Heritage and History
HERITAGE AND HISTORY
Today’s Festival is a relatively modern (1980s) revival of a festival from Norman times. Back then, when Whitstable was already an established fishing port, fishers and dredgers held annual ceremonies of thanksgiving for their survival and harvest. Being practical, hard-working people, Whitstable’s fishermen held their celebration during the slack period and closed season for oysters. That’s why, even today, you’ll find the festival is in the summer, outside the season for eating Whitstable oysters.
Being a ’Holy Day’ the original Festival would include a formal church ceremony, with the rest of the day spent feasting, dancing, contesting and playing games. The exact form the original ceremony would have taken is unknown, but would have probably have centred on a formal blessing of the town, the sea, the fishing fleet, and indeed, the fishermen and dredgers themselves.
Today Whitstable symbolically recreates the ‘Landing of the Oysters’, where Whitstable Sea Scouts bring oysters ashore for a formal Blessing and presentation to the Lord Mayor. The blessed oysters are then passed to inns and restaurants as part of the vibrant Oyster Parade as it travels through the town centre.
Later in festival week, The Blessing of the Waters service is still held at Reeves Beach and organised by the Association of Men of Kent and Kentish Men. The local tradition of Grotter building (creating hollow mounds of sand or mud with an outside decoration of oyster shells) takes place earlier the same day . Originally built by children who would beg “a penny for the grotter” much as other children did for Guy Fawkes, today’s grotters are built purely for the fun of it and lit by candles to produce an intriguing night-time spectacle.
The native or flat oyster (Ostrea edulis) is the oyster that made Whitstable famous. When the Romans arrived, the shores off Whitstable were abundant in these bivalves due to Whitstable’s favoured position on the Thames Estuary. Here, the nutrient-rich waters that flow down the river when mixed with the saltwater of the North Sea in the shallow warm water off Whitstable provide the perfect growing environment for the microscopic algae which form the oysters’ diet. As their name suggests, these native oysters are indigenous to our shore with a reproduction cycle adapted to our waters. During their breeding season in the summer months the native oysters are unpalatable. They are only fished in the winter months (those months with an ‘r’ in the them) September to April. The more common rock oyster (Crassostrea gigas) was introduced from the Pacific specifically for farming as it is more resilient than the native oyster. Rock oysters are available all year round and it is these that are consumed in abundance at the Whitstable Oyster Festival every July.