Derek West can justifiably claim to know a thing or two about whelks. For the last 110 years, his family has fished, cooked, shelled and sold the meaty molluscs from a black-painted hut on the windblown quayside at Whitstable.
As the 78-year-old grandfather put it while sitting over a bucket deftly twisting dozens of freshly boiled whelks from their conical shells: “I’ve been working in this harbour for 65 years. Every morning I sit down and pick whelks with my wife and granddaughter. It’s what we do, it’s second nature.”
In recent weeks, Mr West, whose whelking boat saw such long service that it now sits in the town museum, has become a reluctant expert on another matter that is no close to his heart: proposals to “enhance” this bustling 176-year-old quayside and fishing port on the east Kent coast by demolishing buildings and adding, among other possibilities, a 10,500 sq ft supermarket, a theme pub and a four-storey glass and steel hotel.
The plans to regenerate the South Quay in Whitstable, which has undergone a renaissance in the past decade from a dowdy working town to the chic seaside location of choice for downshifting Londoners and day-trippers, have sparked a furious response from residents and visitors alike, who fear it will irrevocably damage the harbour. Some 16,000 people in a town with a population of less than 30,000 have signed a petition condemning the proposals put forward by the local authority.