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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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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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This is where east meets west,
Dover Road and Augusta Gardens;
Where DFLs mix with Folky born and breds,
Cold war adjourned for one warm afternoon.

Tram Road traffic crawls and curls
Around a heaving Harbour Street,
Affording passengers an extended view
Of much loved, yet loathed, Grand Burstin.

A brisk breeze, cooling the searing sun,
Sweeps champagne flutes to a watery end
In the chastening Channel spray
That laps the lighthouse;
Proof that, sometimes, weather
Can be a first to place and time.

Sinatra’s call to Come Fly with Me
Gives way to the eclectic sounds
That entertain the growing queues
For Sole Kitchen and Hog and Hop.
While the Native Oyster Band
Has the crowds singing and swaying,
Kadialy Kouyate’s kora mesmerises,
Bringing the authentic sounds of
New Orleans and Senegal to
This English coastal paradise.

Children build bricks to knock them down,
Dash between Baba Ji and Pick Up Pintxos
Or search for the iron man in the water,
(Don’t worry, kids, he will be back!).


But if the heat and tumult are too much
And it is peace you pine for,
Retire inside to the Mole Cafe
For a mug of strong, hot tea
And a chocolate swiss roll,
Reminders of a quieter,
Yet more violent, time.

Tomorrow, normal service will be resumed;
DFLs will become RTLs
(Work it out!);
The Arm will be handed back
To anglers, cormorants and
A few unsuspecting souls,
Drenched by crashing waves
Cascading over the Folkestone sign.

But is this the lull before the storm?
Eden before the Fall?
Will those blissful views across
To ancient East Cliff and to Sunny Sands
Be there to inspire us still
In three, or five, or ten, years?

Or will the thunder of pick and drill
Drown out those of bass and drum?

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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?

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