Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Railways, oysters and beach huts

While we have for some years been working and living in London, so definitely regard that as our home, we are both originally from Kent.  Our families live in the Whitstable and Herne Bay areas on the coast near to Canterbury, where we both went to school, so this is where we came to on arriving back in the UK.

When we lived here, Whitstable was a fairly average town by the sea. It always seemed to have a lot of pubs, most of which were nothing special, but the shops were run of the mill and a bit dull.

There is the beach of course, but like much of the Kent coast it is pebbles, so while it looks nice with its painted beach huts, it didn't have quite the same appeal as sand.

It does have it's own castle though, which we always liked.  I say castle, but it is really a fancy house with towers.  It was built and added to between 1790 and 1840, mostly by the Pearson and Wynn Ellis families, with the Mallandains adding a lovely staircase and oak panelling in the early 1920s.

It was bought by the council in 1935 and started to be used for public events and hired out for private parties. It was granted a license for weddings in 2004, which we were pleased about as it meant that we could use it for our wedding a couple of years later.

But Whitstable did have two claims to fame.  The first was the Canterbury to Whitstable railway line, which in 1830 was only the third ever to be built.  It is claimed as the first line to regularly take passengers and issued the first ever season tickets in 1834.  The line has hilly sections, so is in part cable hauled by static winding engines, but the steam locomotive, Invicta, used for the flat bit was built by George and Robert Stephenson, using a design close to that made famous by the slightly later Rocket.

The Stephensons between them also oversaw the construction of the line itself, while Thomas Telford built the harbour at the Whitstable end.  The line had the world's oldest railway bridge and the first ever railway tunnel used for passengers.  Isambard Kingdom Brunel is known to have checked out the latter for his own research.

The railway is long gone now, with only a few remaining bits in evidence, but the old route of the Crab and Winkle Line, as it is known, has been opened up for pedestrians and cyclists and is popular with in enthusiasts and some tourists.

The other claim to fame is the Royal Whitstable Native Oyster.  Apparently, the fishing smacks have been dredging oysters here for around two thousand years, when the Romans liked them enough to have them shipped back to Italy.

The still trading Whitstable Oyster Company is known to go back as far as the 1400s, and had its heyday in the 1850s when oysters were a poor man's food and it was sending some eighty million a year to London's Billingsgate fish market.

However this wasn't to last.  By the second half of the last century the market was in a bad way.  In part it was due to some cold winters, the two world wars and a disastrous flood in 1953, but some have also attributed the problems to the decline of the oyster following the rising popularity of the prawn cocktail in the seventies!

Around the turn of the eighties, the owners of the company revitalized the oyster beds and opened up a fish restaurant which became highly successful.  Whitstable Native Oysters are once again popular, with the beds having been granted protected National Status by the European Union, and the restaurant helped to bring new custom to the town.

These days, Whitstable is a favourite destination for those wanting a break from the bright lights of London and the town has been regenerated.  There are art galleries and, as a pleasant change from most places, a number of small independent shops.  We particularly like the rather nice cheese shop and wine shop that have opened up on Harbour Street.

Interestingly, some of the small old shops, like an old fashioned outfitters and shoe shop seemed to have managed to keep going, although I am guessing the visitors are more likely to look at the newer shops with their pretty beach style goods or their fake retro.  I rather like the shop with the old fashioned style gentlemen's hair brushes, especially the tiny moustache combs.

And of course there are a number of new bars and restaurants to help cater for the influx of visitors.  One of the restaurants has a Michelin star, but we haven't managed to try that one yet and may not get to now we are on our rather more restricted travel budget.  But we have eaten at some of the others though and were particularly impressed by a place called Tea and Times.  We paid less than eight pounds each for a main meal that was very tasty both times we were there, and they let you bring a bottle of wine with no corkage charge.  They don't take credit cards, but then at those prices even we could manage the cash.

But my favourite thing about Whitstable hasn't changed and is never likely to; on the right day, you can get the most beautiful sunsets out over the sea.  When I commuted to London, it was always nice if I managed to see it from the train on the way home.  Unfortunately, I still haven't managed to get a photo of one yet, but when I do I will add it here.

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