The Pearl of Kent set on the coast of the Garden of England, Whitstable is a small town that thrives on assignations such as these. A traditional English seaside town in every sense, the town actually has every right to be proud of itself – it’s one of those classic destinations of yore that is again experiencing a resurgence in its own trademark industry (oysters) as well as benefitting from the homegrown tourism of the last year or two. At about 90 minutes drive from me, Whitstable is a destination well worth taking the day out to, and is near a whole stack of pleasant towns ripe for wandering, munching and charity shop ransacking.
We ended up entering the town from the East coming through the small suburb of Tankerton (relatives of mine had a family home here, I’ve recently discovered – I should get in touch with Heir Hunters) after a disastrous attempt at finding parking in the next town along, Herne Bay) and ended up driving right through the centre of town. It should be pointed out that Tankerton itself hosts a fair number of charity shops, and while it’s hardly a destination in itself, it would be a good stop if you had half an hour spare in the locality. The town of Whitstable though, is quite the destination and after a drive-by perusal, we stopped in a charity car park and headed off.
First stop was British Red Cross, right at the southernmost end of the high street. A small shop this, but with four rooms which keep revealing themselves: women’s clothes, mens clothes, odds’n'ends, books. Nothing purchased this time, but there’s plenty here. Wandering up the main road into the town centre itself, it’s possible to begin to get a feel for the place. We pass fish restaurants, mostly tarted up pubs or chippies; we pass numerous small alleys leading off towards the seafront; we pass refreshingly few fancy sailor type clothes shops – I may have forgotten, but I can’t remember seeing any sign of White Stuff or Fat Face, even.
Next up was Demelza House, a new one on me, a children’s home in Sittingbourne. Their shop was fairly charming, featuring a little snug for books and pepper plants for sale along with the promise that tomato plants would be ready soon. Next up was Sense, again well stocked but a pretty standard shop – the same could be said for Cancer Research. It’s nice to see these attractive, friendly little shops though: they’re all clearly part of the community and as important to some as the chippie, the caf, the pub.
That leaves just two more, the first of which is plain old The Hospice Shop. A small shop this, but some interesting things, most notably a tray full of some nice looking packets of seeds, and one of my purchases for the day, Mason & Dixon which looks to be typically in the near-impenetrable style of its author, Thomas Pynchon. I’ve just started reading this: we’ll see if it’s worth it, or whether it’s just going to make the bookshelf look impressive.
Finally, the jewel here is Relate. This is a massive shop, more like a hoarder’s fantasy than any sort of organised sales room, but nevertheless with it’s baby clothes (plus a very tempting caterpillar-themed play mat), books, cd’s, cheap clothes and baskets pouring out onto the High Street, you wouldn’t want to miss out this shop. It’s also conveniently located opposite Wheeler’s Oyster Bar and around a number of the other more popular restaurants, boutiques and shops: there’s a second hand bookshop here that’s ostensibly something charity-related, but I can’t find evidence for it.
If you’ve the time, which you really should make, your final move should be through one of the wending alleyways to the seafront. You’ve a large, groyne-strafed shingle beach and a working harbour, full of rowing boats and quaint beach huts. There’s places to drink and eat, including a lovely little coffee cart, and you’ll certainly find places to eat your fish and chips lunch looking out into the North Sea (look out for the massive windfarm, and on a clear day, the fascinating Shivering Sands. It’s a very English bit of England, and well worth your visit.
Find: Whitstable @ Google Maps
Consume with: If the queue onto the street at Wheelers is too much for you, fish and chips on the front is perfect for this sort of town. Otherwise, the street-side menu promising Granny’s Steak and Kidney Pudding (In Cloth) was mighty tempting.
Visit: There’s plenty to do in and around Whitstable, but if you want a really bizarre experience, go back up the A2 and cross the looping bridge to the Isle of Sheppey – a bizarre amalgamation of heavy industry and shipping, huge sea walls and industrial views, and spooky, unnerving nothingness.
Overall rating: four Penguin paperbacks