“Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it…”
It was these words that I thought of as I ate my first oyster at the Whitstable Oyster Festival back in July 2012. I’m not actually sure it was a native Whitstable oyster after all, but it tasted very nice. Not sure why it took me so long to try my first raw oyster (having grown up in this Kentish coastal town), but I’ll definitely be having more.
These words are the opening phrase of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, probably my favourite book in the world.
I first read it a few years ago, on recommendation of my sister. Of course I was aware of the TV adaptation, which was famous for its saucy lesbian sex scenes – as most people found out when they watched it with their parents.
But in fact, the most intriguing aspect for me was this old portrayal of Whitstable – where I’d been born and raised – and the tale of a young woman moving to London in search of adventure, as so many of us from that town have done (though many have now moved back). And it’s so much more than that, because of its Victorian setting. It’s a sense of adventure as well for those of us born today, because of the attention to detail Waters describes in this Victorian world.
Sarah Waters is probably the most strongest writer I’ve ever read, and an outright feminist and lesbian as well. I attended a talk where she spoke about her work and met her afterwards; what was so inspiring about her for me, is that she studied in Canterbury and lived in Whitstable, she writes historical fiction, and she writes it well – so well, that she has effectively re-created this part of the lesbian and gay fiction genre.
This year I went to the Whitstable Oyster Festival’s opening weekend (I do every year). I took lots of pictures. Here they are (unfortunately I missed the Morris dancers this year):
On my stroll to meet my sister, thought I’d take a picture of Slaughterman’s Cottage down Skinner’s Alley (formerly known as Slaughterman’s Alley, and Ship Alley before that).
This was an abattoir for a previous butcher, hence the curved tiles on the roof necessary for air ventilation.
Onwards to the beach by the harbour’s West Quay looking towards the Isle of Sheppey:
Beyond Sheppey, Southend can be seen…
Newfoundland dogs demonstrating how they rescue people. They have webbed feet which helps them swim. Funny – their heads are shaped a bit like a seal’s and they bark similarly to them too – well, I think so anyway. Quite a potent smell though when they all get together.
Whitstable’s excellent drumming band Samba Pelo Mar in the lead up to the blessing of the oysters. In the background is the boat Emmeline, built in 1904 and which became the last shrimping boat. It was lost and then found in Spain in the early nineties, before being brought back to Whitstable.
Looking towards Tankerton:
The oysters arrive to be blessed. Most of the oysters used at the festival aren’t native, as this time of year they’re spawning. The reason it is held at this strange time of year is because it is the traditional down season when fishermen used to hold their festivals – even dating back to Norman times. Whitstable’s native oysters are generally harvested in the months containing the letter “r”. See Tipping the Velvet for more information on this…and a whole lot more on other stuff.
Walking down through Harbour St to watch the parade – quite a crowd to get through!
A quick German pint at our annual spot outside the Ship Centurion…
And then the Oyster Parade:
I learnt my lesson – should have filmed in landscape mode. Oh well.
Later on that day – a view of “The Street” at Tankerton slopes. When the tide goes out in Tankerton, a long path of pebbles and stones goes far out to sea, known locally as “The Street”.
The Street on a 1924 postcard:
The next day at Whitstable Harbour:
And finally, we come to the picture of my first ever fresh oyster:
How is that your first oyster? I hear you say, considering I was born and raised in this town as a fully qualified shellback. Well, I’ve tried them tinned, smoked. But my parents never really bought them fresh, so I never tried one. When I was younger, there were a couple of things that happened which meant they were harder to get – red algae outbreak was one thing. I even had to ask the lady on the stall how to “do it”. Squeeze of lemon, bit of Tabasco…it was really nice. Gave me the taste for them. Next time I might try them without the Tabasco as I think it wiped out the actual flavour…and maybe I’ll even chew it next time.
Interesting to know:
– oysters contain arsenic – so don’t trough too many
– oysters used to be the working class person’s food in the 19th century
– some types of oysters can grow to around three feet in length
– Colchester also holds an Oyster Feast each year in October where festival goers enjoy the town’s native oysters
So, there is my collection of pictures from my weekend at the Whitstable Oyster Festival. Hope you enjoyed them!
These are sunny days, and whether you are lucky enough to be spending them somewhere fitting, like by the sea in Whitstable, or camping in a field in Cheddar – wherever you are, I thought I’d give you some interesting historical facts to do with the summer. Just to bring the chilled out feel down a notch. Nah, only joking – I’ll try to keep things light.
1. The bikini was released in May 1946 by Louis Réard. Shockwaves rippled through many nations at this two piece bathing suit. The two-piece had already been around for a while, and was labelled “the world’s smallest bathing suit”. The thing that made the bikini different was that it revealed much more of the torso, including the belly button and so was less repsectable than its predecessor. It therefore became known as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit”. In fact the only woman who would model it was the lady below, Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer.
The bikini was named after Bikini Atoll, an island in the Pacific Ocean that is part of the Marshall Islands. This was a picturesque island – until 1946. This was the year when America decided to detonate an atom bomb there, and on its fellow islands in a series of tests named Operation Crossroads. They moved all the indigenous islanders to another local island and tested a bomb on their homeland of Bikini Atoll. When they moved everyone back, people began to get ill, so the island was deemed uninhabitable. The bomb test occurred on July 1st, 1946. The bikini garment was unveiled four days later.
So, not too mood dampening so far (just ignore the bit about islanders getting ill and their homeland being written off). It may or may not surprise you to know that Operation Crossroads is not the only nuclear testing America has done. Nor is it the only country to have done it. Watch this video, if you have the stomach for it:
2. BOY: I didn’t ask for any sauce.
ICE CREAM VENDOR: I didn’t put any on it.
Lines from my all-time favourite comedy The League of Gentlemen (the scene is where an ice cream vendor has a nosebleed over a boy’s ice cream).
I typed in “the best ice cream in the world” into Google, and it gave me the above picture. It also gave me a couple of other pictures, but I don’t think I should post them on here. People with children, you may have to up your internet censorship for your children, by including “ice cream”. Seriously.
So, who invented ice cream? Wihout even researching, I thought the Romans. Must be. Or the Greeks, then the Romans copied them and made ice cream a big hit. One source suggests that ice cream has been around since the 4th century BC, indeed with the Roman Emperor Nero ordering ice from the mountains and then topping it with fruit. So when did the “cream” bit get involved? 600 years later, King Tang of Shang in China is known to have mixed ice and milk together in various ways. Obviously these are noted examples, because it was the leaders that ate these ice related foods, but it may have been more common than that in those archaic days.
Since then, ice cream has been developed in terms of its ingredients and flavours all over the world, with the Americanised “ice cream” (previously “iced cream”) becoming the most prominent in the Western world. I’ve had ice cream in various places around the world: on Lido, the beach-goers island by Venice, there is an ice-cream vendor (or properly termed gelato – it’s made differently) on every corner. With all different flavours. I managed to get one down my throat whilst trying not to pass out from the heat (Mid-August is NOT a good idea for holidaying in Venice if you are allergic to the heat like me. My half Mauritian blood doesn’t help. As I tell people, I am half Mauritian, but I am also half white Londoner); in Berlin, they make flowers out of ice cream:
and in Barcelona, they expect a tip.
Pimm’s has become synonymous with the British summer. This was a gin-based drink mixed with herbs and quinine in its earliest form, and is now a brandy based drink (the difference being that gin is either distilled from juniper berries, or distilled alcohol grain mixed with flavourings and herbs, and brandy is distilled from wine.) This early form of Pimm’s was made by James Pimm as an aid to digestion. Alcohol, along with other drugs, were often used for medicinal purposes up until the first part of the twentieth century. Nurses would often administer brandy to patients in hospitals in the old days. James Pimm was from Newnham in Kent (go Kent!), the son of a farmer, and he moved to London where he became a shellfish monger and the owner of an oyster bar, which led to a chain called Oyster House.
Today, we associate Pimm’s No. 1 with the sunny weather, and the company obviously markets this product towards barbecues and beach parties. There is also a Winter Pimm’s Cup that is drunk hot with apple juice, and indeed, there have been various “cups” developed over time, some of which have been phased out due to low demand (see above image). Interesting how the company directly generates its revenue through marketing its products to fit a particular season.
4. Finally, I cannot write about the summer without commenting on Whitstable, the once scruffy seaside town where I was born and bred. I was literally born there in my parents’ house; you don’t get much more shellback than that.
Whitstable is a very old fishing town. Not as much fishing as there used to be, nor as many boats in the harbour. It’s famous for oysters, though the Whitstable Oyster Festival always occurs in July, which is strange as the oysters aren’t in season that time of year (only in the months with the letter “r” in the name), so instead they bring over a load of Irish oysters. Still, the festival is great. If you like nothing more than salty shellfish, singing bearded men, blacked up morris dancers and big smelly St Bernard’s dogs then Whitstable Oyster Festival is the place. Whitstable is known to have had the first passenger train line, and the first train bridge though other places have claimed this. The line was called the Canterbury and Whistable Railway, but often nicknamed the Crab and Winkle Line. Today, the Crab and Winkle line is a footpath/cyclepath that follows much of the original route between Canterbury and Whitstable.
People say the best thing about Whitstable is the sunset on the beach in the summer. Some also say the sunrise, though I’ve never actually seen the sunrise on the beach – just in the street after very late nights.
And here is the Old Neptune – an old pub on the beach that was a filming location for the film Venus featuring Peter O’Toole. Neptune, a Roman god, was known as Poseidon to the Ancient Greeks, and was the god of the sea. He was father to Polyphemus, the cyclops that Odysseus and his men, held hostage by the one-eyed giant, famously blinded with a giant stake.
And there I finish – with a photo of a sunny evening night. No doubt the sun would have just dipped beneath the horizon in sunny, old Whitstable as I post this. If you’re there, enjoy it for me.
This is my first post, on The History Post. And as my first post I will talk about something relevant to me – relating to “posts”.
There was a landmark, a “hwitan stapole” or white staple in the old days – staple meaning ‘pole’ – that stood on the East Kent coast. A landmark. It was probably pretty much salty marshland in those days. It was also a local meeting landmark, as Wikipedia and many Wiki-lifting sites will have you believe. I’m not about to prove anything different, but I do need to do some proper research into this (and everything else I read on Wikipedia for that matter. Which reminds me, I need to sign up to the Britannica for the sake of later posts). Anyway…
Years after this “meeting place” was recorded in the Domesday Book, roughly 1000 years, during which time Witenstaple became Witstapel, Whitstapel, and eventually, Whitstable, and went from strength to strength using it’s salt, fishing – especially oyster harvesting – and finally, kebab shop industries, I was born. Today, the kebab industry is still going strong. I help it out a little.
I was born in my parents’ house in Regent St, making me a “shellback” – a person born and bred in Whitstable. These days, I no longer live there so I’m not sure if I’m still entitled to the term. I’m now maybe what the locals call a DFL – Down From London. I never really used to think about my claim to the town when I was younger…until Whitstable got cool. This was during the arty revolution of the late 90s, when Londoners discovered this gooooorgeously quaint, little seaside town (it wasn’t at the time – paint was peeling everywhere – but soon it got a face lift with the influx of these rich inhabitants). So now I’m like, “Fnah, fnah, I was born in Whitstable ladeeda.”
As a first post, on a Friday night, I think I should leave it there. I will no doubt return to historical Whitstable topics later, as well as lots of other aspects of the past. I’m not going to focus on one particular aspect as there’s too much I’m interested in, and please don’t think I’m going to pretend to be any more highbrow than I am. In short, I dig history, and I just want to write about it.