Thursday, 9 May 2013

Yet more coffee, anyone?

I like to keep an eye on the coffee culture in Whitstable. I'm a frequent customer, for one thing. And it's interesting that few small businesses, aside from hairdressers maybe, can perhaps inspire such fierce loyalty. Cappuccino consumers and the espresso elite can be very picky about where to call for their shots.
We in Whitstable can get in even more of a froth on the subject. A chain coffee company's High Street entrance was daubed with 'Costa go home' back in 2009, regardless of the fact that it brought 10 local jobs (and that many of this firm's outlets are franchises, so sort-of independent businesses).
I still meet a few local people who say 'oh I never go in there' - but there clearly aren't enough of them to ease the queues frequently faced by the busy baristas. I do wonder how often some of these folk would buy a coffee out anyway. As I've remarked before, Costa's sole but considerable advantage to me over 'independents' is its longer opening hours.
The anti-chain brigade was quick to rise up again when Tesco-backed Harris and Hoole put down a marker on the ex-Clinton Cards shop across the road from Costa (as first made public in an earlier entry on this blog). Posters were posted and petitions raised, and the story even gave the Daily Mail an opportunity for 'arty-type' bashing. The use of Tesco carrier bags as protesting headgear was loudly decried, though, by parents of small children.
Some of the criticism was directed at the fact that Tesco is an invisible though substantial partner in H & H: 'A little bit about who we are' on the company website is so little that it omits any mention of the supermarket's 49% stake.
Eight months later, Clinton Cards is still empty with its windows now used as a convenient noticeboard for other, more overtly political campaigns - Axe the Bedroom Tax, for example.
Meanwhile, even more coffee cups are being filled and drained up and down Whitstable town centre. I came home from holiday to find the Rendez-vous traditional 'caff' re-invented as theWhitstable Coffee Company. Almost at the same time, David Brown's deli in Harbour Street has expanded into next door offering coffees during the day, and wines by the glass or bottle in the evening. And on top of that, the new Waltshaw's local food outlet a few doors along has installed a couple of tables and chairs with locally roasted beans on the drinks menu.

However, I notice that there are now also a few gaps in the town centre, created by Clark's Flooring's move, greengrocery closures and (as of this week), the departure of the Found At Home store after less than two years.
So... even more coffee, anyone?

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Looking on the sunny side

Back to Whitstable with a wallop at midnight on Sunday after 10 days in southern France ...missing the fresh croissants, crusty baguettes and (usually, though not 100% reliably) cracking coffee already.
One of the first imperatives to do back home after sleep, the laundry and a kitchen restock was to stroll along the beach in a Whitstable sunset.
We in the Bubble are quite possessive about our showstopping displays of the orb gently but purposefully dropping behind Sheppey leaving the sky in a palette of spreading colours. With postcards galore on sale in the town and many photographers dotted along the shingle bent over their specialised gear, you'd think we were witnessing a rare phenomenon special to Whitstable. There is (or was) even a local website dedicated to pictures of sunsets.
But one of the features of the little village house we rented several hundred miles south of here for a week was - yes - a grandstand view of the fabulous 'coucher de soleil' across the beautiful countryside of Provence... Many, many people are, at slightly different times, watching the same sun do the same thing in a different place and there's a kind of world unity about that that I like.

I find the French on the whole kind, polite and helpful. I'm told it maybe helps that I speak a smattering of the language and make some attempt at adopting a Continental accent. Quite fun to make them play 'guess where the foreigner comes from'.
The fact that everyone you pass on a footpath, every shop assistant and all restaurant staff are not too self-absorbed or self-conscious to sing out 'Bonjour, Madame' is very agreeable, and suggests that France is on the whole an egalitarian society (it's part of their motto, after all... liberty, fraternity, egality; and they solved the aristocracy problem in a very dramatic way some time ago).
But Marseille airport is a bit of an exception.
After an hour in the terminal building waiting for our gate number to appear for the flight home, we twigged that something was wrong. The flight was listed on the board, and thankfully with the expected departure time, but instead of a gate number there was a cryptic 'mp2' displayed.
Turns out that mp2 is a shed in the corner of the airport, well away from all the smart buildings, car rentals etc. and specifically built to make low-cost airline users feel cheap!
No snazzy decor and flashy shops here. You queue at a tiny flatpack-type desk, hump your case on to the scales (no luggage trolleys available), then CARRY IT YOURSELF to a sort-of dumping area hoping that is not the last you see of it.
But it wasn't just the French airport making me feel a cheapskate: the back of my British easyJet chair was broken, which I had to demonstrate each time the crew asked for all seats to be adjusted to an 'upright position'.
C'est la vie.... or, to translate extremely loosely, you get only what you pay for.
But just look at that free sunset...

Sunday, 14 April 2013


Yesterday evening I listened to former reporters Kate Adie and Triona Holden and camerawoman Susan Stein talk about their war zone experiences in working for the BBC.
I think it's a fair observation that most of the 100+ audience squeezed into the top floor room of the Horsebridge Centre were in awe, particularly of Adie who led the talk and subsequent discussion, and were simply amazed to find this top-class event in little old Whitstable.
The explanation is that Holden, now an artist, has recently made her home here and seems keen to get involved in the town (you are warmly welcome, Triona!)  Every penny from last night's ticket sales is being kept by the Horsebridge and the generosity will be repeated next week in a similar event with Sandi Toksvig (already sold out).
As we remember from TV, Adie is a fluent, articulate and strong speaker, well-equipped to deal with one or two slight 'digs' at the BBC from last night's audience and giving some revealing information about censorship - yes, she wrote her own scripts which were never edited by others before she presented them to camera - but also yes, the marrow-chilling, agonising screams of the injured and bereaved in earshot of the broadcasting crew are edited out. It's an interesting thought that sounds may be more unbearable to us than sights...
Too much of the second half Q and A session, in my view, focused on the gender of the trio and whether they had found this a hindrance in their work. Adie amusingly recounted how a heavily bearded warlord had to be persuaded into an interview with her - and her colleagues dredged their memories for one or two other similar anecdotes.
It might have been mildly interesting to learn how they fared with personal hygiene and sleeping arrangements in tough conditions. But really, this 'wow - how amazing for a woman to do that' is tiresome stuff which we've surely got beyond. As Adie said, at least twice, things have moved on in the last 40 years, so I was surprised to hear young women raising this question.
When I was a rookie reporter in my first newsroom in the 1970s, the gender split was roughly 50:50 and as far as I can recall, every newsroom I subsequently worked in was much the same, local and national. If it wasn't quite that evenly balanced, I didn't notice but just got on with the job. There was the editor I went to see after we moved 'up north' who assured me that my new husband wouldn't mind if I didn't find a job straightaway... luckily I never got to find out the make-up of his staff.
I never had an issue with interviewees who, in fact, may have been more amenable to a slightly-built young woman than to a masculine reporter. This advantage was not lost on one news editor, who was rebuked by a colleague for sending me to talk to a newly-arrived community of travellers. His reply was that he knew I wouldn't get a 'hostile reception'. And I once inveigled my way into a National Front meeting because the chairman took a shine to me...
With promotions which later came my way, it never occurred to me or (as far as I am aware) anyone else that there would be a problem with my supervision of older, longer-serving men.
At five foot nothing and without Adie's kind of self-assurance and assertiveness, I now look back on this with mild curiosity... but I never wondered at the time, and never had anything but co-operation.
There was, I have to admit, some blatant sexism among some of the print workers. One of a newspaper sub-editor's tasks until about 20 years ago was to work alongside the compositors who 'made up' the pages, checking that they had pasted the correct headline and story together, stuck the photo on straight, and that they hadn't cut an over-long story mid-sentence to fit the space.
Very often I would be scrutinising pages, working in a room 'decorated' with posters of topless pin-up girls. Then there was the guy who always asked me in a very concerned way if I found my husband 'satisfactory'...
He was easily dealt with. As I held the power in this situation, with him desperate to have his page 'signed off' with my initials, I would be just a little bit more pernickety about his work and insist on absolute perfection...

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Come dine with us, Mr Sewell

So Brian Sewell, the art critic whose distinctive voice just articulates 'poshness' quite delightfully, has dared to elegantly 'dis' Whitstable, the Gazette reports today.
In his Sunday Times column published last weekend, he apparently called the town 'lifeless' and 'overpriced'. Although before commenting on this I'd prefer to read the whole article myself to put these remarks in context, I'm afraid that though the newspaper was in this house briefly before recycling day which happened to be on Monday, I didn't have time to wade through its multiplicity of pages. I regret that now, as I've just found you have to subscribe to read the ST's full article online. I really don't want to pay the Murdoch shilling twice.
Here's a link to the first few paragraphs, which are free:
I will just have to assume the Whitstable Gazette has carefully read the whole thing and reported it accurately. I anticipate a barrage of responses on the letters page next week.
Mr Sewell is known for his colourful commentary and, while trawling the internet for the Sunday Times piece, I came across him describing the Turner Gallery in Margate as a 'white elephant' and 'alien, brutal and bleak'.
I'm delighted that he seems to spend so much time in East Kent. One does wonder why he comes back if he doesn't like it, though I understand from the Gazette that he spent considerable time in Whitstable as a child so there's a nostalgic pull. Something deeply psychological going on there, perhaps?
As one who, at only five feet tall, has difficulty fighting her way through the holiday-mood amblers in Harbour Street and the Harbour area generally in summer to go about her business, I can't agree that Whitstable is 'lifeless'. Everyone knows that in fact this tight little town is full to more than bursting point on certain weekends, and if the buzz is less in winter, so much the better for those who live and work here.
As for 'overpriced', I gather he is particularly referring to restaurants and there, I'm afraid, he may have a point.
While there are two or three independent middle-priced establishments where I'm happy to pick up a napkin for a celebration or treat, when it comes to the more-frequent casual 'can't be bothered to cook night' it's more difficult. More often than not we tend to (deep breath) end up in one of the chain outlets where there's no need to book, you can eat for a tenner, and don't have to dress up first in order to satisfy a basic need.
And let's face it, there is a large elderly population here who just don't feel comfortable in what they feel is a fancy restaurant (my Dad is one of these).
As for the top-end places much publicised in those Sunday supplements which I rarely have time to read, one look at their price lists has me scurrying to the kitchen for pots, pans, a recipe book and some local ingredients. They'd have to be 10 times better than my own cooking and offer me a table when I'm hungry, not in two weeks time, to get my custom. Come to think of it, nothing beats our home fried fresh cod bought off a Whitstable boat on a Saturday.
Come dine with me, Mr Sewell?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Marilyn appears

Screen icon Marilyn Monroe has put in an appearance in Whitstable.... some Warholesque prints of the film star now adorn the 'keep left' bollard at the end of Sea Street in front of Whitstable Yacht Club. Probably something to do with the Biennale....?

Wine shop disappears

The 'secondary' outlet of the Tankerton Wine Room, a smaller version in Harbour Street, is closing after only a few months. The owners say they have done quite good business, but not enough to warrant having the second shop, so it's shutting up this weekend.
They took over the premises following the retreat of Magma Wines. A pity they are going, because we bought some interesting varieties there which you can't get in the supermarkets plus were given some sound advice.
And it means another empty shop for Whitstable, following the recent closures of Clinton Cards, Olivia's cafe and soon Stead & Simpson.
Many of us have heard that these larger premises are attracting interest from big names. Tesco are involved in a coffee shop partnership which may take over Clinton's (see earlier post), and WH Smith are rumoured to be (yet again) coveting an opening in Whitstable.
Personally I think empty premises are on balance a worse evil than chain shops (compare Margate), but we want to maintain a balance which makes our High Street interesting. Ideally I would like to do 100% of my shopping without getting in a car, and one or two national chains would contribute to that where there are 'gaps' in the present range of retail in Whitstable. Where can I buy a printer cartridge here, for example?
At least one local person doesn't like the idea of Tesco moving in, even as a junior partner in a coffee bar, for since last weekend a notice has been pasted in the window of Clinton Cards urging opposition.
At the same time, many independent traders are worried about big rent increases which may end up changing the face of the High Street.
If you are interested in following these developments, go to the Facebook page Save Whitstable Shops.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

September sun and celebs in Whitstable

It's good so see that Janet Street-Porter is in residence this weekend, after the Daily Telegraph published her piece on Wednesday explaining why she loves Whitstable. Thanks, Janet, for the positive plugs and for spending time (and money) here. I hope you enjoyed sitting peacefully reading the Sunday paper in your garden this morning, in our wonderful bonus September sunshine.
We have several celebrities living in and around the town (can think of Harry Hill, Faye Ripley, David Essex and Greg Wallace off the top of my head) and it's great that they kind of blend in and no-one makes a fuss. Of course, we've a history of being rather good in Whitstable at protecting our notable residents. The late, great Peter Cushing was a familiar figure out and about but, I gather, when fans stopped locals and asked for directions to his house they were invariably sent on a wild goose chase. (There's an excellent leaflet on Cushing's Whitstable available for a very small fee in the Whitstable Shop in Harbour Street.)
It was certainly one of those choc-a-bloc Saturdays in town yesterday, when the charity car park at Whitstable Junior School was full early in the day, raising a welcome few quid to be shared between the school and (this weekend) Whitstable Improvement Trust.
This is a great scheme, where local charities can apply to run the weekend car parking scheme in return for 50% of the takings.
The Whitstable Biennale is currently an extra attraction, with various 'arty' bits around which you don't need to go indoors or pay to see - they're just part of the scenery (see pictures below). Many who know me will be aware that I run a small handknitting business, so I was particularly interested to see the fishy knitting decorating The Deck at the Bretts end of the harbour.
Sunbathing in September in Whitstable

Biennale additions to the beach and harbour scene.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Tesco brewing in Whitstable High Street?

There was a Twitter rumour this week that the recently-shut Clinton Cards in Whitstable High Street is going to become a Tesco coffee shop.
As a coffee bar frequenter myself I felt moved to check this out and this is what I found: planning permission is being sought from Canterbury City Council for two illuminated signs at the premises. No mention of Tesco in the application, though, as the applicants are named as Harris and Hoole Baristas. But with a bit more delving on the internet I discovered that this is the name of a new 'artisan' chain of coffee bars being launched by a partnership including (you've guessed it!) Tesco.
The majority partner is a family who have set up a chain of upmarket coffee outlets in London called Taylor Street. The first couple of Harris and Hoole cafes were due to open in Amersham and Uxbridge by the end of August, and there are talks going on now to buy several empty Clintons shops.
So there you have it. Sort-of Tesco....49% Tesco...
I guess there must be a thirst for yet more coffee in Whitstable or these guys wouldn't be thinking of coming but, just two doors along, the independent Olivia's cafe closed down a couple of weeks ago.

Changes at Budgens

While on the subject of supermarkets, I called in at Budgens for a couple of items after looking at the ex-Clintons.
This is a franchised store which was taken over earlier this year by the family who run the Londis shop at Blean which has won them national awards.
Some changes have been made to Budgens already (they say they have reduced 263 prices) and customers have been invited to fill in feedback forms about what they want.
But next week the store will close completely for two days, Wednesday and Thursday, for a major revamp.


Thursday, 6 September 2012

Whitstable Castle tours TODAY

If you haven't yet been inside Whitstable Castle and had a good look round, there's no time like the present!
It's open for half-hourly visits today from 12 noon until 4.30pm which start on the hour and half-past as part of the national Heritage Open Days scheme and these tours are FREE.
The 'castle' - also known as Tankerton Towers - was built as a grand residence for the Pearson family in the late 18th century. It's had a chequered history, used in the 20th century for a long time as the home of the local council. Then followed years of disuse before, with the help of Lottery cash and city council money, it was restored and re-opened a couple of years ago.
I love the three acres of gardens which are being carefully landscaped and nurtured by professional staff, and the conservatory cafe which offers excellent scones, and I often recommend the pirate playground for families - it always seems to be pleasantly noisy when I go past.
But you need to wander inside for the full appreciation of this gem of bygone gracious living and to enjoy the views from the rooftop terrace. (There's disabled access to all floors including the roof.)
To further tempt you, this photo shows one room inside the Castle.Below that is my shot of comedian Harry Hill opening the restored venue almost exactly two years ago with the then Lord Mayor of Canterbury, Whitstable councillor Pat Todd.

The other venue in Whitstable open to the public as part of the Heritage Open Days this year is Whitstable Playhouse, the converted church in the High Street which is home to the highly successful Lindley Players.
There are tours on Saturday morning between 10am and 12.30pm when you can go backstage and see the costume store and the workshops where enthusiasts build scenery - as well as admire the 180-seat auditorium.
I was privileged to have a private tour a while ago and was stunned by the facilities and scale of operations there - much better than any other am-dram group I've ever been involved with (and I was, wait for it, the showbiz reporter for the Isle of Thanet Gazette in a much earlier life ...but more about me and Freddie Starr another time!) The players I met then would have sacrificed a leading part in a West End show to have a theatre like this. Well, maybe not quite, but you get the drift - just go along if you can.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Whit henge draws the sun worshippers!

It couldn't have been a better day for the visit of Sacrilege, aka the Stonehenge bouncy castle, to Whitstable.
The replica of the Salisbury Plain icon was designed by Turner-prize winning artist Jeremy Deller for London 2012 and is touring the country. We 'got it' for one day today as part of the Whitstable Biennale art festival.
I went along to see the queues and have a good look, though as my experience on bouncy castles is rather an exhausting one I declined the (free) offer to have a go.
It looked great fun, though, with plenty of room to avoid collisions and gave many children out to make the most of the September sun a perfect end to the school summer holiday. The chosen 'sacred' site, by the way, was at the end of Marine Drive, Tankerton, near the Priest and Sow.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Artists open houses

Artful Whitstable!

We have an artful way of stretching out the tourism season in Whitstable. Just as family holidays finish with the start of the new school term, the nationally-acclaimed Whitstable Biennale (well, it was listed in The Guardian's guide at the weekend) is under way to attract perhaps a different kind of visitor. And when that's over, our home-grown artists will once again welcome unashamed 'nosey parkers' like myself to their houses and studios over three weekends in October.
As my own creative talents are very limited, I'm in awe of people who can effortlessly dash off a beautiful and/or meaningful piece of work, and the chance to chat to them and see them in their own habitat rather than a gallery is irresistible. This year, there's an opportunity to peep inside the former Coastguards' Lookout near the West Beach tennis courts, which is now a studio for Mozambiquan textile artist Sidonio Givandas.
Programmes for the East Kent Artists Open Houses 2012 were being delivered today to the usual outlets in town including Horsebridge Centre and the Whitstable Shop. See photo below to make sure you pick up the right thing!
Why do I feel a peculiar sense of pride in noticing that 23 out of the total of 53 'houses' are in Whitstable?

Sunday, 2 September 2012


For two years I was hired as the community publisher for a website called whitstable people, which is owned by a national media company and is now undergoing re-organisation.
I enjoyed posting up bits of topical information about Whitstable, and I think many people liked reading them, so although that particular contract has ended, why stop there? I still come across bits of news I'd like to share with you so that's what this blog is for.
Bear with me as a newbie to blogging, but I hope you will find something of interest and it will gradually develop into something useful!

Arty Whitstable

This fortnight, starting yesterday 1st September, the town is hosting the Whitstable Biennale, a contemporary arts festival held... yes, every alternate year.
This will be (probably!) the explanation for any particularly quirky sights and sounds you may come across over the next fortnight, such as those illustrated here: (have you seen them?)