A walk through Whitstable Maritime

Gamecock at her mooring

Whitstable Maritime Coastal Community Team Director Gordon Vincent gave the following talk to the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames. Part tour guide, it is also partly a description of what Whitstable Maritime is working on and out to achieve.

It comes to us with the help of the excellent Neil Batey, the Sailors’ Children’s Society’s local community engagement and family support officer for Dover & Ramsgate. Thanks Neil, and thanks Gordon!

A walk through Whitstable Maritime

If we stand by the Old Neptune on Island Wall looking out to sea, in front of us is the Swale Estuary, the eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey, and the start of the Thames Estuary. To our right is Whitstable Harbour and the open expanse of the North Sea.

The people who live and work along this coast realised that the majority of visitors and school parties who trekked along the narrow path or settled on the beech, were blissfully unaware of its maritime past and the factors that will shape its future.

So in April 2014 two dozen of us agreed to form Whitstable Maritime, a ‘not-for-profit’ Company Limited by Guarantee, that would celebrate Whitstable’s connections with the sea, past, present and future.

From the Old Neptune we can walk along a rough path that follows the coastline to Faversham. We pass Nature Reserves and Seal Sanctuaries with some remains of former maritime activities amongst the salt marshes.

Canterbury Christ Church University and Natural England have agreed to work with Whitstable Maritime on establishing a Coastal Trail. When finished, walkers will be able to download on their mobile phones, pictures and other information about the wildlife, the marine life, and the geography and history at particular locations on the trail.

Towards the end of this part of our walk we come to where Faversham Creek empties in to the Swale and there we shall find the Gamecock swinging on a mooring. The Gamecock is a 42 foot, wooden, Oyster Yawl built in 1907 on Island Wall. She spent her working life dredging for oysters in the Swale and is now owned by Whitstable Maritime. She is being
restored to working order and this year we were able to race her in the local Match. There are very few modifications to the Gamecock so it has been possible to register her as a National Historic Vessel.

If we continue up Faversham Creek we shall come to a boatyard owned by Alan Staley. Alan began his apprenticeship on Island Wall and now has a national reputation for his work on traditional craft. He is amongst about twenty experts that Whitstable Maritime has been able to attract on to its management team. We also have a growing regional support network including bodies such as the National Maritime Museum, the Department of Communities and Local Government, Kent County Council, and Canterbury City Council.

At the top of Faversham Creek is a defunct swing bridge which another charity is planning to renew so that craft can once again enter the basin. The two charities have compatible aims and are mutually supportive.

Returning to the Old Neptune we can climb over the timbers that block the gaps in the sea-wall from October round to March and walk along Island Wall towards the harbour. We are on a large spit formed by the waves and current. The shingle beach is broken by wooden groins that extend down in to the sea and the beach has been artificially raised as part of the sea defences, so we can no longer see the slipways that ran down the beach from the boat-building yards that use to be along the ridge of Island Wall.

However they live on in the place names, as do the alleyways along which the boatbuilders, fishermen and divers walked inland to their homes and pubs: Keam’s Yard, Sueeze-gut Alley, and the Guinea Pub, are evocative names prompting investigation. Whitstable Maritime aims to capture these local histories in a format that excites the present generation.

The beach is owned by the Royal Native Oyster Company as is the brick eighteenth-century warehouse in front of us which is now a fish restuarant.

When the tide is out we can see wire trestles supporting bags of baby oysters that are growing in the inter-tidal zone: these are the rock-oysters. Further out in the Swale are the native-oysters, which are more rare.

Above the fish restuarant is a large hall which use to have pews on which the oysterman would sit and conduct their business. A silent film from the 1920’s shows over 70 oyster yawls moored offshore. Bill Coleman, the 86 year-old previous owner of the Gamecock recounts how they use to drive a metre-long metal screw in to the sea-bed to provide a secure mooring.

At this point on our walk we cross the Horsebridge where the horse and carts went down on to the beach at low tide to offload cargo from craft sitting on the sea bed. The Arts Centre alongside is currently the home of Whitstable Maritime.

As we continue our walk along the coast we pass the Yacht Club, the Lifeboat Station and a new tall building constructed in traditional style with black cladding. The latter is leased by the company that builds and operates the wind-farm out to sea, one of several companies actively supporting the growth of our project.

Then we are in the harbour with its three quays, half-dozen fishing boats and a Thames Barge run commercially by one of our Members. The tidal range is considerable so the Harbour Board have agreed to build a pontoon for visitors to embark safely. Through a growing partnership with the East Kent Sail Association, we are able to offer our members the opportunity to crew traditional craft and have already run two barge and smack races out of the harbour with over a dozen boats.

Whitstable Maritime is currently seeking funding to undertake a feasibility study for a Maritime Discovery Centre in the harbour. Our aim is to introduce visitors and school parties to Whitstable’s connections with the sea through themes: for example, the impact of Man and Nature on the Coast; maritime industries; seamanship and navigation; harnessing tides and wind; and climate change.

The themes will be accessed through interactive exhibits, workshops, and investigations using new technologies. There is also the possibility of incorporating boat-building, seamanship and
a beach-school.

By the main entrance to the harbour is a yellow brick building which was once stables for the horses that manoeuvred the goods trucks on the rails that ran along the quays. These linked to an early railway that is now a public footpath. So today it is possible to continue your walk through Whitstable Maritime by following the old trackway to Canterbury.

Did you know? Boat building on stage, with sex

Oysters poster

The astonishingly enterprising folks at the Pioneer Sailing Trust at Brightlingsea have commissioned a touring play about the oyster trade, and boat building. Well, it’s one way to make sure people know the story of Brightlingsea’s oyster trade, and probably a good one as it will reach new audiences and get newspaper coverage.

One I saw suggested that boat building itself is about to become sexy. Well it is already, of course!

My thanks to Paul Quarry for letting me know about this – I’ve no doubt it will be illuminating as well as entertaining. I wonder whether it will be coming our way. Read more about it on the website of the theatre company currently performing the show, Eastern Angles, including some reviews.

Here’s what the trust says about it:

“A tale of sex, boat-building and bivalve molluscs”

Oysters is a new touring theatre production from Eastern Angles.
This play will tour the East of England from March 11th – June 6th
It is sponsored by Ipswich Building Society & Abellio Greater Anglia
Oysters is written and directed by Eastern Angles’ Artistic Director,
Ivan Cutting. Combining local fact and contemporary storytelling, this new play captures the soul of an ancient East Anglian industry, celebrating and preserving the past by putting in on stage.
Focusing on the restoration of an Essex Oyster Smack, the show incorporates oral history accounts of boatbuilding and Oyster cultivation with the fictional story of an Essex boat builder and his intriguing family back-story.

The main character, Mo has just turned fifty and is busy restoring an oyster dredger recovered from an Essex riverbed. Helping him bring the boat back to life is Angie, a young apprentice with chip on her shoulder. Also in the frame are Kasey an intern from the local university, Pamela the formidable fundraiser in charge of the restoration project and the mystical Pearl, an ‘Earth Mother’ with a potent story to tell. When a piece of Mo’s beloved dredger goes missing their lives are up-ended and the past floats to the surface.

Oysters has been researched and developed as part of the Pioneer Sailing Trust Land and Sea project, which is focused on restoring the 1893 Oyster Smack Priscilla.

Eastern Angles are known for creating theatre work with a local flavour. Ivan Cutting’s previous maritime-related shows include When The Boats Came In(about the Lowestoft fishing industry) and Beyond The Breakers (about East Coast Lifeboat service). He also directed the Arthur Ransome adaptation We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea and Up Out o’ The Sea.

Oysters will tour the East of England from March 11th – June 6th. It will be performed at the Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich from Monday 20th April – Saturday 25th April with a free pre-show talk on Monday 20th 7pm – 7.30pm.

Eastern Angles will also take the show to the Pioneer Sailing Trust’s headquarters in Brightlingsea for a three-day residency on the 7th, 8th and 9thMay. Friday night will be a special £15 a ticket Gala performance including complimentary pre-show drinks and an introductory talk whilst Saturday’s shows will be part of a full day of PST activities and wraparound events.


Watermen – oyster dredging and racing on the Chesapeake in the 1960s

Watermen racing and fishing on the Chesapeake Bay

‘In 1965, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, there was the last operating fleet of sailing work boats in the United States. Forty-odd “Skipjacks” were still used by Maryland watermen to dredge up oysters from the Bay. At that time, the fleet had survived because of a Maryland conservation law which prohibits the use of motor power for oyster dredging. The watermen traditionally marked the opening of each oystering season with a skipjack race which the Maryland State Tourist Board incorporated into its annual “Chesapeake Bay Appreciation Day”.’

Read about skipjacks here and oystering on the Chesapeake here and here.