The town of Whitstable has been associated with oysters for hundreds of years, and its oyster festival is a festival in the
full meaning of the word: both a celebration and a series of performances. Relying very much on custom and tradition, it has a spontaneity that is constantly evolving from year to year, yet still retaining its own individual character.
The roots of the festival go back much further than many would
think: in Norman times, Whitstable was an established fishing port, and it was the custom then for fishers and dredgers to celebrate with an annual ceremony of thanksgiving.
The exact form this ceremony would have originally taken is unknown, but it would have probably have centred around a formal blessing of the town, the sea, the fishing fleet, and indeed, the fishermen and dredgers themselves.
These festivals would be declared a 'Holy Day' and after the formal church ceremony, the people of the town would spend the rest of the day partaking of feasts, games, contests and dancing. The Blessing of the Waters is still held as a separate service one evening near the time of the oyster festival at Reeves Beach.
Being a practical, hard working people, the fishermen of Whitstable held their festival during the slack period: the close season for oysters. The feast day of St James of Compostella, who became the patron saint of oysters, falls conveniently on July 25, and this soon became the accepted date to hold the festival.
Some of the games and contests associated with the festival involved various water sports and activities. By the end of the 18th century these were organised into a series of events which became known as the Whitstable Regatta, which is still
continued in the town.
Originally, the regatta consisted of yawl races, rowing races, swimming and walking the greasy pole. There was also the 'millers and sweeps', where the occupants of two small boats fought each other with soot and flour! The finale would consist of the blowing up of a ship, organised by the Whitstable Salvage Company - this has been replaced by a firework display!
Today's oyster festival evolved with the revival of the local industry, which had been virtually wiped out in the 1920s by a combination of disease and overfishing, and is now an event to promote both the oyster industry and the town itself.
Still traditionally starting in the weekend nearest to St James' Day, the festival is now held over nine days, with the opening parade on the first Saturday. The parade, starting with the official Landing of the Catch, follows the progress of the oysters, in a horse-drawn
dray, through the town, stopping to deliver the catch to various restaurants, cafes and public houses.
There are marching bands, people in period costumes, and various entertaining troupes. For several years, the colourful 'fish-slappers' entertained onlookers with their percussion and dancing, setting feet tapping along the High Street, and onto the beach.
There follows a week of entertainment for both adults and children, with local art on display around the town, and plenty of places to sample local fish dishes.