This is Easter. There are rules. You'll know them if you were around this time last year, but here's a summary: The Belated Birthday Girl and I try to spend each Easter Sunday in a different place, and watch a film that was made using that place as a location. Except on the years that we don't.
First problem: where do we stay? At one point, we were half-considering my usual fallback option of the Premier Inn, but that got knocked back when we discovered it was a mile or two out of town. So we looked into the B&Bs in town, and found the best deal to be had was at Copeland House, beautifully positioned near the junction of the two main shopping streets, and with a sea view from selected rooms (not ours, though). At the time of writing, there's no guarantee that your experience of Copeland House will be anything like ours: owner Georgina has just sold the place and is looking to move on in a couple of months. But there certainly wasn't any feeling that corners were being cut in its final weeks: comfy rooms, fine breakfasts and everything just where you needed it to be, all wrapped up in a terrific location right at the heart of all the good things Whitstable has to offer.
One of those good things is food, and seafood in particular. We were careful this time to get all the key meals locked down in advance, avoiding last year's unpleasantness when Sunday lunch eventually wore off and we couldn't find anywhere open for dinner. Although we had several places on our shortlist, it eventually came to pass that the four restaurants we settled on were the four Whitstable restaurants that our good mates at Open Table handle bookings for. The other ones we looked at - JoJo's, Royal Native Oyster Stores, and the legendary Wheeler's Oyster Bar - were a lot more fiddly to arrange. But booking seems to be crucial, especially over a holiday weekend: in all four of the restaurants we went to, we watched walk-in customers being turned away because there simply wasn't any room. (In at least one case, an obvious tourist was horrified to discover most of the restaurants in town are closed by 9.30 or 10pm, so watch out for that too.)
So, in order of visiting. Friday night was spent at the Crab and Winkle, a fine fish restaurant just above the fish market on the harbour (see picture at top of page). On Saturday evening we ate at the delightful brasserie Samphire on the High Street, which (thanks to its location) had more people turned away at the door than anywhere else we visited. Sunday brunch was a three course twenty quid blowout at Pearson's Arms, a terrific gastropub responsible for my favourite meal of the weekend. And on Sunday evening, we fiendishly played it safe by grabbing a table at Williams & Brown Tapas, allowing us to go for a light supper after the excesses of lunch.
Did we just eat over the Easter weekend? Well, no. But the other attractions of Whitstable need to be carefully spaced out over your trip, otherwise you may end up blowing them all too early. You're by the sea, of course: but on a wet cold weekend like the one we had this Easter, that isn't much fun at all. (Though watching the coastal sandbar The Street vanish beneath the tide over half an hour was an enjoyable way to spend a Sunday morning.) There's a delightful museum, with local archaeology and a small display celebrating former local resident Peter Cushing. (Until June 10th, it's also got a cracking exhibition - Warzones To The Red Carpet - of the work of rock photographer Brian Aris, with detailed autobiographical notes telling how he rose from chasing fire engines as a cub photojournalist, to taking official royal portraits.)
There's a castle, if that sort of thing interests you, but based on our sample of one visit it's closed to the public most of the time because it's being hired out for posh weddings. You could get the train or bus down the road to nearby Herne Bay, but it only points up Whitstable's unique character even more - Herne Bay's carefully segregated mix of the crass and the gentrified reminds you of every other British seaside town, something that Whitstable certainly doesn't do.
Which leaves drinking, I guess. Whitstable Brewery has a good following in the town - their Brewery Bar has a fine selection of ales, but is a slightly soulless barn when it's not running comedy nights or dubstep recitals. Shepherd Neame from Faversham is the most visible presence beerwise, and you'll see their distinctive signs outside several pubs (including the Royal Naval Reserve, where we had a reasonable bar lunch).
It's interesting to note that many of the bars in Whitstable have regular live music nights, although close inspection of the listings suggests there's a roster of a dozen or so acts that cycle through all the venues in Kent. The other music option is the Horsebridge Centre, a fine community venue that I suspect attracts a regular crowd of locals no matter who's on. This Easter, the big attraction was Pete Molinari, a singer-songwriter who I've seen before in London doing support slots. His band were all kinds of brilliant for the first half hour of their set, but audio problems ultimately took their toll: as he kept asking for different bits of the mix to be cranked up louder and louder, the sound degenerated into smudgy distorted mush. Perhaps he should have followed the example of his support act, Paul Handyside. Visibly irritated by people talking all the way through his set (ah, that's not just a London thing, then), Handyside played his encore completely unplugged while standing in the middle of the dancefloor, and got the attention he deserved.
Whitstable's most famous music venue, if not its most famous pub, is probably the Old Neptune on the beach itself. We didn't spend much time in there - it was packed on the one lunchtime we visited, and the gig by rock 'n' roll revivalists The Nagasaki 3 clashed with Pete Molinari. But we had to at least give it a peek, because it was the key location for this year's Easter film, which we watched on DVD in the comfort of our room at Copeland House. The BBG and I first saw Venus when it had its theatrical run back in 2007, and that's my cue to digress with my story about the first two times I saw actress Jodie Whittaker.
There's a fun scene early in the film where Peter O'Toole takes Whittaker to a terrible-looking play at the Royal Court theatre, on what's effectively their first date. Two days after seeing Venus, we went to the Royal Court ourselves, to catch a production of The Seagull. Carey Mulligan had had to drop out at very short notice that day, and director Ian Rickson needed to call in a replacement actress fast as the Court doesn't do understudies. So we got to watch - yes! - Jodie Whittaker playing the role of Nina for the very first time, sightreading from the script while the other actors subtly moved her round the stage as required. Some people can get a bit too precious about the magic of the theatre - hell, Venus is all about those people - but that was a stunning night and no mistake.
That introductory one-two punch made me very fond of Jodie Whittaker, and it's interesting to see how much she's grown as an actress in the five years since Venus was made. But even back then, she was more than a match for Peter O'Toole's ageing letch, and that's precisely what makes the film work. If their relationship wasn't so finely balanced, it'd be an unpleasant tale of one of them exploiting the other: it turns out instead that the exploitation cuts both ways, and evolves into an utterly charming friendship. The good news is that after last year's disappointment with trying to spot the Dover locations in Lady Jane, the Whitstable section of the story is perfectly signposted when it happens. After just two days in the town, we were able to roughly identify every single camera position that they used.
We came back from Whitstable on Monday afternoon, bearing souvenirs of the weekend: five bottles of Whitstable Brewery beer from High Street off-licence The Offy, a seafood selection for cooking later that day, and a stinking cold. Sadly, only two of those fitted into The BBG's eco bag, so I had to carry the last one myself. Maybe next time we visit, we'll go when the weather's a bit warmer.