As far back Norman times there has been fishing and dredging in Whitstable in North Kent. Even back then the locals held an annual festival of thanksgiving to celebrate the harvest.
The festival would have originally fallen on a holy day, with a church ceremony followed by feasting and festivities. The feast day of St James of Compostella (the patron saint of oysters) fell on 25th of July so this became the day of the oyster festival.
Today the festival always takes up a week around 25th July. Some of the traditions have been maintained – the symbolic “landing of the oysters”, for example. Whitstable sea scouts bring ashore oysters for a formal blessing by the clergy. The oysters are passed to the Lord Mayor who takes them along a parade through the town and hands them out to inns and restaurants.
Along with these symbolic traditions, Whitstable Oyster Festival has evolved into a family festival centring around food, entertainment and arts. The whole of the village gets involved with the festival, which forms the centre of the year’s social calendar. The events are split up into four types: heritage, food and drink, family and arts.
The heritage events open Whitstable Oyster Festival with the “landing of the oyster. Invariably the heritage events also include the “blessing of the waters” a tradition dating back to 1657 which is carried out to appease the seas and thank them for their bounty. The food and drink events centre around two stalwarts of Kentish produce - oysters and beer. Whitstable Brewery has a beer festival featuring over thirty cask beers that can be sampled along with live music. There are a large number of food demonstrations as well as the annual oyster eating competition. Be warned that if you are in Whitstable to try the Whitstable Native oysters then you have come at the wrong time of year. Whitstable Natives are only in season after 1st September. There are, however, a huge number of rock oysters to go round.
For families with children there are numerous family orientated events including walks, dancing and craft activities. For art lovers, there are exhibitions, theatre and dance performances, and music from many different traditions. For a real taste of the English keep an eye out for the Morris Men who dedicate a whole day to their art.
The festival is very popular and the town can get congested so, where possible, it’s best to avoid driving in to Whitstable. There is a train station ten minutes walk from the city centre with regular trains from London Victoria and Thanet. There are also regular buses running from Canterbury and Herne Bay. If you wish to stay in Whitstable be sure to book up well in advance.