With the exception of a couple of years in County Cork, all my summer holidays between the ages of 10 and 18 were spent in and around the once fashionable seaside resort of Folkestone in Kent, on the southeastern coast of England, a handful of miles from the fabled White Cliffs of Dover.
Although there was only one small, and invariably packed, patch of sandy beach along its lengthy seafront (most was pebble and shingle), the magnificent Rotunda amusement arcade, fringed by fairground rides, putting green and boating lake, kept this young boy and his cousins handsomely entertained for two weeks.
And if, in the unlikely event we got bored, there was county cricket at the Cheriton and a testing pitch and putt golf course on the windswept cliffs overlooking the small but bustling harbour, where plates of fresh cockles and whelks were in abundant supply. Finally, there was a daily ferry service to Boulogne in Northern France, though my recollections of a youthful life on the ocean wave have more to do with leaning over the side of the boat than tucking into a full English breakfast in the café.
Folkestone may not have enjoyed the cheeky, “kiss me quick” ambience of Margate or Southend, but I loved its quieter, more refined atmosphere, and have much affection for it still. My parents even spoke on occasion of retiring to the resort but, sadly, it never happened.
The past forty years have seen the town, in common with many other resorts around the British coastline, decline dramatically as a holiday destination as people have taken advantage of greater leisure time and resources to travel further afield. The rotunda and surrounding attractions have been demolished, the lively, cobbled Old High Street that winds up to the modern town centre fallen into disrepair and many of the businesses dependent upon holidaymakers closed.
Gone are the shops selling postcards, beach balls and buckets and spades. Gone are the traditional tea rooms and fish and chip restaurants. And gone is the shop with the big picture window through which children and adults alike gaped in awe at sticks of Folkestone rock being made.
But there are signs that Folkestone is beginning to stir again. The Old High Street has undergone a makeover. One of a kind gift shops, artisanal food stores and galleries have emerged in recent years, along with a burgeoning artistic community. A handful of attractive restaurants have sprung up around town and extensive investment has been forthcoming. There may no longer be any cross-channel services, but the town’s accessibility from London and the rest of Kent has been enhanced by the arrival of a high speed rail service.
The jewel in Folkestone’s crown remains the Leas, once described as “indisputably the finest marine promenade in the world”, a wide clifftop walk with well tended flower beds and glorious views across the channel. On a clear day, you can almost pick out individual buildings on the French coast as you head towards the neighbouring resort of Sandgate. Imposing old hotels speak of the resort’s former glory, no more so than the Grand and Metropole, though some are now holiday apartments.
Despite the loss of the ferry service and crazy golf course, as well as the diminution in the fishing trade, the pretty little harbour and adjoining Stade with its seafood stalls still retain some of the atmosphere that first captivated me fifty years ago.
The arrival of the Turner Contemporary, projected rebirth of Dreamland and high profile exposure on television have given Margate a disproportionate amount of attention in recent years. And that really ought to bear fruit in time. Broadstairs and Whitstable, with their attraction for more affluent Londoners, are already bucking the trend of decline.
But the Guardian newspaper’s recent rating of Folkestone as one of the world’s best holiday destinations in 2014 may serve to redress the balance somewhat. Those heady days of the past will never return, but Folkestone is showing signs that it may have a future.
Now, if they could only rebuild the Rotunda and resume playing county cricket there ………….