One of these days I might manage to walk past this place.
But it’s not likely to be anytime soon.
For a start, you can’t miss it. The attractive magenta, cyan and yellow (you can tell I use Epson printer cartridges) frontage in itself will cause all but the most rushed tourist or day tripper to stop momentarily, smile and ponder whether they should while away an hour inside.
Ready for the Big Switch On!
The huge picture window of the upper (magenta) level of this independent coffee house near the top of the Old High Street in Folkestone allows that unsuspecting passer by to peer more closely at the interior, and marvel at the walls crammed with books of all ages and sizes. They will also observe the VIPs among the clientele who have snagged the settee and armchair in that window. Despite the fact that many complain that they feel in a goldfish bowl once they are ensconced there, they are never in a hurry to vacate the space, and when they do, there is always a civilised clamour to assume residency.
And after all, it is the best people watching spot in Folkestone!
The scholarly feel continues when you place your order with the welcoming staff. You become temporary custodian of part of the book collection with a number on the cover to identify your order, a twist on the ubiquitous wooden spoon. This morning I am handed a copy of The Faithless Lover and other Poems by Leonard Ley – no intended reflection, I’m sure, on my character, but, nonetheless, I shall move swiftly on.
I take my seat at the small table behind the settee. This is the best place to write as it provides an element of privacy and just enough space for laptop, phone, coffee and plate. And there is a tasteful lamp for reading purposes and the beautiful double-sided screen made exclusively for Steep Street by Zimbabwean born local artist Thurle Wright to stare at for inspiration and worth the visit alone – perfect.
I await my ethnically sourced cappuccino and brie, parmesan and tomato quiche, just one scrumptious item on a menu that includes the most luscious cakes as well as tasty paninis, salads and sandwiches, all prepared, baked and cooked on the premises. There are plenty of vegan options too.
I spot a small girl, maybe three years old, dressed head to toe in pink, hurtling excitedly down the cobbled hill, while her frantic father strains to grasp her hand before she rolls down into the harbour. Should he fail, I am at least reassured that it is low tide at the moment.
Civilised, animated conversation is another attractive feature of life at Steep Street, and today is no different as it reverberates around the split level layout. Leonard Cohen’s untimely death, announced earlier this morning, vies with Trump, Brexit and the imminent new series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (I made this last one up) as the main topics of discourse. All is calm and unhurried. Even the background music (Paul Simon as I write this) is soulful and unobtrusive.
A bedraggled mutt (I think he must have been for an early morning dip in the Pent Stream) sidles up to me and engages in a couple of minutes’ foreplay that entails the licking of hands and coyly turning its head away when I try to stroke it, before settling at my feet and catching the crumbs of my quiche as they – accidentally on purpose – escape from my plate.
Gates of Paradise!
Spotting the Grateful Dead lightning bolt and teddy bear stickers on my laptop, his owner begins to reminisce (as far as he can remember) about his involvement with the Deadhead community in the U.S. in the eighties. This leads to a conversation about his attempts to bring traditional Irish music to the town. We debate the respective merits as venues of the Leas Cliff Hall, with whom he already has a meeting arranged, and the Quarterhouse on Tontine Street. I assure him that there is an audience within Kent and recommend the latter as the more appropriate (and crucially smaller) venue.
On his departure, his place at the adjoining table is taken by the Member of Parliament for Folkestone and Hythe, Damian Collins, whom I had only come across the previous day at the Folkestone Jobs Fair. I introduce myself as one of his new constituents and exchange a few words about the recently launched business hub on West Terrace.
As a fellow devotee of Steep Street the man clearly has some taste, and his campaigning for Remain in the EU Referendum endears him to me still further.
But I wouldn’t vote for him.
A young couple with extensive facial piercings sit at the corner table and extract their laptops from their satchels, rendering the upper level a scene from an Apple interns’ breakout room. Or at least it would if Mr Collins, and especially I, didn’t double the average age.
A great study space
As I stand and rummage in my trouser pockets for £2.60 for another cappuccino, one of the young women serving behind the counter informs me (and the customers around me) that the man that I had been talking to previously had, on leaving the cafe, paid for a large drink for me. I am delighted and humbled by the gesture, or at least I would be if I weren’t so darn embarrassed too.
The charming owners, Stephen and Alice, are committed supporters of the upcoming Folkestone Book Festival, sponsoring illustration, flash fiction and “short and tweet” competitions, as well as publishing a magazine containing the best five entries in each category. During the event itself, they are hosting creative writing and poetry workshops. In many ways they will be the epicentre of the entire festival.
Steep Street’s reputation as literary linchpin of a town increasingly defined by its artistic offering (the next internationally celebrated Triennial is scheduled for next year), is enhanced by the provision of “blackboard” tables upon which customers, primarily, but not exclusively of the milkshake rather than flat white persuasion, can chalk their own artworks.
A rare opportunity to nab the best people watching seats!
The same pink-spattered child observed earlier had thankfully avoided a watery, or rather muddy, grave following her hair raising downhill run on the cobbles, courtesy of a relieved Daddy carrying her back up the hill. In celebration, she tips the tumbler of coloured crayons on the table and sets to work.
Witnessing the resulting, naturally pink (or is it magenta?), Christmas tree exposes my own artistic shortcomings and I resolve to offer to pay a surcharge next time I’m obliged to sit at that table. My signature art piece since the age of three, and still serving me well / ill (delete as appropriate) are matchstick men and women wearing top hats, and in the case of the latter, the additional, creative touch of equilateral triangle shaped skirts.
My book is in there somewhere!
The self-styled Folkestone Poet stands stoically in his accustomed spot outside the Big Boys Fine Burger Co. restaurant directly opposite Steep Street. His sales technique entails whispering to passers by while waving three copies of his verse collections gently in the air, hardly likely to secure him a retail job, but quietly appropriate for his role in the town’s life . Most of those who stop tend to smile sheepishly and scurry off without making a purchase, deterred by a combination of price and content, but I find his work refreshingly direct, full of gallows humour and the most idiosyncratic spelling. And there are occasional flashes of heart rending poignancy.
My incipient bromance with Damian Collins attains a new level of intimacy as he buys a copy, though a cynical fellow patron speculates loudly whether he will claim the £3 back on his parliamentary expenses.
Oh ye of little faith.
But he could be right.
Regardless, I think he’s a “top bloke”.
But I still wouldn’t vote for him.
After two large cappuccinos and a (small) bottle of Pinot Grigio, I resolve to take advantage of the fast improving weather outside and drag myself away. My decision is rendered even easier by the arrival of three young mothers with babies and associated paraphernalia who pounce on the settee / armchair combination in the window vacated by an elderly couple and begin to spread out.
It may be a long time before those coveted seats become available again.
Stephen and Alice
My final duty is to adjudicate among two middle aged ladies who cannot decide which of the enticing cakes adorning the counter they should indulge in. After some discussion about the relative merits of the blueberry vanilla sponge and raspberry and chocolate cake, they take my advice and plump for the lemon cheesecake, which, judging by the moaning and smacking of lips I hear as I open the door to leave, has been one of my better decisions.
If you live in or near Folkestone, are a young mum, aspiring writer or lady that lunches (other socio-economic groups are available), and have not tottered down the Old High Street in the past year, you are missing a treat.