exhibition was in November so we didn’t get to enjoy the wide array of outdoor activities — from kayaking and paddle boarding to swimming, boating and fishing —on offer in the warmer weather. But even in the cold and damp dodging the more than occasional raindrop, Whitstable didn’t disappoint.
The town boasts a wonderful array of independent shops. Both Harbour Street and High Street are the perfect blend of then (when was the last time you saw a fabric store?) and now. Take the vintage-inspired casual women’s clothing at The Whiting Post, just one of a dozen or so individual stores catering to women’s fashion. Need shoes to go with that new outfit? Luckily, Just Shoes is just down the street.
Meanwhile, Harbour Books provides the joy of buying real, hold them in your hands books, their selections beautifully curated for all ages and interests. Meanwhile Gatefield Sounds and Rock Bottom Records were a kick for pouring through vinyl from years past. But, as a newly minted grandmother, it was Buttercup that stole my heart. The most charming of toy stores, its shelves are filled with exquisitely crafted toys and dolls and unique books from across the UK, Scandinavia and Europe. If only I had brought a bigger suitcase with me!
And then there is the food…I never expected the quality and dizzying number of choices I uncovered in this tiny seaside village. Of course, the requisite and globally recognized icon of British cuisine, the full English — bacon, eggs, sausage, black pudding, baked beans, grilled tomato, and toast— is the way to start your day. I became obsessed with the local eggs, the yolks deeper in color, more orange than yellow, dense and rich in flavor. Try Rulu’s or Farm & Harper, where locals and visitors are welcomed with open arms and the servings are huge, fresh and delicious.
However, Whitstable’s culinary claim to fame for centuries — and what still sets it apart — are oysters, a mainstay of the town since Roman times. These delicacies form the centerpiece of the local food scene and a myriad of options for indulging abound.
The Whitstable Oyster Company traces its roots back to the 1400s. Perched right on the edge of the beach in the center of town, not surprisingly the WOC is all about oysters: fished Whitstable Natives, farmed rock oysters, raw by the dozen, baked with garlic butter and parmesan or with black truffle butter and Champagne. They were plump, meaty and utterly delicious. Wash them down with a beer from their own Whitstable Brewing Company and, as an IPA aficionado, two thumbs up for their Wrack & Ruin New England IPA.
Wheeler’s Oyster Bar, with its iconic bright pink two-story facade, can be found at the start of the High Street. Small, intimate and a little bit kitsch, they have been serving oysters since 1856. An organic garden and a take-out counter filled to the brim with oysters and all sorts of picnic basket-ready goodies makes Wheeler’s a place you don’t want to miss.
Branching out from oysters, two doors down from Wheeler’s find Samphire’s. Our group was evenly split between the humble homemade fish pie and the aged Porterhouse steak; neither disappointed.
Meander to the far side of the wharf and you will find the Lobster Shack, owned by the same folks as the Whitstable Oyster Company. We watched the chefs shucking fresh oysters while enjoying unobstructed water views but, given the name, we opted for take-out lobster rolls for lunch. One word sums them up: yum!
The Sportsman in Seasalter, about a 15 minute drive out of town, provides a completely different experience. With one Michelin star it takes local seafood and produce to a whole other level. The five-course tasting menu changes daily and the food is as beautiful to look at as it is to eat. This is not a place to dine and dash, so be prepared to linger languorously over the course of three hours.
Last, but definitely not least, is the Pearson Arms. A casual seaside English pub in the heart of town it has been around in some form since the 1800s. Its warm and inviting interior spread over several floors — the bar on the first, fire ablaze, the main dining room on the second and the kitchen sandwiched between.
The trio of oysters was the perfect way to start the meal, the bouillabaisse delectable and the chocolate mousse with Kentish pear compote a decadent ending. The staff was also a key part of our experience, offering appreciated (and spot on) recommendations and providing expert service. Maybe that’s why we found ourselves going back for a second and third time.
Don’t like oysters? Don’t despair. All of the restaurants also offer a wonderful selection of fish, meats and vegetarian options, so that no one goes hungry in this foodie town. And, if you simply fancy a drink (or two), head to the Twelve Taps on High Street not simply for 12 taps of local brew, but for a quintessentially British gin & tonic made with local Whitstable Gin. Alternatively the Old Neptune, or “the Neppy” as the locals say, is literally on the beach and ideal for watching the sun slip down behind the horizon while you sip the proverbial pint.
Staying in Whitstable proper is all part of the fun. I split my time between a wonderful flat right on Harbour Street through Whitstable Holidays, and the Hotel Continental on the edge of town. Whitstable Holidays offers a range of flats, cottages and beach huts for those that want to be two minutes from everything along with the flexibility of a bit of self-catering. My two-bedroom apartment was well appointed (with a wonderful lemon pound cake awaiting me on arrival) and perfectly situated in its proximity to shops, restaurants, the harbor and Horsebridge Arts Centre.
The Hotel Continental offers rooms with sea views, a great restaurant and is less than a 10-minute walk from everything Whitstable. My room was very well laid out, had more than enough accessible outlets for charging electronics (finally a hotel that gets that right), and I couldn’t beat the sound of the waves lulling me to sleep.
Epilogue: The Horsebridge Arts Centre is a vibrant arts center in the heart of Whitstable that shouldn’t be missed. The non-profit arts center mounts 35+ unique exhibitions each year highlighting the works of local, emerging and established artists. Without their support our exhibition, Abstract Rhythm and Blue Notes, wouldn’t have become a reality and I probably would never have experienced the wonder of Whitstable: thank you Horsebridge!
Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer. Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old. Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in New York.
Go to http://www.travelinglensphoto.com/ for info about her online photo workshops.