We Visit

Whitstable

Famed for its oysters, its working harbour and its romantic fishermen’s cottages, picturesque Whitstable has long been celebrated as one of the pearls of Kent’s north coast.

While its exuberant Oyster Festival attracts hordes of summer visitors, an off-season trip brings its own distinct pleasures – not least licence to ward off the coastal chill with the county’s finest fish and chips.

A cosy stay in the upmarket The Front Rooms B&B (even the hot-water bottles sport a smart Aran knit) is well placed for several Whitstable gems: we turned right towards Tankerton after being recommended The Wine Room. Here, Henry Rymill’s collection of natural and organic wines can be taken away or enjoyed in situ before a short walk to JoJo’s, whose Mediterranean tapas is served with a helping of North Sea views.

In the opposite direction, the beating heart of the town is the higgledy-piggledy Harbour Street, whose clapboard buildings form an intimate parade of indie shops and cafés. Look out for work from urban street artist Catman, whose masterpieces include Whitstabubble – a young boy blowing bubbles – daubed on the side of The Clothes Horse shop.

We started at the eastern end and indulged in Sundae Sundae’s retro seaside treats, including dreamy English ice creams made with milk and double cream. Next door, The Cheese Box excuses excess by promoting the health benefits of its pungent unpasteurised ewe- and buffalo-milk cheeses.

A relatively new addition to Whitstable’s busy restaurant scene, the corner site occupied by Harbour Street Tapas is a Med-inspired suntrap whose plate-glass windows invite envious peeks from passersby. Every dish we tried was good, but golden, crisp chicken and chorizo croquettas were little belters. The restaurant is owned by Lee Murray, whose Spanish-influenced deli stall at The Goods Shed by Canterbury West station is well worth the seven-mile cycle down the Crab & Winkle Way, linking Whitstable with the cathedral city. Alongside Murray’s store you’ll find the best of Kentish produce in this converted railway shed, and genre-busting lunch fare from the legendary Johnny Sandwich.

Back in Whitstable, visitors and locals alike are drawn to the iconic, pink-painted Wheelers Oyster Bar, doyenne of the local dining scene. Steeped in history, it opened its doors in 1856, and to this day serves fish and seafood fresh from the boat. A bring-your-own affair, don’t forget to nip over the road to The Offy for a bottle of wine that might match an ethereally fresh ceviche of John Dory finished with grapefruit granité. Perch at one of four counter seats at the front seafood bar, or book a table in the oyster parlour that Wheelers itself suggests is ‘like walking into your great-grandmother’s front room’.

A few doors down, Samphire is a bistro whose black and gold Art Deco exterior twinkles like a gem at the intersection of the High Street and Harbour Street. As everywhere in the town, it keeps things local with day-boat specials and the likes of Kentish lamb with rosehip harissa. The chunky haddock fillet in our chowder was perfectly cooked, perched on a bed of sea-fresh mussels and steamed chard in a pool of delicate, boozy cream sauce.

A thriving café culture means you’re never far from a good pit stop for a refuel. In-the-know locals favour the backstreet, quirky Windy Corner Stores for breakfasts, while the Scandi/Zen décor of Oxford Street’s Blueprint Coffee wouldn’t be out of place in London’s Shoreditch; dunk a locally made chocolate bun in your ethically sourced cuppa.

For something stronger, fall down the rabbit hole at The Black Dog micro-pub, where a jumble of Toby jugs, granny lights, pub ephemera and a coal fire coalesce into the quintessential pub experience in miniature.

Alternatively, the High Street’s The Twelve Taps offers craft beers, a perfect prelude to that seaside stalwart – the fish supper. At VC Jones, three generations of the same family have been frying fish since the 1950s. Their toasty retro dining room is the sort of place where a slice of buttered white with your chips is de rigueur.

No visit here would be complete without a bracing coastal stroll. Wrap up warm and nip down to the seafront via the harbour, where weatherboard cottages, fishermen’s huts, bobbing boats and artisan businesses combine to make this a moocher’s paradise.

A quiet 10 minutes on a bench looking out towards Sheppey at sundown is enough to restore the soul; keep calm and carry on or, as local parlance has it, ‘keep clam and eat oysters’.