So I find myself holidaying in Margate this year. I’m not really a beach person and Margate town centre actually looks like a more terrifying prospect than Weston-Super-Mare, so I have a quick look at the map to see what’s around these here parts. A few castles look like they’ll fill a couple of days but then I spot that Whitstable is but a short drive away. Why do I think I want to go there? Something in the back of my mind about Whitstable; I know that I know something about this place. A fine maritime heritage and world famous oysters? That’s not it. Peter Cushing. That’s it! Peter Cushing used to live there. In fact, I’m sure I remember seeing a programme about him sitting in the tea rooms and the opening of a dedicated Peter Cushing Museum shortly after his death. Now there’s a place I want to visit. Google doesn’t reveal much other than a website for a ‘Peter Cushing Museum & Association’ that hasn’t been updated since 2004. Well I’m unlikely to find myself in the Whitstable vicinity too often so I pack the family in the car and head down the A299.
Canterbury City Council’s website tells me that there is some kind of museum in Oxford Street. Assuming they’ll know all there is to know, I set off in search of Peter. But as we walk through the centre of Whitstable I get a tingling feeling like someone is watching me and I stop in my tracks. My family ask me why I’ve stopped but I hush them. Something is here; something big. My eyes track slowly and instinctively to the left. I feel like the lookout on the Titanic as I gaze upwards at the huge white and brick building before me. ‘The Peter Cushing’ stares back. Looks like we have a pub; a cinema conversion, by the looks of it.
‘He’s close’, I whisper.
‘Can we just find this bloody museum you want to go to?’ my wife says with an admirable absence of irritation.
‘To The Whitstable Museum and Art Gallery,’ I announce decisively.
The next ten or fifteen minutes are spent trying to cross Whitstable’s surprisingly busy main street. On the other side we find the arched entrance of the museum down an almost hidden alley way. Entering the Tardis-like building I admit to the lovely Erica on reception that I’m not a local resident and cough up the £3 each entrance fee for me and my wife (children free) and take a look around. The main room is dominated by a mid-nineteenth century fire-pump and some antique diving gear, but on my way to the excellent shed exhibition in the back room (the ‘men and their sheds’ photos really are inspiring) I find a rather underwhelming corner with a display cabinet and a few photos. This, it would appear, is their Peter Cushing exhibit. The cabinet contains some of Peter’s possessions as well as some of his artwork while the photos include Peter in one of the Dalek movies along with a shot of him as Grand Moff Tarkin with Darth Vader and General Taggi (or is it Tagge?). The photo’s label tells us that ‘Don Henderson?’ played ‘General Tazzi?’ (they include the question marks) and seems to indicate that whoever set this up had never heard of IMDb. But it does also mention the old anecdote that Peter Cushing found Tarkin’s boots uncomfortable so was shot mainly from the waist up while wearing a pair of his favourite slippers. The thought that the destruction of Alderaan was carried out by a man in comfy footwear has always fascinated and confused many Star Wars scholars.
Disappointed, I go back to Erica to see if she knows anything of the Peter Cushing Museum I remembered from the telly. Always helpful, Erica starts to Google it on her PC but comes up with no more than I did. It must have been incorporated into this place, she tells me.
‘Of course, there used to be a tour’, she adds.
‘A tour? I would have loved to have gone on that’, I respond miserably.
‘But you still can’, Erica beams while pointing behind me. I turn and there on a shelf is a dog-eared and slightly discoloured leaflet with a picture of Peter Cushing frolicking in the sea. It is entitled ‘Peter Cushing’s Whitstable: An Illustrated Tour’. Hang on a minute, I think we’re getting somewhere.
A glance reveals a map with key locations in Peter’s life: His house, his corner shop, where he bought his clothes. The trail is sponsored by The Tudor Tea Rooms that I’d heard Peter used to hang at. It’s priced £2 but it’s been reduced (in biro) to £1.
‘Family’, I say with paternal authority, ‘we’re going on a walk.’
I pay Erica the £1 with the realisation that I’m now £7 out of pocket and no closer to finding Peter Cushing and lead my family out the door with various mutterings of ‘where now?’ and ‘can we stop for ice cream?’ rumbling behind me.
A few streets away is our first stop: Keeler’s. This was Peter’s nearest shop where he bought his daily paper and once, so the leaflet tells me, a box of Black Magic chocolates for his beloved wife Helen. He even asked for them to take the price off. I always knew Peter would be classy like that. Except that Keeler’s is no more. More disappointment as we discover that it is now ‘Windy Corner Stores’. How old is this leaflet? Looks like you can sit outside with a pot of tea but that’s not what I came for. I dismiss further suggestions of ice cream and lead us straight to what should be the heart of this trip: Wave Crest Marine Terrace where, facing the sea, we should find No. 3 Seaway Cottages, the actual home of Peter Cushing.
With some trepidation we make our way along the terrace where I spy a couple of tourists taking pictures of a house with a blue plaque. This looks like the place and I immediately follow suit with my own camera. I try to take in the atmosphere but actually I’m just thinking the place could do with a lick of paint. The enormous bush in the front garden appears to be a statement of sorts and suggests that the current residents are pretty fed up with tourists taking pictures of their home. One can imagine arising semi-naked in the morning and throwing open the windows to embrace the North Sea views only to be confronted with hoards of gawping snappers. Beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable, I quickly take another picture or five before leading my bored clan along the beach to the next stop.
After a quick detour to the cottage Peter and Helen visited before moving to Whitstable (fairly underwhelming after just seeing their house – whoever wrote this guide has no sense of heightening tension) we eventually reach ‘Cushing’s View’ where we take turns posing in the bench Peter donated to the town. Apparently it’s made from beach groynes but, as cool as I point this out to be, the calls for ice cream are becoming overwhelming. Venturing closer to the harbour we find an appropriate hut dispensing cornets of frozen dairy products and, with the family engorging themselves, I sneak off for a crafty roll-up and a bit of a look around. The smell of fish is becoming strong as I find a restaurant with stacks of oyster shells outside and my thoughts turn to seafood. Could I get to dine in one of these many fishy eateries? Fat chance, I suspect but worth looking out for a bit of opportunism.
With my stomach rumbling I eventually get the family to migrate in the direction of the harbour where, we are told, Peter would spend many a happy hour painting. I seem to remember there was a picture by him back at the museum so we are at least getting some idea of how he passed the time. Actually it’s rather poignant; Peter had been devastated by the loss of his wife in 1971 and never truly got over it. The idea of him painting here to fill his days (when he wasn’t working) makes me question just how happy the hours that he spent here among the fishing nets and other paraphernalia of a working harbour really were. But it also forms a romantic picture of Peter as a man from another age. Of course he spent his time painting; can you really imagine him doing anything else?
Another thing that the harbour tells me is that, unlike most of my family, Peter obviously wasn’t a man to be disturbed by the smell of fish which, it must be said, is pretty overwhelming around here.
‘Phwoar! It stinks.’
‘Let’s get out of here.’
Actually, it’s just making me think of a seafood stop-off somewhere but it looks like I’d better get them moving again. I take a few pictures of multi-coloured nets (everyone likes pictures of coloured nets – where would the British postcard market be without them?) and head back to the other end of Whitstable’s main street where the map indicates a plethora of Cushing-related places of interest. I’m not sure if I should be that awed by the funeral directors who dealt with Peter’s funeral, but they are next door to the sponsors of this little expedition, The Tudor Tea Rooms. Now this would be something; having a cream tea in perhaps the very spot where Peter did. I’m actually getting goose-bumps at the thought and my wife (who likes a cream tea) is suddenly very approving of our next expected stop. Unfortunately, we’re holidaying in Britain and the tea rooms are inevitably shut. Being Britain there are no clues as to the reason for this; opening hours are nowhere to be seen on the door. Did Peter have this problem? I’m sure he would have taken it in good grace if he did so I attempt to do the same and keep my mutterings largely under my breath while taking a couple of pictures through the window. I have since found on the back of the leaflet that they close on Wednesdays. Of course they do.
If I’m going to really find Peter, all that’s left are his church a bit further up the road and a series of locations where Peter did his shopping. As I’m not a religious person and don’t see anything particularly spiritual about shopping (although I suspect my wife does), my confidence is not high that we are going to get close to the soul of Peter Cushing on this trip. Nevertheless, the idea of popping into Hatchard’s to browse the caps and cravats that summed up Peter’s style is very nearly exciting if that’s what floats your boat. I’m pondering whether I could buy a cravat like his as I approach its location only to discover that it has been turned into a Costa. It could have been worse, I suppose; at least it isn’t a Starbucks. The prospect of Peter’s greengrocer (the guide tells me he liked simple meals) is not getting my pulse racing and I’m on the verge of abandoning the whole project as it starts to rain and my son starts to complain that it’s time we went somewhere else. Is this the moment to bring up seafood restaurants?
Just across the road I spy Woolley’s the shoe shop. As my family pop into a newsagent for some postcards I try for one last attempt of capturing the spirit of Peter.
I walk in to find the kind of place that I remember from my childhood; the walls are endless shelves of old fashioned shoe boxes. Memories of my mother forcing me into crippling school footwear while checking the amount of space left for my toes have to grow come flooding back. Brushing such disturbing thoughts aside, I see a row of seats with those angled bits to put your foot on. You just don’t see those anymore. A woman appears from a door at the back of the shop and asks if she can help me.
‘Have you worked here long?’ I ask.
‘I’ve lived here all my life,’ which is not quite what I wanted to know. ‘Why?’
I explain what I’m doing here and even venture that I was thinking of writing a piece on it.
‘I’m Frances Woolley’, she explains. ‘Yes, Peter used to come in here all the time.’
‘You served him?’
‘Yes, of course. He was a lovely man.’
I’m actually speaking to someone who sold Peter Cushing his shoes. My heart beats just a little bit faster. What do you ask at a time like this?
‘What sort of shoes did he like?’ Brilliant. That’s the insightfulness of a man at the top of his game.
‘Nice shoes.’ Frances may be attempting to outdo me with her answers here.
‘Smart shoes?’ The Pulitzer Prize will surely have my name on it this year.
‘Oh yes, Peter always wore smart shoes.’ Of course he did.
Then I remember the story of Grand Moff Tarkin’s slippers. I quickly recount it to Francis.
‘Peter bought all his slippers here,’ she responds.
All his slippers? Did I hear that right?
‘You sold Peter Cushing all his slippers?’ I ask, seeking clarification before I jump to any conclusions.
‘So you sold him the slippers that he wore when he destroyed Alderaan?’
Frances has the look of a woman who is vaguely concerned that I’m trapping her into an admission of involvement in imperial war crimes. ‘Er, yes. I suppose I must have.’
At this point my son comes into the shop in decidedly impatient mood. ‘Come on, Dad. It’s time you were leaving now.’
‘But this lady sold Grand Moff Tarkin his shoes!’
My son looks mildly interested, if a little puzzled, but there is more pity for me in his eyes than anything else. ‘Come on, Dad. Time to go,’ he says taking my hand and pulling me towards the door with more force than I thought an eight-year old could muster.
Outside my wife is waiting and my family usher me along in the general direction of where we parked the car. ‘How did you get on in the shoe shop?’ She asks kindly. ‘You were longer than we expected.’
‘Well I’m not sure I found the soul of Peter Cushing, but I think I did find the sole of Peter Cushing.’
I assure her that it will probably make more sense on paper.
John did not manage to get to a seafood restaurant that day. However, he did get some very nice monkfish later in the week, even if the lemon sauce was a little tart for his tastes.