The Whitstable Oyster Festival

In the small Kentish town of Whitstable, a large part of life revolves around oysters. So it is only to be expected that - every once in a while - the inhabitants should get together to celebrate their livelihood. That celebration takes the shape of the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival - and you don't have to be mad about oysters to enjoy it!

Actually, whether you're a history buff or just love a celebration, the Whitstable Oyster Festival is a good place to be. From the traditional Landing of the Catch to the Blessing of the Waters, from an oyster eating competition to a mud tug and a fireworks spectacular, there's plenty to do and see for adults and children alike.

And then, of course, there are the oysters, for which Whitstable has been famous since Roman times. Back then, they were not the delicacy they are today, but subsistence food that even the poorest could afford.

Plate of Oysters © marilyna | Getty Images canva.comPlate of Oysters © marilyna | Getty Images

Throughout Anglo-Saxon times and the Middle Ages, oysters were widely fished, providing income and food for whole communities. So it seemed only natural to invoke some higher protection to ensure commercial success, especially as many sailors refused to learn to swim, preferring to trust exclusively in the security of their boats.

With the spread of Christianity a saint - St James of Compostela - was assigned the task to watch over oysters and those who fished for them, and communities whose lives depended on oysters began to celebrate his feast day on July 25th.

St James' festival traditionally begins with a blessing of the sea, the sailors and their boats, in hope that their lives and livelihood survived in safe abundance. The oysters are carried in procession to the Lord Mayor of Canterbury, while a grand parade through the streets of Whitstable follows the blessing ceremony. Afterwards, the festival gets underway with plenty of educational and fun activitie

If you think you can suck oysters down faster than anyone else, then the Oyster eating competition might be right for you. Try eating half dozen oysters and washing them down with a half pint of Whitstable Brewery Pilsner. Do this faster than anyone else and you're a winner.

Even though oysters are nowadays regarded as a delicacy and therefore not to be had cheaply, visiting the Whistable Oyster Festival will not leave a hole in your pocket.

Oysters © ailime | Getty Images canva.comOysters © ailime | Getty Images

Art galore is part of the festivities with local artists, classes and displays. Much of the entertainment is free and the flea markets and craft sales cost you only what you wish to spend.

Crafts and food always go together, so feed your taste for delightful and unusual foods while you feed your soul at the festival.

There is even a masseuse if you've had too much activity.

Another tradition is Grotter Day. The grotter is a hollow mound made of mud and decorated with seashells. Often children would make them and then receive a penny or two for the best one. This free activity starts in the early evening so you have all day to collect the shells.

Seashells and Starfish © Janpietruszka | dreamstime.comSeashells and Starfish
© Janpietruszka |

And for those who plan to visit the festival, the following fun facts about Whitstable might come in handy:

  • Tipping the Velvet, a book and television drama by Sarah Waters, used Whitstable as one of the settings
  • The 2006 movie Venus, with actor Peter O'Toole used the Old Neptune Pub in Whitstable for filming
  • W. Somerset Maugham lived in Whitstable with his uncle from the age of 10. The setting of Blackstable, for his book Cakes and Ale bears a great deal of resemblance to Whitstable. (Not really a big reach when you consider the name.)
  • Peter Cushing, star of the classic vampire, monster, and mummy movies, lived in Whitstable after his retirement

The Whitstable Oyster Festival offers something for everyone. Most of all there is great entertainment and music to accompany delicious local food and drink. For a timetable and list of activities, check out the event's website here.

Has the Whitstable Oyster Festival given you a taste for English food?
Check out the Food Festivals page for more!