Published: 05:00, 09 October 2021
But the town has had a renaissance. Long-standing eyesores have been stripped from its seafront, trendy restaurants have opened their doors and developers have muscled into the area.
Residents are even trading their lives in Whitstable for the Bay, preferring its quieter streets and cheaper homes. They’re joining the throngs of Londoners buying up on the coast.
“It was ‘Hernia Bay’. It was seen as a place you wouldn’t go to because there was nothing to do. It was rundown,” says local councillor Joe Howes.
“You’ll struggle to see a town grow so quickly. There are very few empty shops now, we have lots of developments taking place – there are so many things happening.
“We moved from Whitstable to Herne Bay 21 years ago. Our family was growing and we lived in a terraced house that just wasn’t big enough for us.
“We were in a bidding war with a family from London, and they were making the move for the same reason we did – you get more for your money. It has better housing, a better choice of schools, a stronger community.”
Herne Bay's enhanced reputation has contributed to a spike in property sales that has seen almost 2,800 homes change hands in the last five years – 350 more than in Whitstable. Average prices have shot up, too, by more than 13%, according to Zoopla.
Stats from Google show the town has also been the subject of more property web searches than either Whitstable or Margate. Meanwhile, council chiefs are set to add almost 100 further beach huts to the coastline in Hampton and Beltinge in a bid to capitalise on the swelling numbers of day-trippers to the area.
Town estate agents are receiving more enquiries from families looking to move to the coast. Some even believe the experience of lockdown has contributed to this boom.
“As soon as agents were able to open again, there seemed to be this thought among buyers that they didn’t need to live 20 minutes from the office anymore,” explains Paul Clarke, the owner of David Clarke Estate Agents.
“I dealt with one gentleman recently who sold his property in London for £1.4 million. He came down here and bought the nicest property on a development for £675,000. It allows people to retire early or improve their lifestyles somewhat.”
However, this has also turned the thought of stepping onto the first wrung of the property ladder into a far-flung dream for many in the town. Cllr Howes says more couples are forced to live with their parents in order to save up for deposits.
Meanwhile, Mr Clarke has seen growing numbers outbid by deep-pocketed Londoners. He says the situation has forced some to turn their sights to Thanet.
“I think there will be some people squeezed out of the market and kind of forced into lower-priced areas,” he adds.
“There will always be those who will need to go somewhere that’s cheaper, or reduce their property expectations.”
Scaffolding and hoardings currently decorate part of the town's High Street. Once home to a bus depot, the site has been flattened and replaced with the shells of dozens of modern homes set to be completed in the new year.
Along the seafront, a former amusement has been transformed into a wood-panelled beach bar with a gym next door. A decrepit arcade a few doors down the road has been torn down, as restaurateur Mehmet Dari draws up plans to build a boutique hotel and rooftop bar in its place.
Three more prominent sites along the stretch are being primed for demolition. Further afield, massive plots in villages Herne, Beltinge and Greenhill have already been earmarked for a total of 3,000 homes. The town is set to be transformed.
When developer Stephen Jelley bought the bus depot site in 2019, he told KentOnline’s sister paper the Herne Bay Gazette: “The big developers are on the outskirts, when really the town centre needs some attention.
“Herne Bay’s buzzing and it’s good to see the change. Now that Whitstable’s topped out, Herne Bay’s the next candidate to go down the same route with regeneration.
“It’s the right area. All our market research says families are upsizing from South London to settle their families here and that they’re prepared to do the commute.”
Joining the new homes are shops, restaurants and cafes offering up items not previously seen in the Bay. Cllr Howes believes their addition has been “the most important and notable thing” contributing to the town’s rise.
Entrepreneur Hassan Hassan, who runs both branches of Makcari’s and the Captain Jacks bar in Central Parade, recalls there were just a handful of competitors in the area when he arrived 16 years ago. Now, he says the choice is endless.
“There’s a lot more independent coffee shops, things like that, which are good for the town,” the businessman says. “Previously, there were only about three of us – but now people probably have a choice of 20, 25 places to go to.
“In terms of evening restaurants, there were only a couple of Indians, and that was about it. We now have them as well as Chinese, a Mexican, A La Turka and Captain Jack’s on the front – it’s become more cosmopolitan.
“Whitstable is our main competitor. It’s become so crowded there that it’s difficult to park – you can end up driving around for hours looking for a space – and it’s difficult to get seating in bars and restaurants, so people come here.
“I think they have become a lot more aware of the town and what it has to offer. A lot more tourists are coming in and a lot more people are using the beaches.”
Among the new wave of café owners is Sherry Newton. She opened Toast, alongside business partner Alison Clarke, out of art gallery Beach Creative in 2018, having previously run a vegan retail hut on the pier.
Since launching the eatery, she has witnessed a steady rise in footfall in the area, which prompted her decision to increase the premises’ opening hours. But Ms Newton believes there is still room for the town to improve.
“When I was on the pier, people would often say ‘it’s so lovely – I thought people came here to die’. We just needed to show people there so much going on, and that it’s a great place to visit,” she reasons.
“When I was on the pier, people would often say ‘it’s so lovely..."
“Large-scale events like the past air shows brought people here, and then people started to discover there’s life here. People are so surprised when they get here that they plan to come back.
“We’re getting quite close to offering something for everybody. Things tend to peter out when the summer ends – it becomes a bit of a ghost town. We need more attractions for visitors and residents in the colder months. It all adds to create an atmosphere and buzz which I feel we need all year round.
“In some ways, it’s a bit of a hidden gem because it’s still being discovered. A lot of people might not have heard of it until you say ‘it’s right next to Whitstable’. It’s a town on the up with a lot of promise.”