A colleague recommended the Whitstable Oyster Festival to me this year, and having been I can confirm that it was worth the 2 hour drive from our home in East Sussex. Do pay a visit to the Whitstable Oyster Festival if you like to spend your Saturdays driving through the garden of England, relaxing on the beach, listening to live bands, and eating fresh seafood.
There are activities on all weekend and through to the next week but my Mum and I chose to go on a Saturday to see the landing of the oysters, where VIPs of Canterbury make an appearance. As I gathered from the news after the event, the festival had been massively scaled back and was run for the first time not by Canterbury city council but by a company called Event Umbrella, but since we were only out for a day trip we would have missed the evening events that were axed, such as the fireworks, anyway.
We arrived a little before 10am as the Oyster Food Festival area opened, to see the Japanese Fisherman Dance and the Sōran Bushi (a sea shanty that the dance accompanies) being performed by Japanese students. If you want to try to dance this yourself, like I have, it’s a real workout! We were then gobsmacked by a gigantic oyster that a fellow spectator was eating, and headed up the hill to find the stall that sold it. Though it turned out that the “Seasalter jumbo” was not one of the locally – by this we mean just offshore from East Quay Beach – caught oysters but ones from the nearby town of Seasalter, we still gave the largest oyster we’d ever seen a try. It was rather strange, eating an oyster too big to finish in one slurp, but it was just as juicy and fresh as the small, “normal-sized” ones and not at all chewier as I had expected it to be.
We also bought from other food stalls, including a “Fallen Angel” Polish chicken-sausage – with more meat content than pork sausages, the menuboard said – hotdog from Heavenly Sausage, before sitting down on the grass in front of the Festival Stage with a pint of pear and nettle cider listening to folk band Delaney. When Delaney finished, we left to walk leisurely down to East Quay Beach where the landing of the oysters would start at 1pm, stopping by an ice cream van where a cone of soft serve was still £1 – almost a 99p cone like in the old days – and marvelling at the colourfully painted beach huts on our way. Some we see could the inside of, as they were being used by their tenants, and they have within a cooking stove and a small bed space for a nap.
We asked a gentleman who had placed a sign outside his beach hut saying “welcome to ask FAQs” where the landing of the oysters would take place, then headed towards the drumming – he had said that the drumming was about to begin – which we soon discovered came from a salsa band. We were perfectly positioned next to the landing area and next to the clergy, councillors, mayor and MP, as well as the sea scouts, news crew and volunteer event marshals. After the ceremony, which included speeches, an inspection of the first catch of the season by the mayor, and a blessing of the oysters by the clergy, we continued down to the Lobster Shack, the most renowned seafood restaurant in Whitstable, and saw their cheeky toilet signs – of figures in a state of really needing the toilet – and oyster prepping section before walking back to the Oyster Food Festival area via Tower Hill Tea Gardens.
We were hoping to go back to the Festival Stage to see the Oyster Eating Challenge but we did not want to wait in the queue to get into the Oyster Food Festival area, so we left at 2:30pm. Following from this mishap, I’d like to give you some tips learned from our day out that would have helped us first-time visitors, and will hopefully help you.
- As mentioned already, the oyster landing takes place on just a single day out of the many days of the festival.
- If you are coming by car, you’re not looking for an official-looking car park. The park and ride off Church Street is a large grassy field that may not have signposts. There are several entrances. Don’t look for a ticket machine – you pay a gentleman in a high-vis jacket the parking fee. The parking ticket is a wristband that you wear and show to the shuttle bus driver. The wristband covers all passengers in your vehicle.
- The shuttle bus comes every 15 minutes and the drive to Whitstable Oyster Festival is approximately 10 minutes long.
- It is better to arrive early and leave before the day’s activities are over rather than arrive late and stay until the end. It gets extremely crowded by 2pm, and you will have to wait in a very long queue to get into the Oyster Food Festival area.
- If you are thinking to get your food from the Oyster Food Festival area, get it before the landing of the oysters. After the landing, which is on the beach 10 minutes walk away, it will be difficult to re-enter the area.
- The locally caught “Whitstable trestle” oysters are sold at a stall in the Oyster Food Festival area, along the promenade near East Quay Beach, and at the Lobster Shack, a seafood restaurant between East Quay Beach and Whitstable Harbour.
- If you are not a fan of oysters, there are plenty of other things to eat and drink that you won’t find at your average food market, from wild meat like kangaroo and ostrich, to gourmet coffee with varieties of drink like Galão and Viena.
- When you go to see the landing of the oysters at East Quay Beach, stand on the side that does not have a cordon. That is the side the VIPs will be standing on, and while they will stand in front of you before the ceremony begins, they will move to the centre once it begins. On the side with the cordon you will have the samba band players standing in front of you.