Whitstable: Is it in danger of disappearing up its own backside?
PUBLISHED: 09:19 02 July 2015 | UPDATED: 09:19 02 July 2015
As huge crowds prepare to flock for the Whitstable Oyster Festival, is the town focusing too much on the outsider than the resident?
Should you monitor traffic levels in and around Islington over the last week of July, the chances are you would see a dip. The reason? They’ve all taken themselves off to their spiritual seaside home…Whitstable.
Like a pot filled with the ripest strawberry jam, they are drawn like sweetness-starved wasps to the north Kent coast to revel in the delights of the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival.
A blend of historic tradition (oysters brought to shore and then carried by horse and cart throughout the town) and middle class past-times – creating ‘grotters’ from discarded oyster shells in which a candle is placed, or more arts and crafts than you can shake a tie-dyed pair of trousers at, it is a week long series of events which if the sun shines is a rather glorious occasion.
In short, it’s all rather civilised. There’s a catch though.
The good folk from London will arrive en masse. They will ignore all parking restrictions. They will believe a spare spot of pavement is a free parking spot. They will flock to the harbour and happily spend £10 for a tub of cockles. They will boost the local economy, no doubt – shopping in the endless stream of boutique clothes stores and good quality restaurants. But they are also possibly causing irreparable harm to the place.
Because while Whitstable has certainly profited handsomely from its enviable reputation – and a fully deserved one at that, for it is a very beautiful place – there is the distinct danger that it is becoming a victim of its own success.
Where once the community and its associated effort comprised merely of those who lived and worked in the town, with a focus on how to benefit those who live there, today it is rapidly becoming a mere commodity. A tourist trap close enough for the Down From London (DfL) brigade to visit upon a weekend and spend all that disposable income they are famous for.
Its success is built on firm foundations, don’t get me wrong. The town has been developed in a manner very much in keeping with the look and feel of the place. There is a strong emphasise on arts and culture with an undercurrent of quality. And its seaside credentials are rather hidden from view – forcing the visitor to park up and explore.
Just that Whitstable is being eroded as a result. It is still a glorious, wonderful place to live, but it is losing some of the atmosphere which once made it so special. The sense that those who lived there were so proud of their secret little seaside town has been replaced with the nagging doubt, and excuse my French here, that it is in danger of disappearing up its own middle-class backside.
Twenty years ago, it was the place students who couldn’t afford to live in Canterbury went to. The street was lined with family traders who had lived and worked there for generations – little ramshackle newsagents and second hand furniture stores.
The fish market which dominates the harbour advertised genuinely good deals – huge slabs of salmon which they tried to lure people to come and buy with make-shift signs directing people off the Thanet Way.
Inside were freezers full of good value fish and meats.
Today the phrase ‘bargain’ is not one likely to be close to rolling off your tongue. The freezers replaced by tables and chairs. The rival seafood counter next door, where shells would be emptied on a (genuinely) industrial scale, and then piled high long to form a huge pyramid of former crustaceans’ homes.
Now the harbour is awash with beach hut shops and stalls all keen to service the day-tripper.
As for those who have lived there for decades? Granted, they now sit on a pot of equity in their house which they can have barely dreamed of just 10 years ago. Homes go on the market and are then snapped up mere moments later.
But they face a dilemma. Want to upgrade and the costs are now driven so sky-high they are forced to either stay put or move out of the town. And that is a crying shame. Because that is at the root of Whitstable’s dilemma.
Not only has it shifted its focus from the local community to the outsider, but it is fast becoming occupied by the outsider too. A steady stream of families who have long called it home having to move along the coast, with children who could never hope to afford to live nearby.
It is nothing new, admittedly. Towns and cities which become destinations quickly see a change in their demographics. But Whitstable always seemed to promise its residents that it wouldn’t change when it hit the big time; when fame and fortune came its way.
But like all those before it, the pound signs flashing in its eyes have hypnotised it. Whitstable is a genuine star, no doubt. But like so many stars it may live to regret turning its back on those who supported it when it was a relative unknown.
Those good folk from Islington will flock for a while yet. But they will jump ship when the next ‘must visit’ place emerges, taking their dubious parking habits with them. Whitstable needs to ensure it is still self-sufficient should that happen. I truly hope it will be.