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The idea for this trip came thirteen years ago when I bought the book entitled The Blues Highway: A Travel and Music Book by Richard Knight.

But then, as we were on the point of booking the trip, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, the planned starting point for the trip. We resolved then that we would wait to do it when life in the city had returned to some semblance of normality.

In 2012, we did finally embark on a road trip, but in a very different part of the country – the National Parks of the South West, covering the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Setting off from Las Vegas, our expedition took in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon, followed by a sizeable detour through New Mexico, visiting Santa Fe, Albuquerque and iconic locations on Route 66 such as Winslow, Arizona (“Standin’ on a Corner”) and Gallup, New Mexico before returning to Vegas.

Numerous trips to San Francisco, Tahoe, Vegas as well as the North East (of the U.S, not England!) followed, as the Southern states, other than Florida, failed to seduce us sufficiently into venturing in their direction. Maybe their racist past (and present), Christian fundamentalism and gun culture all have had something to do with it. Moreover, the scene from Easy Rider where the main protagonists get short shrift in a southern diner still haunts me, and the song by Folkestone band, the Transients, entitled They Don’t Like Hippies in Baton Rouge, only serves to exacerbate the anxiety.

But now, with mid-term elections looming and the divisions in America widening, we have chosen this moment to plunge ourselves into the belly of Trumpsylvania, though a Californian friend’s recent assertion that we were essentially visiting “blue cities in red states” is a comforting and far from innacurate one.

So what is the attraction of this particular itinerary that has stubbornly refused to disappear from our vacation radar?

The Blues Highway, essentially Highway 61, runs, for the most part alongside the mighty Mississippi, from New Orleans  to Chicago and traces the migration of many African Americans from the Deep South to the Northern cities following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Equally, it charts (sic) the development of the major music genres for which we are so much indebted to the United States for, principally the blues and gospel (Mississippi delta, Memphis, St Louis and Chicago), but also jazz (New Orleans), cajun and zydeco (Lafayette), country (Nashville) and soul (Memphis again, and not forgetting Elvis!).

After an initial overnight stay in Newark, New Jersey (flights from the UK being so much cheaper), we fly to the “Big Easy” for four nights before hitting the road with single overnight stays in Lafayette, Vicksburg and Clarksdale. A three night residence in Memphis follows before we head east to Nashville for four nights, arriving on the eve of my birthday.

From “Music City” we cross country back to the main road for three nights in St Louis, followed by a night in Peoria before arriving in the “Windy City” for another four nights, when we are hoping to be joined for a couple of nights by friends from San Francisco. Two nights in New York City conclude the trip before we catch our return flight from Newark.

The trip has the added bonus of introducing us to seven new states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois with brief detours through Kentucky and Arkansas. The prospect of experiencing new cultures, historic tours and spectacular scenery is, of course, exciting, but it is the music that is the driving force of the trip. Clubs, bars, museums and street musicians will, therefore, be the major focus of the next three weeks.

And we must not forget the other star of the show – the road itself.

Little thrills the blood more than the thought of exploring this amazing country by car with the radio blaring out the music style that reflects the landscape you are travelling through at the time. I am sure it will reveal some entertaining adventures as this blog grows over the coming weeks.

So let’s get on with the show!

See y’all later!

 

 

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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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A biting breeze and thin drizzle
Denote December’s arrival,
As twilight descends on the
Twisting, narrow street
Once one of Dickens’s daily haunts.

Many months have passed since
Crazy, cacophonous Charivari
Had snaked up that old thoroughfare;
And the ground had groaned
Beneath the weight of red-laced “Doc” Martens,
Worn by pilgrims strutting towards the
Grand Burstin or Gillespie’s
For an afternoon of Special Brew
To the sounds of The Selecter,
Prince Buster and The Specials.

 

I turn into that quiet, twinkling lane
And long for one last lingering look
At the dazzling, daily alchemy
Conjured up in Rowland’s Rock Shop.

The aroma of craft beer
Wafting from Kipps’ Alehouse
Cannot compete with the memory
Of the sickly sweet perfume
Pervading Rowland’s, where
Once I gaped in awe at the
Thick, long sticks of heaven being rolled,
A bag of broken bits
A highlight of my annual holiday.

It was often claimed that if it
Were to shut its doors for good,
Folkestone would die.
A prediction, thankfully,

Since proven dramatically wrong,

 

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I stumble into Steep Street Coffee House
For flat white, cake, warmth and inspiration.
The self-styled Folkestone Poet
Has vacated his customary sales pitch
Across the way at Big Boys Burger,
His heavy overcoat and leather balaclava
No more a match for declining temperatures.

The bitter cold slices through my flimsy jacket
And hastens my progress down the hill,
But not without momentary glances
On either side at steepling steps
To ancient Bayle and modern Tontine Street.

 

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I cross into the empty fish market,
Tiptoeing around the grimy puddles
That appear to assemble here
Whether it has rained or not.

A solitary gull plods apologetically past,
Pining for Spring and the reopening
Of Chummy’s, Bob’s and La’s,
When it can return to terrorising tourists
For fish and chips and tubs of whelks.

Back at the foot of the winding street,
Christmas lights flutter into action
As children huddle excitedly
Outside Blooms for tonight’s instalment
Of the Living Advent Calendar,
Jewel in the crown of
Folkestone’s festive year.

Apart from the echo of my boots
Upon the cobbles,
Silence is restored
As I drag my freezing bones
Back up the hill.

But………..
As I turn the corner
At the top
I stop.

Was that really
A childlike squeal I heard?
And did I just catch
A whiff of granulated sugar?

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Rare town of Radnor and Rotunda,
Rowland’s rock shop and remembrance;
Even on this cold February morning
You have the power to enchant;
Strange Cargo’s Luckiest Place on Earth
Is not confined to the Central station.
Newly planted winter flowers,
Primrose and snowdrop, cyclamen and crocus,
Defy the bitter wind and freezing hail
On stately Leas and Kingsnorth Gardens.

Mouldering Martello wall,
Bonaparte’s mighty adversary,
Squints out across the grey blue sea,
Searching for our Cap Griz Nezbour;
While the cliffs, slowly, surreptitiously
Slide into the stirring sea below,
Where foreign fossil hunters trip
Among the seaweed and precarious rocks,
Exposed by low tide’s obligatory return.

Opening Day still six weeks ahead, the
Harbour Arm remains a magical spot;
“Gormley” winks across the harbour entrance
At doughty mermaid on dog-filled Sunny Sands;
Cormorants, gulls and a solitary fisherman,
Usurping the space where chairs and tables
For champagne drinkers will soon occupy,
Complete this noiseless, bracing scene.

Pieces of art, products of a reimagined town,
Embellish our streets and promenades,
Making honorary Folkestone folk of
Tuttofuoco, Coley and Tracey Emin,
Wallinger, Ruth Ewan and Yoko Ono.
The Living Advent Calendar and Pride,
Triennial, Charivari and Book Festival,
All further proof of energy and wit
That far exceeds its scale and reputation.

Food town no less than Art town,
Bridge breakfasts, Brew freakshakes,
And Beano’s griddled sandwiches
Tantalise my morning tastebuds;
While Alice’s and the Cliffe, Rocksalt and Follies,
Bloom’s, Luben’s, El Diamante and Cafeteria,
To name but just a tempting few,
Contend for my evening custom.

More than half a century your admirer,
Even through the tired, toiling times;
Recently reunited in joy and wonder,
I feel blessed to account you now my lover.

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That staple of coastal living,
The pre-dawn chorus
Of ducks and gulls,
Of pigeons and crows,
And a single menacing magpie,
Echoes across a misty Radnor Park.

Untimely ripped from a fractured slumber,
I prepare for my morning ritual
Of checking if the sea is still there
And that this is not all a dream.

Caught in a leaf storm along Castle Hill Avenue
Joni in my ears telling me
She doesn’t know where she stands,
And there it is, that ever, never changing view!
Dunkirk and Dungeness
Wink from across the water.

The Leas is rife with life this morning
Walkers, joggers, mobility scooters,
Teenagers with learning difficulties
On escorted pilgrimages around town,
From each and every one
A “good morning” or “isn’t it beautiful?”.

This is such a friendly town.

Vacant, whispering benches
Call out across the century,
Remembrance of courage and sacrifice
That allow me to wallow
In this stunning spectacle today.

As the sun begins to burn,
Parched dogs yank at leads
And stop to lap at the cool water
Filling the empty margarine boxes
Left outside the Leas Cliff Hall.

Below, on windswept Mermaid Beach,
Young children sprint into the sea,
Mindless of the pebble and shingle
That scrape and bruise their fragile feet;
But soon they head for the refuge of towels,
New victims of the unforgiving Channel chill.

Across town, on the old, cobbled street,
Where art and cake have usurped rock,
A triumvirate of weary sprucers,
Unheralded heroes of this dirty old town,
Trudge past the The Quarter Masters store
Trailing bags of indeterminate bulk.

Young men, slaves to their primal needs,
Cajole reluctant wives and girlfriends
Into lunch at Big Boys Burger;
Buggies resignedly hauled over the threshhold
Wake the sleeping child within,
Soon to shatter the peace of other diners

At the foot of the winding hill,
Gleeful children squeal with ecstasy
As the newly repaired fountains,
Wedged between pub and seafood stall,
Erupt in thrilling power shower.

Gulls squawk and squabble
Over the crab and seafood remnants
Lobbed periodically from Chummy’s staff,
Before resuming their ablutions
In inner harbour pools
Left by the receding tide.

A single gull plants itself on a table behind Bob’s
And pleads silently for a bite of my crab sandwich,
Or the family’s chips on the next bench;
A staring contest ensues as I begin to eat,
Not daring to avert my eyes for one second.

I try to rationalise with my insistent guest,
Explaining that feeding it would be cruel
But it seems unconvinced
And resumes its glare.

As I finish the last mouthful and fold the wrapping
It flaps its wings and screeches its disappointment,
Before scooting perilously past my left ear
In pursuit of more sympathetic diners.

On Sunny Sands, oblivious of mermaid stare
Dogs scamper breathlessly after balls
Hurled by owners, equally relieved
At their release from summer banishment.

I head for Steep Street,
Swiftly become my second home,
To capture this all in print;
Renewed self-confidence, even nerve
To write this down and share with you,
Another thing to thank Folkestone for,
Or is that blame?

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The pace and commotion of modern life renders it all the more crucial that we grasp those increasingly infrequent opportunities to draw breath and rest awhile.

Where I would take issue with the Welsh poet, W.H. Davies, who asked what is this life if full of care / we have no time to stand and stare is that sitting works just as well.

And where better to do it than on a bench in the fresh air?

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We are so accustomed to lounging on a sofa, whether it be at home, watching mindless television, or in a coffee shop, spending money we haven’t got and aggravating our caffeine levels. Why not do the same in the great outdoors?

One answer might be that the provision of facilities to do that is not always plentiful.

But we cannot claim that excuse in Folkestone.

The town is blessed with more than its fair share, especially on the lovely Leas, once dubbed indisputably the finest marine promenade in the world,  where there are exactly one hundred wooden benches between the Step Short Arch and the Metropole Steps (seventy three alone between the Bandstand and the further of the large hotels (now apartments)). I would be surprised to learn if any other coastal resort had as many.

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So, what has sitting on a bench ever done for us?

Let me count the ways.

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To “rest our legs”.

To pause and just breathe.

To think or meditate.

To be quiet and let time pass.

To eat lunch.

To read a book or newspaper (ok, or a tablet/phone).

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To admire the view (and what a view!).

To watch the world go by.

To “people watch”.

To “sun bathe”.

To escape from conflict (at work or at home).

To grieve over disappointment or heartache.

To explore first love (within “reason” of course!).

Or a combination of any of the above.

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And then there are less conventional reasons:

To drink or take drugs.

To “hide” with a lover.

To beg from passers by.

I am sure you can think of others (conventional or otherwise).

The value placed on the view afforded by benches is no better illustrated than on the plaques that grieving families have had affixed to commemorate the lives of loved ones who have passed away.

Arguably, these benches are a more life-affirming tribute than a concrete slab in a crematorium, though they have their place too, of course.

Benches are a visible and practical demonstration of a bygone age in a hectic world. Celebratory and consolatory in equal measure.

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And, as we have seen above, they can serve so many purposes that nothing else can quite deliver.

Whilst this post has focused on the wooden benches that festoon the Leas, especially at the West End, there are others at the eastern end that sit beneath the Step Short Arch and speak movingly of Folkestone’s critical role in war.

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I may not have picked the best weather (at least in Folkestone) in which to urge readers who live within reasonable travelling distance of The Leas to rush outside and “take a pew” in the outdoors.

But wherever you may be, try to take whatever opportunity you can to “sit and stare”. Aside from improving your mental wellbeing, you might just finish that book.

Or at least your lunch.

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I am proposing to run twice, possibly thrice, weekly walking tours of Folkestone next summer (May to September 2017).

There are many practical considerations, including health and safety, marketing and potential licensing, that need to be addressed in the opening weeks of the New Year, but the crucial issue is the integrity of the tour itinerary itself.

Below are my initial thoughts on what route to take, and the issues to highlight at each stop and during the walk itself.

Currently, I envisage the tour lasting no longer than two hours.

These are still early thoughts and are subject to change. Being still a relative newbie, there is a distinct possibility that I may have missed something. This is where long term residents of Folkestone and others who have, like myself, come to love the town, can help me in fine tuning the details. I would be extremely grateful for their input and support.

I intend to finalise this by the end of February, allowing two months to work up the detailed commentary and supporting material.

I am extremely grateful for your assistance in this. Don’t feel you need to be gentle with me!

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Start: By the Earth Peace sign in front of The Grand Hotel on The Leas

Stop 1: The Grand Hotel
a. outline of tour – duration – route – stops – toilets – refreshments – approach to questions
b. history of The Leas and Folkestone as a holiday destination – English & French coast highlights
c. history of The Grand, including rivalry with The Metropole & links to royalty

d. introduction to Folkestone Triennial & Folkestone Artworks, specifically Earth Peace (Yoko Ono)

Walk 1: Along The Leas, passing the View Hotel, Ruth Ewan (clock) and Mark Ballinger’s (Folk Stones) artworks & talking benches

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Stop 2: Leas Cliff Hall 
a. history – construction – programme
b. William Harvey statue

Walk 2: Along The Leas passing the Leas Pavilion Theatre and the Leas Lift

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Stop 3: Step Short Arch
a. Folkestone’s role in war
b. construction
c. War Memorial
d. poppies

Walk 3: Down the Road of Remembrance

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Stop 4: Harbour Station / Harbour Arm entrance
a. role of trains bringing soldiers/holidaymakers
b. history of ferry / hovercraft services
c. Hamish Fulton’s metal sign
d. Grand Burstin Hotel
e. regeneration plans

Walk 4: Along the Harbour Arm, taking in views of the Harbour 

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Stop 5: Lighthouse on Harbour Arm

a. history
b. Weather is a Third to Place and Time artwork
c. Champagne Bar

Walk 5: Back along Harbour Arm and towards Harbour

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Stop 6: Harbour
a. fish market
b. history of fishing c/f activity today
c. seafood stalls
d. Rocksalt

Walk 6: Along The Stade to Sunny Sands

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Stop 7: Sunny Sands
a. beach & Coronation Parade
b. views to France, Harbour Arm, East Cliff, Dover Strait, the Warren & Samphire Hoe
c. Folkestone Mermaid (Cornelia Parker)

Walk 7: Back along The Stade and across to Creative Quarter entrance


Stop 8: The Old High Street
a. history
b. role of Creative Quarter
c. Quarterhouse

Walk 8: Up the Old High Street and onto The Bayle, highlighting galleries, restaurants and coffee shops

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Stop 9: The Bayle
a. history
b. Parade Steps
c. Shangri-La
d. British Lion
e. pond – child’s mitten (Tracey Emin)

Walk 9: Around The Bayle into Church Street

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Stop 10: Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe
a. history of christianity in Folkestone
b. life & sainthood of St Eanswythe

Walk 10: Through churchyard and along The Leas towards the Leas Lift

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Stop 11: Leas Lift
a. history – construction – importance
b. take lift down to Marine Parade

Walk 11: Along Marine Parade to entrance of Lower Leas Coastal Park


Stop 12: Lower Leas Coastal Park
a. background, construction & awards
b. Fun Zone
c. Amphitheatre
d. Adam Chodzko’s Pyramid

Walk 12: Through Lower Leas Coastal Park to beginning of Zigzag Path

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Stop 13: Zigzag Path
a. history

Walk 13: Up the Zigzag Path and along The Leas to The Grand Hotel

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Stop 14: The Grand Hotel
Finish by the Earth Peace sign in front of The Grand Hotel on The Leas

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