At the dark end of the street

The Street

There is something particularly fascinating, and chilling, about lost cities. Lost civilisations, where hundreds of thousands of people once shared a common culture over many years and have left little or nothing, are too awful a thought to contemplate, but lost cities we can understand. Macchu Picchu, Pompeii, Karakorum, Carthage, Mycenae, Babylon – they tell us of the futility of certainties and the remorselessness of time. They do so not simply because what was mighty is now empty, but because we can imagine ourselves in those streets, those homes, those ruined outlines past which anyone might walk. We might have lived there as much we live where we find ourselves today. We carry our ruins with us.

That feeling of connection is all the more acute when you consider humbler lost towns and villages. Their size renders them that much more recognisable, and habitable. In the UK there is a whole gazetteer’s worth of small places lost to disease (the Black Death in particular), conflict, expanding conurbations, the creation of reservoirs, and changes in the climate: Old Winchelsea (abandoned after floods and coastal erosion), Old Sarum (replaced by Salisbury), Wharram Percy (gradual desertion), Derwent (drowned by the creation of Ladybower Reservoir), Heathrow (swallowed by an airport). There are former places whose evocative names alone make you feel the loss all the greater: Winterborne Farringdon, Wolfhampcote, Colden Parva, Snittlegarth, Bromkinsthorpe, Hungry Bentley… Some have left a few traces by which we may measure ourselves, others have left nothing but a name and uncertain location. They hover on the edge of memory, a hair’s breadth away from disappearing entirely.

The number of lost towns is certain to grow. Coastal erosion as a consequence of climate change is a cause that exercises us now, but the very idea of towns and villages is threatened by the digital lives that we lead. The preservation of local identity may be driving our politics, but even as many fight for places to remain as they want them to be, we live our lives differently – socially and commercially. Towns no longer shape us or reflect us. The rows of empty shops and charity shops in UK towns is evidence enough of changes of habit bringing about the end of the town as it has been. I’ve wondered previously about what will happen to old towns in an emerging era of smart cities, disconnected places rendered irrelevant by connected ones. We are all of us living in lost towns, perhaps.

But that’s for the future. Lost towns and villages from the past have a special poignancy, especially when so much has been wiped away that they no longer exist at all, leaving only a name to say that they were once, somewhere. A place such as Graystone, for instance.

I have interest in Graystone because I used to live near it. Or I might have done. I was brought up in the town of Whitstable, on the north coast of Kent. It was a quiet, somewhat dowdy town, with a fishing harbour, hard pebble beaches and rows of Victorian terraced housing packed in the centre, with more prosperous housing to the fringes. It was overshadowed by nearby Canterbury, which had the money, and its coastal neighbour Herne Bay, which attracted the day-trippers. Overlooked but accommodating, it was a good place in which to grow up.

Contemporary map of Whitstable, showing The Street, via Kent County Council Heritage Maps

One of the town’s most distinctive features is The Street. It’s a raised spit of shingle over a clay bank reaching out into the sea for half a mile or more at the lowest tides, which disappears entirely at high tide. Created by local currents coming up against the ridge of clay, it varies in length and width according to the season, and has changed shape over history, indeed over the brief time that I have known it. It juts out from the concrete promenade, the rows of beach huts and those hard pebble beaches of Whitstable’s suburb Tankerton, catching out the viewer every time by its sheer improbability. The challenge was always to walk to its tip and head back, sometimes with necessary speed, before the tide turned.

At some point I read, or was told, of a legend – a lost village, maybe of Roman origin, that lay just beyond the tip of The Street. Somewhere out there in the shallow waters beyond the spit of stones, might be the ruins of some nameless place, still haunted by its ghosts.

There was some substance to the legend. There was such a place, but no one knows where it was located. The Whitstable shoreline has shifted over the centuries. In Roman times it stretched out far further out to sea than we have it now, probably quite close to the Isle of Sheppey. The land, though, was mostly wooded swamp. As the shoreline retreated, fishing settlements emerged, some too small to be worthy of a name. By medieval times there were settlements at Witenstaple (the name has shifted over the years like the shoreline), Seasalter and Swalecliffe. There were other clusters of fisher families in the area, one of whose names first occurs in the records in 1293, when a place then known as Le Craston is cited as part of the manor of Whitstable. Le Craston is a strange name, but the name itself changes in records from the time: Graston, Greiston, Greyston, Greystone, Graystone, Graystones. It was a landing place of some sort, those medieval documents make clear. It was of greater significance than other nameless clusters, on account of its location, though too small to be classified as a Hundred (an administrative area of obscure definition – it could be a place supporting up to 100 families, or which could supply up to 100 fighting men).

1930s postcard showing The Street from Tankerton slopes

It is referred to in 1312, in a claim over land rights, then in 1326 when a royal order for knights to search for possible subversive letters sent from aboard requiring them to search from Graystone to Faversham, Reculver to Graystone (Reculver being a village and former Roman stronghold outside what is now Herne Bay) and the ‘vills’ (feudal areas) of Whitstable and Faversham. It still recorded in shipping records the following century, and possibly as late as 1585, after which it was covered up by the encroaching waters. From the uses the documents imply, it was of some significance, distinct from the Hundred of Whitstable, presumably with a community sufficient to support it, with a route of some sort to the mainland for the transport of goods delivered. However, one argument against the location is the cliffs that would have greeted any traffic, which are now the gentler and grassy Tankerton slopes.

A law report on fishery rights in Whitstable from 1868 indicates the confusion created by the paucity of evidence:

We have it, therefore, established by the verdict of the jury that the lord of this manor from time immemorial down to the 21 Edw. 1, and from that date by the allowance in eyre, took toll with merchandise at Le Craston, in the manor of Whitstable. It does not appear to be now known what place was designated by the name of Le Craston. It is suggested, but without any apparent reason, that it is the same spot more recently designated as Greystones. As, however, it is not now known where Greystones was, this is of very little consequence.

Potential locations for Graystone, from Brian Smith, ‘Origins of Whitstable: Name & Place‘

In an article by Brian Smith, ‘Origins of Whitstable: Name & Place‘, he maps four likely locations for the smaller settlements along the Whitstable shore, one of which could be where Le Craston/Graystone was located. And one of these is at the end of The Street. That’s the one I choose to believe.

Graystone was as uncertain of location as it was of name. It is a floating entity, Laputa-like, stubbornly refusing to be pinned down by any particularity of historical evidence. The settlement itself is of interest only to local historians and curious residents, but I see more in it than that.

Every town must have its ghosts. We pass down streets that once knew other feet, other modes of transportation. In our homes, if they are of any age, we are forever colliding unknowingly with those who previously knew it as their own and must always be going about their business. We see these streets and places in old photographs, or can read about these in digitised newspapers, but that experience is different. It is nostalgic, curiosity-driven. The ghosts are a part of our present.

Whitstable shoreline with flats from 1805 Ordnance Survey map, showing The Street, via Archi UK

Walking through Whitstable recently I realised that I was just such a ghost. The town that I knew and the town as it is now are very different, yet they overlap – a little hazily in places – so that I walk down both. Whitstable has changed dramatically since the place I knew in the 1970s. I remember Green & Knight, a home improvement store in Harbour Street, and it was in 1978 that its owners Barrie Green and John Knight took over the moribund Whitstable Oyster Company. Oysters were the native product famous the world over (the Romans are said to have harvested oysters here), but had fallen out of fashion. Green’s sons Richard and James saw things differently, and in 1988 opened a fish restaurant with a cinema on the floor above. The cinema was an absolute treasure, with a bar at the back and glorious views out over sea and sunsets, before the blinds came down and the show began. But it was not cinephilia that reinvented Whitstable, it was the food experience.

The restaurant gained glowing reviews and for Londoners with money spare it suddenly seemed a good idea to journey down to North Kent for the weekend and sample authentic living alongside fine seafood. The DFLs, as they were dubbed (Down From London), grew in number, with a number of celebrities choosing to make the place their home (or at least their weekend home). Shops were transformed, coffee places popped up, bijou gifts were everywhere on offer down quaint Harbour Street, and house prices shot through the roof of every dilapidated and previously unloved fisherman’s cottage. The houses in tucked-away roads along the shoreline, such as Island and Middle Wall, have become avidly sought, and even the terraced Victorian two-up two-downs go for a fine price. I saw a plain beach hut for sale at £47,500. This is not how things once were.

Harbour Street today

Yet, though there is money, change, heavy traffic and insatiable crowds in the high season, in other respects Whitstable remains the same as it was in the 1970s, and a good many years before that. With its jumble of streets and largely-unchanged housing stock, it has the air of place that will weather this brief period of fashionableness and outlast it. Its resolute ordinariness is a part of the touristic appeal, and the town’s best defence.

Wandering through, I saw all this. I found some places quite changed since last I saw them, others unchanged in fifty years and ready for stay the same for the next half century (I could swear White’s lingerie store has not changed its display window since 1973). I walked in my old steps and realised that I was a ghost myself, present as witness to stasis and change.

And there, jutting out of Tankerton Bay, was The Street. It was low tide and I was able to walk to its furthermost tip, though on a cold December day it was nearer quarter than half a mile. From there I surveyed town, shore, Herne Bay to the east, Graveney marshes and the Isle of Sheppey to the west, and, far across the estuary, Essex. A wind farm stretches across the eastern horizon.

Beyond the tip, where the conflicting tides run in to one another, I could trace the course of The Street below the shallow waters, a vanishing point beyond which the present slides into the past. There, metaphorically at least, are the people of Graystone. They are proud of their place, or at least resigned to it. They fish and trawl, take in shipping deliveries, pass on messages sent from London, look out for hostile agents, and in between merely walk here and there, keeping going, clinging to the edges of a life. They mingle with us though we never see them, just as those to come will never see us, though we were always here.

We are all future ghosts.

At the end of The Street


  • Information for this post comes from Robert H. Goodsall’s magisterial Whitstable, Seasalter and Swalecliffe: The History of Three Kent Parishes (Canterbury: Cross & Jackman, 1938), Geoffrey Pike and John Cann, History in Whitstable: Places and People (Whitstable: Whitstable Improvement Trust, 1995) and Brian Smith, ‘Origins of Whitstable: Name & Place‘, Simply Whitstable (2008?). The Simply Whitstable website is available on the Internet Archive, with the images from Smith’s article not reproduced. Happily, the entire article with its images is reproduced on the improbably-named TV Cabbage site
  • There are histories of the Whitstable Oyster Company, covering its role in the transformation in Whitstable’s fortunes, on the company website and on the Whitstable Rocks site
  • There are a number of uses of the word Graystone in Whitstable today, including Graystone Road and the Graystone Library room in Whitstable Castle. These however refer to the Reverend Arthur Graystone, the wealthy Victorian owner of the Tankerton Estate. There was a Greston School in Tankerton in the 1970s, when I lived in the town, which was named after Le Craston/Graystone (it was on Marine Parade, overlooking The Street)
  • My 2017 post on smart cities and the towns that are being left behind by the digital age is here:


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