The Cote d’Opale might as well be a thousand miles away on a night like this.
It is a calm, quiet evening after a dank, dreary December day. The sky and sea present an ashen canvass. It is difficult to tell where one ends and the other starts. Spencer Finch’s The Colour of Water, the artwork that requires people, by looking through a narrow aperture, to match the colour of the sea with one of a hundred variants of shade placed around the perimeter of a large wheel, is set firmly in the grey quadrant.
Despite the slimy conditions underfoot, I choose to descend from the well-lit comfort of the Leas to the bleak seashore via the Metropole Steps rather than the Zigzag Path, deducing that the strain on my knees and calves will be less that way.
There is barely a whisper from the waves tonight. The overwhelming flatness of the scene has deterred the customary photographic shooting party from assembling to capture the final, ferocious blaze of orange and gold of the sun over Sandgate shore. Anyone hoping to catch tonight’s projected meteor shower will be sadly disappointed. Even the moon, a mere twenty four hours from full term, doesn’t appear bothered to turn up.
Neither do I hear Matthew Arnold’s “grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back”, so imperceptible is nature’s refrain this evening. Aleppo, Trump, Yemen, Brexit all drift from my consciousness, at least for a short hour. I am at peace, and am reminded of Nathan Coley’s Talking Heads inspired sign on Tontine Street that “ heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”.
Because nothing is happening tonight in this little speck of paradise.
But then everything is happening.
Across the bay, the lighthouse on the Harbour Arm blinks through the gloom. The sixteenth century Out of Tune bell, rescued from a church in Leicestershire, hangs suspended above the area where once the rotunda, boating lake, swimming pool and fairground rides, thrilled generations of children.
A dalmatian puppy snuffles among the seaweed encrusted pebbles on the shoreline, while its impatient owner punctures the peace with impassioned and fruitless entreaties to it to accompany her back to the refuge of her Range Rover parked at the foot of the Leas Lift.
A discarded, empty tuna mayonnaise sandwich pack flutters in the breathless breeze in the midst of Folkestone’s own modest version of Stonehenge or Avebury. If, as seems likely, the stillness of tonight’s air fails to dislodge it, I am reassured that a town sprucer will probably complete the job in the morning.
A lone fisherman has set out his stall for what appears to be a long night ahead. It reminds me of all night sessions on the Dungeness shingle with my uncle half a century ago. I wonder now why I ever went. I was never interested in fishing. I don’t even recall experiencing the elation of catching much either. Perhaps it was the thrill of spending a night away from home on a beach with a nuclear power station looming over me that lured me.
I stroll along the curved seawall that separates the two main parts of the beach, squinting at the six wooden, weirdly shaped seats donated by the Dutch government, and reach the imposing rock groyne. It would be foolhardy this evening to venture out onto this mini-Giants Causeway as some do during the daylight in low tide.
Debate rages on social media as to whether the shape of the groynes that branch out in opposite directions from the beach represent a mermaid, gull, whale or even the Royal Air Force crest. I will not fuel the dispute here, other than to offer the diplomatic suggestion that there is a case to be made for all of them. Whichever it might be, it is a fine sight by day when viewed from the Leas.
Pastel hued beach chalets are now padlocked up for the winter and the Mermaids Cafe Bar, welcome pit stop on the long promenade between Folkestone and its western coastal neighbours of Sandgate, Seabrook and Hythe, is now open on fine weekends only. Tonight, it is dark in contrast to the newly renovated View Hotel beaming benignly down upon it. The hotel’s Cliffe Restaurant, which, in only a few months, has earned a deserved reputation for fine dining and excellent service, will, in contrast, already be busy with office Christmas parties.
I return to the Leas via the lovely Zigzag Path, a walk rendered all the more atmospheric as I weave through its alcoves and tunnels, by its resemblance to those of a Greek island. All that is missing, thankfully, are the maltreated donkeys.
I defy anyone to deny that they enjoy a warm summer’s day by the sea. After all, as the popular expression goes, life’s a beach. And I look forward to the first full summer in my coastal home next year.
However, it is moments like this when enjoyment is a hopelessly inadequate word to describe the impact of this magical place on me. I think I will attempt to define that more fully on another occasion, but, for now, I can only equate it to love in all its manifestations.
Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right is one of my favourite quotes, and is never more relevant than in relation to my feelings for Folkestone. Who would have thought that fifty three years ago, when four adults and three children aged between eight and ten years plus luggage, miraculously emerged from my mother’s Ford Anglia, to cram into that bed and breakfast in Foord Road, that not only would I make this my home all these years later but would instantly become enraptured by the place all over again?