The growth of central Whitstable preceded the birth of the motor car and as a result there may always be a conflict between the car and our town centre. Most readers, and indeed many visitors, will be familiar with the location of our present car parks, but if they were not planned with the roads, then how did they come about?
It might surprise new residents that nature and war had a part in their origins. In Middle Wall, there were once houses facing the road where the car park is now. These were undermined during the floods of 1953.
The smaller car parks off Victoria and Albert Streets were built on land that was originally housing, but many of these were destroyed in 1941, not by floods, but by the Luftwaffe. Whitstable itself was not a target for bombing but perhaps a convenient spot for a pilot to release a remaining bomb on board that he should have dropped on London. That night, 11th October, three residents died and many more were injured. It was also the first time that the Morrison indoor table shelter was credited with saving lives. After the war the Victoria flats were built and during the implementation of the Conservation Area in the 1970’s the car parks were laid out.
One of our other car parks, Keam’s Yard, off Island Wall, is built on the site of an old boat yard from where a slipway led down to the sea.
The building of the largest of our car parks, the Gorrell car park opposite the Harbour, and arguable the one that has done the most to encourage visitors to the town, also has a history born of nature.
When the Canterbury to Whitstable railway was built the line would have crossed the estuary of the Gorrell stream on damp unstable land, so the stream was diverted to a reservoir, known then as the Backwater. The stream, together with rain water drainage would fill the reservoir whilst the tide was in. When the tide was out the water would be released into the newly built harbour, emptying the reservoir and keeping the harbour channel clear which minimised the need for regular dredging.
Unfortunately there were times, such as in 1897 and 1953, when weather conditions were such that the reservoir could not be emptied and it added to the flooding of the town. Many times during the late 1960’s fire engines had to pump out some of the water in the reservoir when it threatened to flood.
In the early 1970’s the present covered tank and the pumping station were built so that excess water could be pumped out at any time. It’s not the prettiest construction, but at least it stops potential flooding – when it’s working. It wasn’t universally accepted at first by residents. The Whitstable Times published a picture of it a year later showing a single parked car, simply titled “White Elephant?” Now from Easter to December, if the sun is shining, it’s difficult to find a space in it at weekends.
There was a plan that included a new 600 space car park, exhibited during the 1975 debate over the Whitstable sea defences. It was to have been situated in front of Wave Crest and West Beach, to one end of a proposed small boat marina, complete with a 26’ sea wall. Access would have been from Nelson Road and a widened Island Wall, resulting in the destruction of many old cottages.
This was one of two plans thrown out by the Public Enquiry. Since then, the less obtrusive method of maintaining groyne integrity and building up the beaches has kept us safe without needing a ladder to see the sea!