The oysters of Whitstable are fabled.
Rachael Stirling, the star of the television drama Tipping the Velvet, learnt how to shuck them on the shingle beach there. ‘I remember this fisherman bringing a cooler box full of a thousand pounds’ worth of oysters, fresh from the oyster beds in the estuary. He showed me how to prise them open. I’ve never had a feast like it since.’ She played Nancy Astley, a Whitstable fishmonger’s daughter who falls in love with a male impersonator acting in the local theatre. Tipping the Velvet greatly enhanced the popularity of Whitstable as a gay seaside destination, but that
is not abundantly apparent – Whitstable clearly welcomes everyone, even DFLs (down-from-Londons, as we are called locally) like me. It’s an extraordinarily friendly place.
Oysters are what made Whitstable famous in the first place. Their shells, discarded by prehistoric man, have been found on nearby archaeological sites and the Romans could never get enough of them. Over the centuries the dredging rights of the oyster beds have been held by the church, various royals and, in the late eighteenth century, by Lord Bolingbroke who, ironically, went broke.
It was then that the oystermen formed a cooperative. By the 1850s Captain Richard ‘Leggy’ Wheeler, a formidably strong dredger man, was a bigwig in the Whitstable Oyster Company. With a keen eye for business, he opened a shellfish and oyster bar on the High Street and enlisted his wife Mary-Anne to run it. At the heart of town, near the Duke of Cumberland pub and the Horsebridge where the oysters were landed and all the oystermen gathered, Wheelers soon bustled with trade.
By the 1930s a chain of Wheeler’s restaurants, starting in Old Compton Street, had sprung up in London and, over time, become justly celebrated. Sadly they are gone, but the original Wheeler's of Whitstable survives in the same premises and, true to a long tradition, is run by a woman. Delia Fitt, whose mother Martha ran it before her, has made it her own.
Lunching here was one of the cosiest and most heart-warming restaurant experiences I have ever had. Past the cluttered front bar where fresh catches are displayed and locals perch on stools eating winkles, there is a back, almost secret room. It’s as though you are entering Delia’s private parlour. It’s an intimate space with cream gloss walls smothered in nautical prints and family mementoes, olive green wainscoting, a mahogany hat stand and polished brass pots. Delia welcomes you like a long-lost friend and tucks you into one of the four small tables. This is luxurious, timeless, unhurried, perfect. Not surprisingly, the seafood is mouth-watering, the young chef a master.
But even without the rosy glow one gets after a great meal I would still find Whitstable’s seafront a glorious place. Late after lunch you can amble down any number of alleys past clap-boarded cottages and boathouses to the steep shingle beach, shored up by so many well-weathered wooden groynes. You can look out across the very end of the River Thames to the Isle of Sheppey, detached from the mainland by the muddy Swale. Behind the beach a path leads past a jumble of chaotically inventive wooden add-ons tacked to the backs of old houses, past sail lofts and pastel colour-washed houses with enormous bay windows. The modern harbour built for oyster yawls and small coasters has fish markets where you can buy all kinds of fish, whelks, crab and winkles.
We ended our day listening to the sexagenarian members of the Blue Rhythm Kings jazz band playing a sublime rendition of ‘Nevertheless’ in the Horsebridge Centre.