Written in Stone – Christopher conjures

A dose of Whitstable life, past and present

I moved to Whitstable in 1984. You could call me a DFB – Down From Birmingham – except that the previous place I lived was St Pauls in Bristol. Before that I lived in Humberside, and before that, again, Cardiff, South Wales.

If you look on the map you’ll see that all of these places are on estuaries. I don’t quite know why I am drawn to this particular topography. I guess, coming from a big, old industrial city in the Midlands, it was the openness of the landscape that appealed to me: the big skies and restless seas, the spaciousness and fresh air. When I moved to Whitstable I was immediately at home.

The town I moved into was scruffy, friendly, oldfashioned – and completely undiscovered.

There was a menswear shop on the High Street called Hatchards which was like stepping into the past. It was a haven of old, dark wood, a nest of drawers behind glass counters, with three assistants with tapes around their necks eager to take your measure. They were like living adverts for the stock, kitted out in snazzy waistcoats, with neat ties and shirts with immaculate sleeves and cufflinks.

They sold flat caps and homburgs, trousers with turn-ups, silk cravats, braces, belts, and other accessories, and they would measure your waist for a pair of underpants. You could get all sorts in there: Oxford shirts, leather gloves, long-johns, fleecy pyjamas, all filed away in those drawers which lined the walls from floor to ceiling.

Just up the road at number 37, there was a newsagent stuffed to the rafters with old newspapers and unsold stock from the 60s: jigsaw puzzles, puzzle books and grimy magazines that only the manager would read.

There were – let me think – three bakers, three greengrocers, three butchers, several newsagents, sweet shops, tobacconists, hardware shops, bookshops, electrical shops, furniture shops, clothes shops, and cafés. It was a fully functioning high street. Sadly, few of the shops have survived.

I was talking to Jim on the bus the other day. Jim runs Canterbury Rock in Canterbury. He’s married to Belinda who used to run Herbaceous on Oxford Street, where one of the new barbers has since taken over.

Herbaceous was a unique shop, unlike anything that has been seen before or since. It sold health food, herbs and spices, herbal medicine, bamboo socks, Buddhist statues, incense, incense burners, window decorations, candles and a host of other arcane and interesting items of a distinctly heathen nature.

More than this: it was a gathering place for the whole of the Whitstable community. Belinda was like the oracle of Oxford Street. You would go there to consult her on the auguries. She knew everything that was happening in the town and it was impossible to pass her shop without popping in for a chat. She was forced to close after 17 years, once her rent had gone up beyond what she could afford.

These days Belinda is one of the trustees for the Stream Walk Community Garden. Still keeping the community spirit. Still reading the auguries. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Originally appeared here

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