Victorians loved Whitstable not only as a seaside resort but because its shoreline was rich with oyster beds, says Bernard Adams
Whitstable in north Kent is a largely untouched Victorian gem, which has much more to it than oysters, although the succulent bivalves are pretty important. Oysters have been cultivated off Whitstable since Roman times. After eating a local one the Roman historian Sallust is supposed to have said: "The poor Britons, there is some good in them after all, they can produce an oyster."
The oyster is a mollusc and a cousin of the snail, the octopus and the cockle. It nestles inside the deeper of two hinged shells, and is a highly complex organism. The shell is built from secretions of carbonate of lime; minute tentacles control the inflow of water (containing food) between the shells. Gills extract oxygen and pass the food down into the stomach where a gelatinous rod grinds it up while the water circulating around the shell takes away the waste matter.
The key to successful cultivation is for the millions of oyster larvae to survive in the water long enough to gain a foothold on hard, clean surfaces like rocks or shells (sometimes tiles are laid down in oyster beds). This "fall of spat", takes place in the summer and is intensely susceptible to cold or to strong currents. So cultivating the oyster is a lengthy, delicate and complex business - in which the effects of extreme weather (like the frozen sea in 193940) can be disastrous.
Oyster-fishing still goes on at Whitstable, but it's unlikely ever again to grow as big as it was in the middle of the last century. Then, everyone ate oysters - rich and poor alike. At that time more than 100 oyster smacks dredged so successfully that the town sold - mostly in London - 60 million oysters a year. And they did quality as well as quantity - the "Whitstable Native" is still supposed to be the best oyster around.
An Oyster Fishery exhibition can be visited on East Quay from May to September, and it may also be possible to see an oyster boat in the harbour. Also, right on the quay, there is an exciting fish market - stocking not just what's out in the bay but a whole variety of exotic fish Whitstable is full of maritime history - which you can study in the excellent museum, and experience by wandering around the narrow alleys off the sea front. It was a centre for smuggling in the 18th century and the smugglers were lawless enough to help French prisoners of war to escape from the prison hulks further up the Thames.
More positively, Whitstable is where modern deep-sea diving really began. Around 1830 a diving helmet with an air supply was developed locally, and in 1832 two Whitstable divers were the first to locate the Mary Rose. For a century they had a world-wide reputation, and there is a lot about them in the museum.
The town had another "first" in Victorian times. The world's earliest steam-operated railway to run a regular goods and passenger service started at Whitstable and went to Canterbury. It had bridges and a tunnel and was built by the Stephensons, of "Rocket" fame. You can take a pleasant walk along part of the old track, which was closed in 1952.
If you swim at Whitstable, you may be able to change in a Victorian bathing hut. The beach is shingly and safe, and the town might have become one of the really big turn-of-the century seaside resorts, but it started just a bit late and Eastbourne grabbed the trade. Nevertheless, Whitstable's bracing charm appealed to a variety of famous Victorians.
Sir Henry Irving used to live in style on Borstall Hill and Dickens often visited and wrote about the oysters and the fishermen. Turner came to paint the fantastic sunsets. Somerset Maugham lived in the town as a boy and depicted it as "Blackstable" in Cakes and Ale.
Sixty years ago William Joyce, the propagandist for Fascism "Lord Haw Haw", worked in a radio shop in Whitstable just before he set off for Germany and his unusual broadcasting career. More recently, the actor Peter Cushing settled enthusiastically in the town, and walked the streets without frightening anybody.
Whitstable isn't all history and museums, by the way. The shore has unusual seaside plants such as the yellow-headed poppy, and hog's fennel, and nearby woods have an exceptionally rare butterfly, the heath fritillary.
And then, of course, there is the wildlife you can eat - the Royal Native Oyster stores is said to be a good place for the best of the local speciality.
Whitstable Museum, Oxford Street, Whitstable, Kent. Tel: 01227 276 998. Free. Book first. A free Group Visits Manual is available from Whitstable Group Visits, PO Box 198, Canterbury CT1 1UX. Tel: 01227 763 763 x4700