Whitstable has been well known for its superb oysters for hundreds of years, ever since the Romans invaded Britain and realised how delicious Kentish oysters were. The seaside town has become synonymous with the high-quality molluscs, but there was a time when oysters were not considered a luxury and were as cheap as pennies. How we wish we could go back in time.
Luckily, we can just go to Whitstable instead, and feast on fresh oysters all day long – perhaps not as inexpensive as they were in Victorian times, but definitely as delicious. The Whitstable Oyster Festival 2021 is back for another year of mollusc-related fun and revelry, welcoming locals and tourists to celebrate the humble oyster, which has brought much fame and wealth to the Kentish harbour town.
Never been before? Well, our handy guide will give you the complete rundown on everything you need to know about the festival, from where to eat to what to do in between all that eating, and even how to get there. You can trust us to answer all of your important questions about the seafood festival which takes over the quaint harbour town every summer.
The event has been hailed as the UK’s finest oyster festival, with Whitstable often topping best lists for being a popular seafood destination. Plus royals have been known to pop in on occasion, so if you’re ready to celebrate in real luxury, you’ll want to join in on all the fun. Head on down to the Kentish coast this summer for a truly unforgettable oyster experience with friends and family.
We've thought about everything that you will need to know for the two-day festival down in Whitstable and of course, some great restaurants for you to check out too. Read on to answer all your questions about the oyster festival.
What is the history behind the Whitstable Oyster Festival?
The traditions of the oyster festival stretch back to the Roman Empire, when Julius Caesar invaded Britain and the Roman soldiers discovered a taste for the Kentish delicacy. The native oysters have been much-feted since the 1980s, when the modern annual festival began. The coastal town was also celebrated in Norman times by fisherman feasting in the name of St. James of Compostella, the unofficial patron saint of oysters. Many of the traditions stem from the ‘Holy Day’ which saw people of the town feasting, dancing, playing games, and competing.
Whitstable has been a prominent coastal town for oyster catching and eating throughout the centuries. During the Victorian era, they were so cheap and accessible they were considered a poor man’s staple food – a stark contrast compared to the luxury status oysters have now.
Native Kentish oysters are rare now, as during the festival season they are spawning, and many are imported from the Pacific these days. The festival is actually held during the end of the season, for the fishermen’s holidays. But the town has been associated with the mollusc for so long, that the traditions and performances have become a big part of its culture as it evolves year on year.
Where to eat at the Whitstable Oyster Festival 2021
The festival is all about oysters, and there are some smashing restaurants in the area that celebrate the native mollusc, as well as offering other delicious seafood fare. Being so close to the harbour, it’s no wonder that foodies from all over the world come to Whitstable to try the food. You’ll be spoilt for choice with the restaurants in Whitstable, from tapas to posh gastropubs – just make sure you get there in good time or book ahead.
First off there’s Michelin-starred gastropub The Sportsman on Seasalter beach, which has won much praise for its laid-back charm. The Sportsman also offers an epic tasting menu, in which oysters are served with poached apple, seaweed, pickled cucumber, and caviar. Wheeler’s Oyster Bar is another well-established Kentish establishment, having been around for hundreds of years, delighting patrons with its superb seafood bar, hearty platters, and browsing plates. For a Spanish take on British ingredients, why not head to Harbour Street Tapas for traditional and creative small plates, plus a very good wine list, or go to Birdies for a French-inspired experience.
Family-run bistro Samphire is another great option, featuring exemplary farm (and sea) to table cooking, with their modern take on British food. Fish market restaurant Crab & Winkle really shows how fresh its produce is, and is situated right on the harbour, boasting some amazing views. Jojo’s is also worth a try; the food is heavily influenced by Mediterranean cuisine and is great value for money, given the high level of quality and service. Lastly, it’s worth checking out the Harbour Food Fair, for a more casual, grazing-style affair.
What to do at the Whitstable Oyster Festival 2021
Image: Whitstable Oyster Festival
If you've never been to Whistable Oyster Festival before, you are probably wondering what actually happens at the event, aside from the obvious of oyster eating. Well, when you’re not indulging in amazing food and delicious native oysters, there’s plenty of activites and events to get involved with throughout the day. Read below to check out some of our favourites.
Check out the Harbour Stage
Check out the stage for some quality acts, from music entertainment to hilarious comedy sets by top comedians. Tickets do sell out quickly so it’s best to nab them as soon as you can. Previous years have seen the likes of Finley Quaye, The Cuban Brothes, and Sean Lock take to the stage.
Join the oyster eating competition
Have you got what it takes to win the oyster eating competition? If you think you can stomach eating a dozen oysters in quick succession before downing a pint of beer as fast as you can, then this is the competition for you! Otherwise join the audience and watch as the competition heats up.
Build a grotter
This is a must-do activity at Whitstable Oyster Festival, and is best enjoyed in the late afternoon after you've paraded and eaten to your heart’s content. For the uninitiated, ‘Grotters’ are small dome structures made out of oyster shells, which is a tradition that dates back to Victorian times. The Grotter Towers are built on Horsebridge Beach around 4pm, and you’ll see them glow with candles inside as night falls – a magical sight.
Get your competitive side out with the crabbing competition held up on Horsebridge Beach. There are prizes and awards for all the weird and wonderful crabs of the day – the judges will decide which ones are the biggest, prettiest, and even angriest looking. You can purchase crabbing kits and bait on the day too.
Get involved with the community events
The local community hosts loads of fun activities over the festival period, from pirate pottery to tug of wars at the beach, to kite flying on Tankerton Slopes. You can even help clean up the beach with the local environmentalists or get arty with a spot of chalk drawing.
What to see at the Whitstable Oyster Festival 2021
Image: Whitstable Oyster Festival
The Whitstable Oyster Festival is jam-packed with activities, so when you’re not eating at one of the area's amazing seafood restaurants or shucking oysters by the beach, its a great idea to walk around the town and see what else it has to offer. Below, we've rounded up some must-see sights and activities that take place throughout the festival's run.
Landing of the oysters
The landing of the oysters happens every year, and is a ceremonial celebration of the first catch ‘landing’ on Long Beach. The symbolic event marks the start of the festival, replete with traditional costumes and all. The first oysters, donated by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company, are received and blessed by the Lord Mayor of Canterbury and the clergy.
The oyster parade and street party
After the Lord Mayor has blessed the first oysters of the day, the real festivities begin with the parade along the high street from the harbour. Locals and tourists dress up in colourful costumes made at the Horsebridge Arts Centre and the whole town turns up for the street party. Later on, the town usually puts on an amazing display of fireworks too, to mark another successful oyster season.
Browse the shops
After eating all of that amazing food, a good walk around the town may be in order, and you may as well peruse the shops while you’re at it. We would recommend The Cheese Box for its artisan cheeses, while Frank and The Print Block are good to check out for local art.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)
When is the Whitstable Oyster Festival 2021?
The Whitstable Oyster Festival is usually held towards the end of July each year in keeping with the end of oyster season. This year things are a bit later, with the festivities being hosted between 27-30 August 2021.
Do I need tickets to Whitstable Oyster Festival 2021?
Some of the events are ticketed, and they do sell out fast, so if you’re keen to see certain acts make sure to get tickets. Otherwise entry to the actual festival itself is free and quite a few of the community events are too.
How do I get to Whitstable Oyster Festival 2021?
Driving is not advised due to the lack of parking available in the small town, meaning public transportation via bus, train, or coach is recommended. The main station is just a few minutes’ walk from the Harbour too. If driving is a necessity, you can reserve a space at the 'park and ride' outside of the village.
Why not prepare yourself for all of the festival goings on by checking out our pick of London's best seafood and fish restaurants?