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Archive for the ‘Kent’ Category


I know I must accept that you are gone,
But I will look for you in rain and snow,
Where pilgrims trod through Black Boy Alley,
Up Castle Hill and Minor Canon Row.

I still sense your warm breath upon my cheek
In College Yard, The Vines and Blue Boar Lane;
Each whispered female voice renders me weak,
And shock of dark brown hair inflames the pain.

Thick Medway mud mocks my unavailing search
And careless castle pigeons torment me,
But La Providence provides brief release
And no shortage of shops for books and tea.

I pass where Estella taunted poor Pip,
As bat and ball collide on King’s School field,
Reminder of what I loved most till you
Bowled me over and my devotion sealed.

I turn up Boley Hill by Northgate arch
For sanctuary under cool Catalpa tree,
Spreading its graceful arms on holy ground,
I sit down and let my mind roam free.

For one perfect moment I see your face,
Hear your voice, smell your hair and taste your mouth,
But it’s all a foolish afternoon dream
In cathedral doorway in Keats’ warm South.

When I wake, to adjoining gardens I go
Where sun shines bright and birds sing oh so sweet;
Yellow roses wave in warm, gentle breeze,
But there’s no one beside me on “our” seat.

I know I must accept that you are gone,
But I will look for you in rain and snow,
Where pilgrims trod through Black Boy Alley,
Up Boley Hill and Minor Canon Row.

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This is an adaptation, and considerable shortening, of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago.

 

Mermaid Beach at Dusk

On a night like this, the Cote d’Opale
Might as well be a thousand miles away.

It is a calm, quiet, otherworldly evening
After a dank, dreary December day;
Sky and sea present an ashen canvas.
Tonight it is impossible to tell
Where one ends and the other starts.

Despite slimy conditions underfoot,
I elect to descend from
The well-lit comfort of the Leas
To the chilly Channel seashore.

Barely a whisper from the surf tonight.
I cannot even hear Matthew Arnold’s
“Grating roar of pebbles
Which the waves draw back”,
So faint is nature’s melody this evening.

Across town, an artwork springs to mind,
Above Tontine Street’s old post office
Proclaims that heaven is a place
Where nothing ever happens.

Because nothing is happening tonight
In this desolate speck of paradise.

But then, everything is happening.

To the east, the lighthouse blinks
Through the thick, enfolding gloom;
A tuneless, abandoned church bell
Hangs silently suspended above
Where once stood rotunda, swimming pool,
Boating lake and fairground rides.

A dalmatian puppy snuffles among
The seaweed encrusted pebbles
On the dark shoreline, while its
Fretful owner punctures the peace
With impassioned and fruitless pleas
To follow her back across the beach,
To the refuge of her Range Rover.

A lone fisherman sets out his stall
For what appears a long night ahead,
Reminding me of all night sessions
With my teddy boy uncle fifty years ago,
On the shingle beach at Dungeness.

I wonder now why I ever went,
I was never interested in fishing!

Pastel hued beach chalets are now
Padlocked up for the winter,
Along with the Mermaids Cafe Bar,
Welcome pit stop on the promenade
From Folkestone to its upstart neighbours,
Sandgate, Seabrook and “posh” Hythe.

I defy anyone to assert that they
Do not like to be “beside the seaside”;
And I look forward to a first full summer
Season in my coastal home next year.

However, it is at moments like this,
With the cold, dark sea alone for company,
When enjoyment is such a feeble word
To evoke the effect of this magical place;
I can only equate it to a profound love,
Both infatuation and long term comfort.

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One of the iconic images of the great British seaside holiday of the fifties and sixties is of happy families playing beach cricket.  Everyone joined in, playing with children’s bats, balls and stumps that reduced fathers who fancied themselves as Dexter or Sobers to the same level of competence as their seven year old sons, non-sporting wives and even the family dog (when they were still allowed on the beach between May and September). Truly, we had “never had it so good”.

Sadly, the advent of the foreign package holiday, breakdown in traditional family structures and expansion of alternative leisure pursuits, all contrived to render such a scene virtually obsolete.  Over the past weekend, therefore, I embarked upon a one man (at least for now) campaign to revive this venerable but floundering tradition, pitching up on Ramsgate Main Sands with my wife at 2pm on Sunday for an impromptu game.

I say impromptu because my planning had left something to be desired – a brief glance at the tide times beforehand would have revealed that this was the worst time of the day to start.  Nevertheless, after twenty minutes inspecting the fast diminishing slither of sand along the bay, I found a strip that was marginally more playable than the Rose Bowl.  It quickly became clear, however, that if the game was to be remotely watchable, or attract other participants, it was pointless bowling anything other than full tosses because once the ball had pitched, it was firmly plugged into the sand.

“Sticky dog” wicket aside, it proved a batsman’s paradise as the leg side boundary shortened sharply with the onrushing scum brown tide, ensuring that the merest of flicks resulted in a boundary.  That said, the smacking of  my extra cover drives against the sea wall was more satisfying.  Frank Keating once wrote that Ian Botham played a net “as if he is on Weston-super-Mare beach and the tide is coming in fast”.  I’d like to think that if you substituted Broadstairs for Weston, that might accurately describe my batting on this day.

Public interest was negligible, evidenced by a succession of families, oblivious of the sacred nature of my work, plodding across the wicket at regular intervals.  It reminded me of my primary school football pitch which had a concrete public footpath running diagonally across it, constantly trodden by young mothers with prams during vital matches against our bitter rivals from the adjoining parishes of Luton, Delce and Arden.  Understandably, dribbling was a skill particularly valued at Glencoe Road.

But back to the summer game.

Human indifference was not mirrored in the reaction of the indigenous bird population. An improbable infield of gulls occupyied short square leg, silly mid on and extra cover loitered, more, I suspect, in anticipation of the next tasty titbit thrown up by the thrashing waves than hovering in hope of a bat pad.  Their noisy sledging would have done justice to any Australian test team in history. Eventually, with the wicket completely submerged, the players were forced to dash from the square to the nearest ice cream van.

Undaunted, I resumed my missionary work two days later with a game on the much larger and more suitable Viking Bay beach in Broadstairs.  Low tide was scheduled for 2.04pm but, conscious that the tide came in a lot quicker than it went out, I decided that play should get underway an hour earlier.

An early inspection of prospective wickets revealed not only a soft, dune-like sand texture inconducive to a meaningful contest, but also an unmanageable abundance of people, deckchairs, windbreaks and bouncy castles, along with the ubiquitous volleyball court, populated by hordes of young Latino youths, led me to cancel plans to play there.  However, we rounded the bend at the end of the beach to enter Louisa Bay which, a full hour before the scheduled start of play,  sported a vast expanse of dark, compacted sand. Only sporadic handfuls of spectators scattered around what would serve as the boundary.

My excitement was heightened by the sight of  TWO sets of wickets already pitched further along the beach.  This was promising.  Our game got underway and soon acted as a magnet for every bored child on the beach.  Questions such as “can I play?” and “can my brother / sister join in?” (only the absence of the suffix “mister” reminded me I had not been transported back to 1960) were music to my ears as I suddenly found I was setting fields for TEN kids of assorted ages and having to remember in what order they all batted and bowled to avert tantrums.

The majority displayed more willing than competence, all wanting to field at mid wicket for some unaccountable reason (maybe the proximity of the tea hut and toilets had something to do with that), but uncomplainingly hared after every ball, regardless of how far and in what direction it had been despatched.  Falling into a rock pool or getting entangled in the profusion of seaweed were no barriers to their enthusiasm.

On a more serious note, it was heartening to learn that you could still play an innocent game in public with a group of children that you had never met before, without being accused of wanting to take salacious photographs of or, worse still, interfere with, them.  In fact, the parents seemed content to allow them to play, even the mother who was called upon to console her ten year old when he retired hurt after being struck on the left thigh by one of my rising eighty mile per hour inswingers.

The most poignant moment arose when one small boy advised me, with evident pride, and in hushed tones, that the reason his brother was scoring so freely with quasi-classical strokeplay and bowling off a run up that appeared to start just to the left of the Goodwin Sands, was because “he PLAYS cricket”.

The game lasted nearly three hours, interrupted only by obligatory lunch and tea intervals, dictated more by my need for regular rest than by the tyranny of the clock.  Each succeeding resumption of play appeared to draw even more players until the relentless waves washed the wicket away completely.

So beach cricket is alive and flourishing in the cradle of the game, not quite the High Weald, but still in God’s own county.  It can be no coincidence that shortly after this pilgrimage, I moved to Folkestone which boasts one of the firmest wickets on the coast at Sunny Sands.

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I was born with cricket in my blood. My father was an enthusiastic if modest club performer who played for a team that, where once it had consisted largely of doctors from the local hospital from which it derived its name, and had been one of the strongest in the Medway area, had declined by the early sixties into a dad’s army of clerks, TV repair men and shipwrights (not to denigrate those trades but rather to demonstrate the disconnection over time from the medical profession).

My father’s skills were confined to a stubborn resistance to giving his wicket away easily (though, despite himself, he invariably did), and an aptitude for both pocketing slip catches himself, and occasionally by redirecting the ball from his commodious stomach into the hands of more agile teammates in the vicinity.

The team was my extended family – every player was an “uncle”, though not in the biological sense of the word, and I revered them, despite their limitations on the field. At the age of ten I graduated from mascot and scoreboard operator to become its official scorer. I fulfilled this role for the next five years, spending summer afternoons in cramped, rotting wooden sheds, invariably sat alongside grizzled, gap-toothed septuagenarians with a life long chain smoking habit.

But I loved it.

It wasn’t just the game that captured my young heart, but the environment surrounding it – the rickety double decker bus journeys through the Kent countryside, the team being forced to change on the bus if it was behind time, the sing-songs on the journey back (my party piece for some reason was Wouldn’t It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady) and the regular stops at pubs such as the Chequers at Loose and the Five Bells in Snodland. “Home” games at the Civil Service Sports Ground and Langton Playing Fields in Gillingham did not generate the same romance but were, nonetheless, events to be savoured. And then there was Tuesday night net practice, when I spent two hours building up a fearful sweat scurrying to retrieve balls that had been clubbed hither and thither (funny how they never managed it at weekends), was bliss.

At fifteen I made my own “first class” debut at Blue House Marden, a short walk from the Stile Bridge Inn and, “batting” at number eleven, notched a magisterial 0 not out in the customary crushing defeat. My other memory of that game was landing in a jungle of nettles, vainly chasing an edge down to third man. I could not sit down at school for the next three days.

And then there was the county side, on the cusp of its glory years of the seventies. Club commitments limited our outings to the Nevill, Garrison, Mote, Crabble, St Lawrence and Bat and Ball grounds, but my father and I managed a handful of days each season, courtesy of his Association of Kent Cricket Clubs pass.

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My greatest thrill came when our annual holiday to Folkestone in August coincided with the traditional Cricket Week. My parents would deposit me at the Cheriton Ground around ten o’clock in the morning and went off for a day of beach, bingo and Bobby’s shopping, allowing me to indulge in my busman’s holiday of scoring every ball of both matches and haring after Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood for their autographs as they left the field at lunch, tea and close. It was an era when, aside from newspaper photographs and occasionally black and white television coverage, we only saw our sporting idols “in the flesh” – yet they were more accessible for that.

Of course, I was playing cricket too at school, on both playground concrete and playing field grass. At Glencoe Road primary school I was the proud custodian of the chalk required to repaint the wicket on the wall at each break, lunchtime and long after the bell sounded to send us home. The only spectator sport that could compare were the regular fights outside the school gates at home time.

Although, unlike football, we did not play against other schools, I opened the batting in games at the Maidstone Road recreation ground in Chatham. My finest cricketing hour in those pre-eleven plus days was, however, imbued with tragedy when having, like Hutton at the Oval in 1948, carried my bat in a pathetically low team total, I arrived home to be informed by my mother that my pet dog, Patch, had been put down. I suppose the events of that afternoon taught me the value of treating those “twin imposters” of triumph and disaster equally.

Moving to Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School I was converted in my first year from an opening bat into a medium quick (for a twelve year old) bowler with a capacity for late swing – an pubescent Jimmy Anderson if you like. After flirting with the styles of Fred Trueman, Wes Hall and the mercurial Alan Brown, I began to model both my bowling action and fielding demeanour, if not my batting, which suffered in the process, on the mighty John Shepherd (though there was still the occasional Wes Hall whirl of the arms for variety).

My school had always been strong at cricket, competing successfully with teams from the Judd School, Skinner’s, King’s School Rochester and Dartford and Maidstone Grammar Schools to name but a few. At under twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen levels I was a prolific wicket taker, with regular six and seven wicket hauls. My proudest moment, and I suspect my father’s too, was when he slipped away from work early in London one evening to watch me play for the under fourteens against Chatham South Technical School. I took eight wickets for three runs in eight overs and we won by ten wickets. I don’t recall him coming again – perhaps he just wanted to cherish that moment always.

The most publicly acclaimed performance was seven for fifteen against Faversham Grammar School. The school headmaster, a fine club cricketer himself for, I believe, Linton Park, who umpired a number of the age group games, announced at the school assembly on the following Monday morning that my spell had been the finest he had ever witnessed by a schoolboy of my age.

My exploits caught the eye of the Kent under fifteen selectors and I played in a handful of trial games, including the final eliminator for the county team. Playing for East against West Kent, I chose that match, however, to misplace my customary accuracy and spray the ball continually down the leg side of Graham Clinton who, when he managed to reach it, clipped it to fine leg for four. He made the Kent team, and forged a strong county career – I did not.

But I didn’t fade into cricketing obscurity – yet. In the second of three years in the First XI at “the Math” I took forty nine wickets, falling just three short of the all-time record. I followed this with a couple of highly successful seasons at university, and subsequently – albeit briefly – played at a decent level in both Yorkshire club cricket and around south east London in the late seventies and early eighties, where, oddly, I reverted to being a middle order batsman who bowled a little.

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My playing is now limited to fielding the occasional ball on the boundary at the St Lawrence or Nevill Ground, and the beach (I recommend Sunny Sands in Folkestone and Viking Bay at Broadstairs). I wonder too if I’m alone in strolling around the ground in the breaks between innings or along the seashore in the hope of being called upon to pouch a skier or pounce on a straight drive from one of the ever diminishing number of impromptu games.

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A biting breeze and thin drizzle denote December’s arrival as twilight descends on the narrow cobbled street that was once part of one of that prodigious walker, Charles Dickens’, favourite perambulations.

We are a long time from the heat of summer when Charivari, Folkestone’s own crazy carnival procession, had snaked up that old thoroughfare. Or the stones had groaned under the weight of red-laced “Doc” Martens, worn by pilgrims strutting towards the Grand Burstin or Gillespie’s Ska Bar for an afternoon of The Selecter, Prince Buster and Special Brew.

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I turn into the quiet street where old ghosts meet as it emerges, like an intermediate ski slope, from Rendezvous Street. I long for one last lingering look at the dazzling daily alchemy conjured up in Rowland’s Rock Shop, but its physical manifestation at least has long gone. The site is now occupied by The Great British Shop Ltd, an eclectic and attractive gift store which has the added class to have hung a photograph on its wall inside commemorating its much-loved former resident.

The aroma of craft beer emanating from Kipps’ Alehouse on the corner could never compete with the sickly sweet perfume that pervaded Rowland’s, where, along with other children (of all ages), I once gaped in awe at the long sticks of rock being concocted. A bag of broken rock pieces from here was always one of the highlights of my annual holiday in the town. It was often claimed that if Rowland’s were to shut its doors permanently, Folkestone would die. Thankfully, that prediction has been proved dramatically wrong, though many share my nostalgia for its heyday.

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In a predictable example of Pavlovian conditioning, I stumble into Steep Street Coffee House for tea and inspiration. Ordinarily, it might be a couple of hours before I could extract myself from here, but I want to experience the atmosphere in the harbour area before darkness fully takes hold.

The self-styled Folkestone Poet has vacated his customary sales point outside the Big Boys Fine Burger Co opposite, his heavy overcoat and leather balaclava no longer a match for the declining temperatures. I wonder whether there is anywhere he can comfortably ply his wares at this time of year.

The bitter cold slices through my flimsy jacket and hastens my progress down the hill, though not without stopping to inspect the crumbling stone steps that lead up to the Bayle, the Medieval heart of Folkestone.

Outside Bounce Vintage, the owner, spotting, or rather hearing, my battered old cowboy boots on the cobbles, accosts me and tries to interest me in an admittedly gorgeous two tone green pair. I decline his offer on the pathetically vain premise that my current pair represent the only thing I have in common with Johnny Depp, in that we wear them everywhere (well, almost everywhere).  Somehow, I suspect Johnny paid more than $50 – plus shipping and custom charges – for his.

I leave the Old High Street at Blooms 1/4, a sophisticated modern restaurant that is tonight’s venue for the second of the Folkestone Living Advent Calendar events organised by Jim Jam Arts for every night in December until Christmas Eve. I peer into the premises which look as cosy and inviting as it is possible to be.

But I must move on.

As I enter Harbour Street, I am overwhelmed by the looming presence of Parade House, better known today as Shangri-La, in the popular imagination the German Consulate and spy centre prior to World War I. This theory has been refuted by local historians and the German Embassy alike, but there is no denying, irrespective of the truth, that it is an imposing and eerie structure, with the cupola providing unsurpassable views of the harbour and Channel beyond.

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As I pass the Grand Burstin, another coach party, the combined age of whom must extend to several thousand, is being disgorged. On a gloomy afternoon like this, it is hard to understand why anyone would want to visit the town at this time of year. Perhaps the hotel’s dining, entertainment and competitive prices are the attractions.

I cross to the Harbour Arm where the only activity, apart from the odd ageing romantic shambling around the deserted car park, is restoration work on both the railway bridge and the recently erected scaffolding that was wrecked by last month’s Storm Angus. No more chicken gyros to be had at the Big Greek Bus, nor Kir Royale at the Lighthouse Champagne Bar, as they are firmly locked up for the winter. Even the derelict harbour railway station is now cordoned off again, suggestive of renovation work to follow.

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I walk through the low tunnel into the now closed fish market, tiptoeing my way around the puddles that congregate here. The occasional gull plods apologetically past, pining for Spring and the reopening of the seafood stalls on the Stade, where he can return to terrorising tourists for fish and chips and tubs of whelks.

Chummy’s, Bob’s, La’s, The Hatch, Shell Shop, Herbert’s and the Smokehouse restaurant are all now closed, leaving Rocksalt and Bob’s fresh fish shop the only, pricier, eating options. Even the pubs are empty, allowing the respective mine hosts to put up their final Christmas decorations without encumbrance from customers.  

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I don’t think I’ve seen so many boats in the outer harbour as today. To my untutored, landlubber eyes, I would estimate that the ratio of seaworthy to safe vessels would be no better than 50:50.

A large gathering of gulls wait patiently for the tide to turn and the resulting rich pickings to appear. They have several hours yet to endure.

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I pay a dutiful visit to the mermaid on the Sunny Sands rocks. Fading light and incessant mizzle cannot avert her gaze or disturb her poise.

I return to the Old High Street as the Christmas lights flutter into action. Most of the shops, if they opened at all during the day, have now closed their doors. The event outside Blooms 1/4 is only an hour away but the ugly weather, receding light and nagging memories, render my mood sombre rather than celebratory.

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The Old High Street echoes to the solitary sound of my cowboy boots as I set off for home.

But did I hear a childlike squeal and get a whiff of granulated sugar as I passed by the top?

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No fey fairy tale figure this Folkestone maid

But mature, full-bodied, strong and wise

Rooted firmly on the East Cliff rocks

Staring intently out on Channel skies.

Some try to clothe her in pity, some in fun

Hats, bikinis, scarves, have all adorned her form

But she is perfect as she is – broad, naked, deep

Impervious to pounding waves and winter storm.

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Her hair forever drenched from tidal spray

Slicked back and sweeping down along her spine

Her lusty feet replace the mermaid’s tail

Resist and spurn the bitter lapping brine.

To the dogs released from summer servitude

On Sunny Sands she’s just another stone

Their ball might bounce upon from owner’s throw

Or where they can relieve themselves alone.

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A bare six summers has she settled there

Yet it seems to have been so many more

As if she’d witnessed history’s changing tides

Declining fish trade and the road to war.

When packet steam trains trundled down the hill

Into the harbour station and France bound ships

When English tommy first tasted foreign food

Snails, mussels, garlic, frites instead of chips.

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I trudge across still slippery lower rocks

To reach the stone she’s made her coastal home

And sit at her feet to see what she might see

While thwarting tourists with their camera phones.

Could she be looking to France or Belgium’s shore?

But rather her gaze looks upwards to the sky

As if in thanks this piece of Heaven should be

Where Cornelia Parker chose that she should lie.

Oblivious to the sights and sounds around

The squawk of seagulls or wave smashed shores

Mindless of games that gleeful children play

Upon the drying beach when tide withdraws.

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Unheeding of the dirt and noise of building sites

Coronation Parade and Harbour Arm are now

She sits serene, majestic ‘midst the rush

A friend and confidant to all that vow.

Margate may have its Turner,  Blackpool its Tower

Brighton its i360, St Ive’s its Tate

But none sing of the sea like our Folkestone girl

Stately and brave at England’s coastal gate.

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I rise from the rocks with wave washed, creaking knees

While hers are as fresh and smooth as first she came

Two hours have passed since I joined her on that rock

A better use of time I could never dare to claim.

Two ferries cross each other in Dover’s strait

As the sun slides down over a silvery sea

Over her shoulder through darkening clouds

The coast of France gleams and bids bonne nuit.

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1 It Was Always Folkestone (January 2016)

Most of my summer holidays between the ages of ten and eighteen (when I became too cool to trail behind my parents) were spent in the once fashionable seaside resort of Folkestone, a gull’s glide along the coast from the fabled White Cliffs of Dover.

Although there was only one small, inevitably packed, patch of sandy beach along its largely pebble and shingle seafront, the magnificent Rotunda amusement arcade, fringed by fairground rides, putting green, boating lake and swimming pool, kept a young boy handsomely entertained for two weeks in August.

Just occasionally, the vacation coincided with cricket at the Cheriton Ground where the county team hosted opponents from what appeared then to be exotic, faraway places such as Derbyshire and Northamptonshire.  My parents would install me in the stand around 10 o’clock in the morning and head for the shops, bars and arcades. Equipped with sandwiches, suncream and scorebook, I drooled over the godlike exploits of Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood. The sun always seemed to shine and Kent always seemed to win, though I’m not convinced that the history books corroborate either assertion.

But I didn’t care.

I was in Heaven.

In the absence of “the summer game” in town, I could be found being blown around the pitch and putt course on the windswept cliffs overlooking the small but bustling harbour, where saucers of fresh cockles and whelks were in abundant supply. If the cliff top links seemed too challenging, a round of crazy golf could be had on The Stade, the narrow strip of land between the harbour and the East Cliff (now Sunny) Sands. The family, who went by what, to a ten year old in 1963, was the hysterically funny name of Clutterbuck, not only ran our bed and breakfast on Foord Road, but also the kiosk selling buckets, spades and fishing nets at the beach end.

Finally, there was a daily ferry service to Boulogne-sur-Mer in Northern France, where I spent my first few hours on foreign soil. Unfortunately, my recollections of a youthful life on the ocean wave have more to do with leaning over the side of the boat depositing what I hadn’t eaten, than tucking into a full English breakfast in the café below deck. It was several more years before I could indulge in what became lifelong passions for croissants, Roquefort cheese and Burgundy wine.

Folkestone may not have enjoyed the cheeky, “kiss me quick” ambience of Margate or Southend, but I loved its quieter, more refined atmosphere. My parents even spoke on occasion of retiring to the resort but, sadly, it never happened – and with my father’s recent death, never will. I’m comforted, however, by the thought that the last break they shared together was in their favourite location (where they thoroughly enjoyed their stay in the much maligned Grand Burstin).
And now my wife and I have means, motive and opportunity to live that dream ourselves. We have been frequent visitors to Folkestone and the other Kentish seaside towns of Herne Bay, Margate, Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Deal and Whitstable in recent years, and loved each for its particular attractions and atmosphere.

But when it became apparent that my father’s life was approaching its end, I asked her which resort she would like to make her home should circumstances one day permit. To my surprise and delight she replied, without hesitation, “Folkestone”.

So now we are presented with the small task of selling two homes in Medway and buying a property on our favoured part of the coast. It is a daunting, but undeniably exciting prospect. At the moment of that fateful decision six months ago, I announced that I hoped we would be able to take up residence by mid to late summer of 2016.

And it isn’t going to be for want of trying – even our customary lengthy foreign holidays might need to take a back seat this year.

So, apart from the obvious charms that the recollection of childhood still wove, what is it that has lured me to Folkestone?

After all, 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 took advantage of extended leisure time and the resources to travel abroad. The rotunda and surrounding attractions have long 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. Even the Sunday market on the rotunda site lost its appeal for the hordes that had once descended upon it from all parts of the county.

Gone were many of the shops selling postcards, beach balls and buckets and spades. Gone were the traditional tea rooms and fish and chip restaurants. Gone were the abundant amusement arcades where I might while away hours on the Roll a Penny, Skee Ball and Coin Pusher games. And gone was the shop with the big picture window at the top of the Old High Street, through which generations of children and adults alike had gaped in awe at luscious sticks of Folkestone rock being mgically brought to life.

But, with extensive investment, much of it courtesy of a notable sugar daddy in Sir Roger de Haan, there have been signs in recent years that the resort is beginning to stir again. The Old High Street has undergone a makeover. One of a kind gift shops, artisanal food stores, and trendy restaurants are emerging, along with a burgeoning artistic community focused on the Creative Quarter.

There may no longer be any cross-channel services, and the former harbour railway station remains overgrown with weeds, but the town’s accessibility from London and the rest of the county has been enhanced by the arrival of a high speed rail service, reducing the journey to the capital to under an hour. And, of course, it is home to the Channel Tunnel and the swiftest escape to the continent.
The East Cliff beach has been re-branded Sunny Sands and is as rammed as it ever was with humanity on a warm day. And there are few better places to play beach cricket when the tide is out.

And, during the summer of 2015, the Harbour Arm, after years of abandonment, re-opened for several weekends with live music and eclectic food and drink outlets decorating its bracing promenade, providing “new” thrilling vistas back across the harbour. Closed for the winter, it is scheduled to resurface on a larger scale in May 2016.

So our permanent residence could not be better timed.

For me, however, the jewel in Folkestone’s crown (only just ahead of the harbour) remains the Leas, once described as “indisputably the finest marine promenade in the world”, a wide clifftop walk with lovingly tended flower beds and glorious views across the channel.

Imposing old hotels speak of the resort’s former glory, none more so than the Grand and Metropole, though now they provide private apartment living. The Leas Cliff Hall is a popular stopping off point for musicians and comedians on tour. I will never forget a hilarious and seemingly never-ending night in the company of Frankie Howerd there during one of those wonderful sixties’ holidays.

On a clear day, you can almost pick out individual buildings on the French coast as you walk past Mermaid Beach en route to the charming neighbouring resorts of Sandgate and Hythe with its access to the world class attractions of Port Lympne Reserve and the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, still the smallest regular light rail system in the world, and as thrilling a ride more than a half a century after the first.

At the end of the line, you arrive at Dungeness on the tip of Romney Marsh with its remote beauty (and venue for all night fishing trips with my uncle fifty years ago), and where the abundant birdlife share the shingle with two nuclear power stations and an elegant lighthouse. Dover Castle, Canterbury and Ashford Designer Outlet are all a short drive away.

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 Guardian newspaper recognised the efforts being made to enhance Folkestone’s appeal by rating it among the world’s best holiday destinations to visit in 2014. Many, especially those who had not visited in recent years, might snigger at the idea, but the town is showing signs that it has a future.

Now, if they could only rebuild the Rotunda and resume playing first class county cricket there ………….

2 So Glad We Made It (August 2016)

Twelve months, two house sales, one flat purchase and much frustration and spasmodic heartache later, we took up permanent residence in Folkestone in early August, on schedule with my wishful prediction when the decision to move here was made. And every night over the dinner table we have interrogated each other as to why we hadn’t done this many years before.

But, of course, there were a number of viable reasons (or were they excuses?) – proximity to ageing parents, financial constraints borne of a meaty mortgage and a bank-busting propensity for expensive, primarily American, holidays, or maybe it was just unwarranted caution.

But there is no value in dwelling on those now.

It is the future that matters.

And the future is Folkestone.

We might have settled into our new apartment a month or so earlier had our sellers – now, let’s put this kindly – not taken a more relaxed approach to moving than us. Firstly, they refused to let the estate agents have a set of keys, insisting that they show prospective buyers around their property themselves. Their prerogative, of course, and they did afford us nearly an hour of their time on two separate occasions, making us tea and establishing a strong personal rapport (or so we thought).

However, the fact that they engineered a seven week gap between those two viewings and prevented the surveyor from examining the apartment for a further month thereafter, explained by a combination of work commitments and regular retreats to their French holiday home, proved immensely frustrating and stressful, by contrast, as progress on the sale of our house in Gillingham proceeded smoothly.

Moreover, half way through the process, and completely out of the blue, their solicitor delivered an ultimatum to us to the effect that we pay a non-refundable deposit of 1% within 24 hours or they would pull out and place the property back on the market. Disaster was averted by the estate agent persuading them that fairness dictated that they put up a similar deposit. An open-ended exclusivity agreement sealed the deal, barring subsequent major catastrophe.

We had viewed eight other properties in the West End of town, none of which remotely matched up in terms of visual appeal, character or size. Once we had seen the property on Radnor Park and submitted an offer at the asking price within five minutes of leaving the viewing it, we were determined that it would be ours. We even took a significant financial hit following the survey on our own house to secure it.
And the physical move was not without its difficulties either. Firstly, despite valiant and agonising attempts to reduce my book collection before the move, enriching the minds of the populace of the Medway Towns into the bargain, there were still a huge number of heavy boxes of books for the removal men, not only to load onto their van at our former house, but to carry up forty one steps to our apartment in the sky at the other end. We may not have taken much in the way of furniture and white goods, planning to buy long overdue new items on arrival, but this was still a challenging task for them in addition to the ninety mile round trip.

They were brilliant by the way.

We have already bought a new washing machine (to replace the one that had served us so well for twenty years) and our first king size bed, incurring the wrath, in the process, of two teams of delivery men doomed to lug them up those aforementioned stairs. I know it’s their job, but we felt a little guilty as we witnessed the grunts and groans that accompanied the manipulation of the items round and over the bannister at each level.

I dread what expletives might reverberate around the building when a new oven, fridge/freezer and wardrobe are delivered in the coming weeks!

But – let’s be fair – they have it easy.

Because, at least in the case of furniture, they don’t have to assemble the blighters!

The manufacturer’s instructions for the bed stated that it would take two people an hour and a half to accomplish.

Yeah right!

Now, I’m arguably the least competent do-it-yourself person on the planet, though my wife, having been brought up by a handyman father and two equally proficient brothers, has some aptitude (and, miraculously, managed to translate the nineteen pages of obtuse drawings into a workable plan).

I may never have been more impressed by her than on that day.

My contribution, such as it was, was to supply the occasional burst of brute strength (again an attribute not commonly associated with me).

So how long did it take us?

Only the seven hours!

Usain Bolt could have run the hundred metres 2,520 times in the time it took us to put that  together!

But it was worth it, even if there is still a niggling worry as we lay our heads down at night that it’s going to collapse beneath us.

The washing machine is working well. It even seems to know when the clothes haven’t quite dried and takes it upon itself to add a few minutes to the cycle. Modern technology eh?

Well, at least we were able to slump in front of the television after our mammoth Saturday morning/afternoon ordeal.

Wrong!

Despite assertions before the move that our Virgin Media services would be installed within a few days of our arriving in Folkestone, we were then informed that we would have had to wait three weeks before we have an operational landline, broadband or TV in the apartment.

Consequently, we did not see a single minute of the Olympics or the start of the Premier League season – oh, and I must not forget the soaps (my wife instructed me to include that). That said, we did catch up with a lot of movies and television series on DVD that we have not seen for years, or, in some cases, not even taken the outer sleeve off!

Telephone access is not a problem as we have mobile phones, but obtaining meaningful Wifi access (other than on said devices) has necessitated expensive daily trips to the coffee shops of Folkestone (I’m on my second flat white of the morning in Costa Coffee as I write this).

I would not wish any of the above to give you the impression that we are regretting the decision to move.

Far from it.

The glorious skies, near constant sunshine (so far), even the noisy but necessary birdlife have all been a joy, and Bob’s and Chummy’s at the harbour, Rocksalt, Copper and Spices, Django’s, the Lighthouse Champagne Bar at the end of the Harbour Arm, the Grand, Steep Street coffee house and others have all benefited from our custom over the past fortnight.

A significant added and unexpected bonus has been my wife’s transfer from Chatham to Folkestone, converting a round trip drive of more than two hours into a ten minute walk to her new office.

We had planned to head out west in late September for a few weeks. This was diluted to a week in Italy as the exchange rate plummeted following the EU referendum (I refuse to use THAT word).

Now, we have decided to stay at “home” and acclimatise ourselves to our new surroundings. After all, there is a sense that we are still on holiday and staying in somebody else’s apartment, but I’m sure that will recede as autumn and winter approach (or will it?).

But when I can gaze upon views like those below every day I feel blessed, and any temporary and trivial hardships, before, during and after the move, simply fade away (unlike love).

3 Calling Folkestone Home (September 2016)

Now that another month has passed, and with the climate gods continuing to shine upon us, we are beginning to feel that this is now our permanent home.

The frustrating saga of our landline, cable and broadband installation is finally over after forty two tortuous days.

Hold on, the more discerning among you will exclaim, you said it was being completed after three weeks. And you would be right.

The engineer duly arrived (very late) on the appointed date and immediately announced that he was unable to carry out the job because he would need a longer ladder (you couldn’t make it up), and he had not been informed that we lived on the second floor (the company was fully aware of this).

This resulted in a further three week delay before our services would be installed. No amount of pleading, complaining or threatening on our part could bring the appointment date forward.

The more observant reader would also have wondered why, in the absence of cable television coverage, we did not invest in an indoor aerial and take advantage of the Freeview channels installed in any modern appliance.

We did.

But only after four weeks!

And, again, that was my wife’s idea.

But the saga is now well and truly over.

We have now, in addition to the aforementioned bed and washing machine, purchased a new fridge/freezer and oven, perpetrating an epidemic of hernia repairs among local delivery men in the process.

My wife has settled into her new office in town.

We are on first name terms with two pair of crows that have taken up residence in our beech tree. They love nothing more than to join the ducks in the fishing lake and the gulls on the roof in a chaotic (pre-) dawn chorus.

Our collection of eateries and watering holes continues to rise, with the Cliffe Restaurant in the View Hotel quickly becoming a favourite.

And we have entertained guests from Norwich and Philadelphia.

For now then, it is fair to say that the fabulous Folkestone fairytale continues.

Cynics will sneer at what they perceive to be an overly positive initial impression, and I acknowledge that the rose-tinted spectacles haven’t been discarded yet. However, I offer the following:

1 The people of Folkestone, especially in the retail and hospitality sectors, have largely been friendly and cheerful. And I have been particularly impressed by the courtesy of drivers towards pedestrians around town; and

2 Folkestonians appear to care for their physical surroundings too – flower displays and other open spaces are lovingly tended, littering is less visible than in many other places I have lived in and visited and there is extensive renovation and redecoration of buildings going on, especially near the seafront.

I am very conscious, however,  that Folkestone is no more immune from the contagion of drunkenness and lawlessness that infects town centres across the country. The recent attack on a group of innocent bystanders in the early hours of the morning in Sandgate Road is not the only such incident since we have been here. I will not shy away in future from highlighting negative as well as positive features.

As the council gardening staff begin to dig up the flower beds along the Leas under another limpid blue sky that belies the reality of today’s Autumn Equinox, my thoughts turn to the next six months. Most of the time I have spent in Folkestone, as child and man, until now has been during the summer or in the late spring. But whilst I might mourn the imminent passing of hot, sunny days, I am excited at the prospect of witnessing winter storms crashing (but not damaging further) Coronation Parade and walking from Mermaid Beach into Sandgate and Hythe on cold, crisp February mornings.

The next phase of our Folkestone story awaits!

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