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Posts Tagged ‘Boulogne sur-mer’


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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Life was never better
Than in Nineteen Sixty Three
Between the end of the snowbound winter
And Freddie’s You Were Made For Me.

On a cool August morning in Foord Road
A blue Vauxhall Victor groans to a stop,
Disgorging two pairs of flustered parents
And three kids chock full of crisps and pop.

No sooner the guest book’s been signed
The kids clamour to go to East Cliff Sands;
With the tide far out the beach is ripe
For making castles and handstands.

But it’s for cricket the boy yearns the most,
Pitching stumps and bails he scans the beach
For willing, smaller boys to do the fielding
While he smashed the ball out of their reach.

As sand recedes beneath insistent waves,
Cricket gives way to crazy golf with slides,
To amusement arcade and boating lake,
Rollercoasters and Rotunda rides.

He plays for plastic racing cars
And pinball machine high scores,
While parents play bingo for household goods
They could buy much cheaper in the stores.

And then there’s that first trip abroad
On a ferry bound for Boulogne-Sur-Mer,
The boy spends his time bent overboard,
In bitter tears and silent prayer.

But he brightens at promise of fish and chips,
White bread and butter, mugs of tea;
And climbing the crooked, sloping street
To Rock Shop’s window wide and free.

Life was never better
Than in Nineteen Sixty Three
Between the end of the snowbound winter
And Freddie’s You Were Made For Me.

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From centuries of slog and slime,
From Pent and Channel battered,
A sleepy, careworn fishing village
Today becomes a town that matters.

Herring, mackerel, crabs and sole
Now make their way to Billingsgate,
And fetch a price not seen before
The railway raised flat Folkestone’s fate.

Sun, with constant bedfellow, breeze,
Smiles on the arrival of the first class fares,
While locals rush to harbour viewing points
From auction sheds that plied their wares.

The first wave of “down from Londoners”
Steps from gleaming horse drawn coach
That brought them from a makeshift station
In lieu of soon to be rail track approach.

A boisterous band blares out the latest hits
Of Wagner, Chopin, Strauss and Liszt,
As crinolined ladies, with handbags and fans,
Tease gentlemen whose advances they resist.

Steam powered Water Witch, focal point
Of this auspicious day, adjoins the quay,
And nervous passengers clamber aboard
In clothes unsuited for a swelling sea.

But the water’s calm and the crossing smooth
As guns and flags bid travellers adieu,
In three hours, on Boulogne’s teeming dock,
An even louder band greets guests and crew.

Now, La Marsellaise and God save the Queen
Salute the excited but exhausted crowd,
A necessary triumph for entente cordiale,
Two towns so far, but now so near, made proud.

In Folkestone, normal service is resumed,
Men mend nets and women cook and clean,
Habitual chores for o’er a thousand years,
Yet a smaller, faster, world can now be seen.

 

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That may not strictly be true.

But it’s how it should work out.

The majority of my summer holidays between the ages of ten and eighteen (when I became too cool to hang on to my parents’ swimsuit tails) were spent in the once fashionable seaside resort of Folkestone in Kent, a seagull’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 and his cousins handsomely entertained for two weeks every August.

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Just occasionally, the vacation coincided with cricket at the Cheriton Ground where the county team hosted opponents from what appeared then to be exotic, distant places named Derbyshire and Northamptonshire.  My parents would install me in the stand around 10am and go off to do whatever it was they did while, 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 would corroborate either assertion.

But I don’t care – I was in Heaven.

In the absence of cricket I could be found staggering around the bracing pitch and putt golf 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 harbour and sandy beach. The family that ran our bed and breakfast, who went by what, to a ten year old in 1963 (and probably one in 2016 too), was the hysterically funny name of Clutterbuck, owned the shop at the beach end.

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Finally, there was a daily ferry service to Boulogne-sur-Mer in Northern France, where I spent my first day abroad. Unfortunately, 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. It was a few more years, therefore, before I could indulge in what became lifelong passions for Brie and Roquefort cheese and French 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.

And now my wife and I have, or will soon have, means, motive and opportunity to live that dream ourselves. We have been frequent visitors to Folkestone and the neighbouring Kentish seaside towns of Margate, Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Deal and Whitstable in recent years, and enjoy each one for its particular attractions and atmosphere.

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When it became apparent that my father’s life might be 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 have the small task of selling two homes in Medway and buying a property on the coast. It is a slightly daunting, but undeniably, exciting prospect. It might be fanciful to think that, by mid to late summer, we will be opening our curtains and shouting “bonjour” to our French neighbours across the English channel every morning.

But it won’t be for want of trying – even foreign holidays this year might need to take a back seat.

So, apart from the obvious charms that childhood still weaves, what is it that lures us to Folkestone?

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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 greater leisure time and resources to travel further afield. The rotunda and surrounding attractions were demolished, the lively, cobbled Old High Street that winds up to the modern town centre fell into disrepair and many of the businesses dependent upon holidaymakers closed.

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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. And gone was the shop with the big picture window at the top of the Old High Street through which children and adults alike gaped in awe at sticks of Folkestone rock being made.

But, with extensive investment, there have been signs in recent years 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, and attractive restaurants have emerged, along with a burgeoning artistic community.

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There may no longer be any cross-channel services, and the former harbour railway station may, for now, 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. And, of course, it is home to the Channel Tunnel and the swiftest escape to the continent.

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The East Cliff beach has been re-branded Sunny Sands and is as rammed with humanity as ever on a warm day. There are few better places to play beach cricket when the tide is out.

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And, last summer, the Harbour Arm, after years of abandonment, re-opened for several weekends with music, food and drink decorating its bracing promenade, providing “new” thrilling vistas back across the harbour. Currently closed for the winter, it is scheduled to resurface full time in May 2016.

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Our permanent residence could not have been better timed.

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. Imposing old hotels speak of the resort’s former glory, no more so than the Grand and Metropole, though some are now holiday apartments. The Leas Cliff Hall is a popular stopping off point for musicians and comedians on tour. I will never forget a long and hilarious night with Frankie Howerd there back in the late sixties.

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On a clear day, you can almost pick out individual buildings on the French coast as you head towards the charming neighbouring resorts of Sandgate and Hythe with its access to the world class attractions of Port Lympne Wild Animal Park 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 later than the first. At the end of the line, you arrive at Dungeness on the tip of Romney Marsh with its end of the world atmosphere, where the abundant birdlife shares the shingle with two nuclear power stations .

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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.

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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 have not visited in recent years, will snigger or even guffaw at the idea, but the town is showing signs that it has a future.

We might even put you up while you visit!

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 ………….

 

(more…)

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