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Peter Cushing used to live in Whitstable

download (3)So goes the song by The Jellybottys, and that’s exactly where he lived – when not hammering stakes into vampires, travelling through time and space, journeying to the centre of the earth or ensuring a certain Death Star was fully operational.

Hammer and all round film and horror buff, Alex Norman, stumbles across the village that never forgot Peter Cushing.

Who knew that a day trip to the south east coast could end up as a walk in the footsteps of a celebrated legendary British actor?

Located on the north coast of Kent in south-east England, Whitstable has a population of roughly 32,000 and is famous for its oysters and historical landmarks such as the castle and Black Mill.

Its coast is lined with a mixture of shingle and sandy beaches and the scorching hot day sees many sunbathers, swimmers and water sports enthusiasts taking advantage. A jet ski has just arrived and is being carefully released into the water.

If you look out to sea, off the coast, you can see a windfarm consisting of 30 wind turbines which power 70,000 households and even further out, roughly nine miles, you can make out small black forms of the Maunsell Sea FortMaunsell sea-fort, armed towers built during the Second World War to help defend UK shores. A close-up photo of them is being sold in the marina market and, to me, they resemble the AT-AT combat walkers first seen The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

download (2)Little was I to know that it was the home of Grand Moff Tarkin, and no doubt his slippers. As we walk along the seafront promenade past the Neptune Pub where Peter O’Toole filmed scenes for Venus (2006), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and past the stylish holiday cottages and terraced townhouses, we find ourselves on a pathway called Cushing’s Walk, a highly sought-after stretch of real estate offering perfect sea views with the beach literally on the doorstep.

What’s this we see? One of the houses has an English Heritage blue plaque and a tingle of excitement ripples through me – who could have lived here? As I move closer and my eyes refocus, I see that it reads:

PETER CUSHING O.B.E.
1913-1994
ACTOR
lived here
1959-1994

‘Cushing’s Walk’ is named after THE Peter Cushing, star of Hammer Horror, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Who and, of course, Star Wars.

My tenuous Star Wars analogy now seems quite fitting. He only appeared in the original 1977 classic but was somewhat controversially resurrected For the 2016 prequel, Rogue One.

homeCushing first visited Whitstable a long time ago…in the 1940s, and in 1958, bought this very house, initially for weekend use, and then as a retirement home, until his death in 1994. Cushing and his wife, Helen, loved Whitstable and the townspeople clearly took to them.

Cushing is probably best known his prolific work during the 50s, 60s and 70s in the Hammer horror films, alongside good friend (or should that be fiend?) Christopher Lee, particularly his portrayals of Baron Victor Frankenstein and Professor Van Helsing.

He also played Sherlock Holmes many times, originally in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskerville’s (1959). This was followed by 16 episodes of the BBC series of which only six episodes have survived.

Cushing even played Dr Who in two films (Dr. Who and the Daleks – alongside Roy Castle – and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. – this time with Bernard Cribbins) based on the BBC science-fiction TV series Doctor Who, although the films are not considered part of the show’s official canon. And he’d end his film career dabbling with time travel in his final screen performance in Biggles (1986).

The plan for the rest of the day was decided – to find out as much about Cushing and his time here in Whitstable before we head back home to the opposite side of the Estuary.

Museum

The Whitstable Museum (quite rightly) has a section dedicated to the actor and although it’s a little tired and features a skew-whiff portrait of Cushing as Sherlock, there’s no doubting the high regard Whitstable has for this man. The remains of a half-smoked cigarette sits in a glass cabinet, supposedly Cushing’s final smoke – apparently he would wear a white smoking glove so he didn’t stain his fingers.

A volunteer at the museum was genuinely delighted that we were so interested in Cushing, having gotten so used to the younger generation’s complete lack of knowledge as to who he was! She tells us she used to go swimming at the local pool and would often see Cushing doing his laps. She also said that Cushing was a very quiet and gentle man who fitted right in with the locals, no ego or pretence. She then mentions the pub across the road, a must-see for fans of the great man.

The pub

pub3A black plaque out front says the building is the former Oxford cinema which first opened its doors on 27 July 1936. It was built around the Oxford Picture Hall, which itself, opened in 1912 in what had been the Oxford ‘concert and music hall’.

J.D. Wetherspoon took over the building in 2011 and transformed it into an art deco palace whilst retaining the essence of the original incarnation. The foyer is wonderfully preserved and its centrepiece is an original cinema projector. The walls are adorned with film posters and film cans of many of Cushing’s films such as Dracula, The Hound of the Baskervilles as well as other British favourites such as Carry on Sergeant, Hitchcock’s Stage Fright and Carry on Cruising.

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The main drinking hall is majestically presided over at the bar end by a huge black and white print of Cushing and Robert Urquhart in Hammer’s 1957 production of The Curse of Frankenstein. Some of Cushing’s original paintings also grace the walls, celebrating another of his talents.

Antique shop

Geoff Lauren antiquesWe were hoping to meet some local elders who may have met the great man and it was then that we spotted, on Harbour Street, the quirky yet enticing Geoff Laurens Antiques. Inside there’s barely room to swing a cat (perhaps one from The Uncanny) and Mr Laurens himself sits in his favourite chair deep inside his store and greets us with a warm welcome.

Geoff-LaurensGeoff has been trading in Whitstable since 1970, the same year as Scream and Scream Again, and whereas others antique stores have come and gone, Geoff continues do business.  If anyone crossed paths with Cushing, then surely it was Geoff? So I asked him and was pleased when Geoff said: “Oh yes, of course. He used to come in here all the time.  On some days when it rained, I would drive him back home. You know, just up the street is his favourite tea rooms.”

Tea room

Tudor Tea RoomsIndeed, we pop into the Tudor Tea Rooms and Cushing’s favourite table now features a touching tribute alongside a photo of him in his later years.  The message reads: ‘In loving memory of our dear Peter Cushing. A sadly missed family friend’. The shop was closing up for the day so we didn’t have time for a cuppa.

We decided to finish our tour by going back to Cushing’s Walk on the seafront promenade.  With the sun sizzling, the Neptune Pub beer garden heaving and the oyster bars packed – it was clear to see why Cushing decided to retire in this town as opposed to his previous address in London. It has a real timeless feel about it, just like the man and his movies. So it is fitting that he is remembered so vividly and prominently, almost 20 years since he died.

Tudor Tea Rooms1They don’t make actors like Peter Cushing anymore, so it is great to see Whitstable continue to honour its adopted son, an acting legend. But then actors like Peter Cushing never really die…

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