In a report in late 2010, the New Economic Foundation named Whitstable as the town with the UK’s most diverse high street.
Not surprising, you might think, after all, isn’t this the place where affluent middle-class Londoners spend the weekend scoffing oysters while averting their eyes from the nearby Isle of Sheppey?
Maybe so, but even the most cursory visit to this small Kent coastal town with its chilly North Sea views will tell you that there is a branch of Iceland, a Boots, a White Stuff branch and even a Co-op along the main drag. But that is only part of the story. Because between these are four local butchers, a deli, a couple of grocers, a smattering of cafés and restaurants and a host of other shops of varying degrees of usefulness. The point is, the chains and the independent retailers owe their place in this town to the fact that they are used by people that live there, as well as visitors.
And the reason that people visit is because as well as an historic seafront the high street is well, different. It would be hard to wander along Harbour Street without wondering why more high streets don’t look like this one and there is a mere 2% vacancy rate – surely a triumph in these days of troubled relations between landlords and retail tenants.
It is at this point that is it worth noting a singular fact. None of the big four supermarkets have any kind of meaningful representation in Whitstable – although there is a Tesco Express on the edge of town – about which local traders are up in arms (not least one unlicensed restaurant that charges an additional £3 corkage if you appear with a bottle of Tesco wine and wish to drink it with your meal.)
It is clearly not the policy of this magazine to decry large retail – it is a supremely important part of UK plc and has made the business of getting food and provisions much more straightforward that it used to be. It is also efficient and profitable.
And it is almost certainly the case that when it comes to major shopping trips, many Whitstable denizens will hotfoot it out of town to the nearest superstore. This is fine and it leaves Harbour Street as the kind of place you wish you could see more of with well-designed and patronised local shops.
If nothing else, Whitstable is proof that chains and indys can co-exist, but it does look increasingly as if this dual vision is likely to prove an aberration – found only in locations where there are sufficient oysters, castles or perhaps historic buildings to make it worthy of a visit by those from beyond the city limits.