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Posts Tagged ‘Kent’


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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If ever I need a respite from the hubbub of Folkestone town centre, there is no better area to take cover in than The Bayle. Bordering the Harbour via the Parade Steps, the Creative Quarter by Bayle Street and Sandgate Road at the end of pretty Church Street, it provides a welcome haven of peace and quiet.

Just off the beaten track, it is largely undiscovered by all but locals.

Today, I am accessing it from the recently refurbished Parade Steps that run from Harbour Street, alongside Gillespies bar at the True Briton.

Folkestone has more than its share of crippling paths and stairways, not least the Metropole Steps and Zigzag Path that link the main beach from The Leas, but the hundred or more steps that need to be negotiated here match the most difficult. Their saving grace is that they do afford the intrepid climber fantastic views of the harbour and the Channel beyond when, as is essential, they pause for a breather at each level.

At the top you encounter not only Shangri-La, now discredited as a wartime German spy centre, but also fine multi-occupancy buildings like Blue Diamond House on Bayle Street.

Eschewing the Bail Steps, that lead back down to the Old High Street, I turn left at the friendly Guildhall pub onto The Bayle itself.  Within a hundred yards I come across the Bayle Pond Gardens, lovingly maintained by the residents’ association.

The pond is home to another of the Folkestone Artworks found scattered around the town. One of Tracey Emin’s collection of “baby things”, a bedraggled, brightly coloured mitten, is attached to the railings that encase the pond.

Properties, a mix of attractive brick and weatherboarded cottages and modern apartment blocks, are sought after and, as this recent house hunter can attest, relatively expensive.

Moreover, the significance of this part of town was recognised when number 5 Bayle Street was chosen to launch the fabulous Folkestone Living Advent Calendar programme on 1st December last and, fifteen days later, the Dance Easy / Folkestone Yoga studio at number 19 took its turn in the festivities.

In addition to the already mentioned Guildhall pub, this compact area also boasts Folkestone’s oldest watering hole, the British Lion, reputedly built no later than 1500, and Charles Dickens’s local when he stayed at nearby 3, Albion Villas.

Recovered remains from archaeological digs have revealed that the area was occupied in the late Iron Age and Roman periods, but it was not until the seventh century AD that Folkestone gained its most celebrated citizen.

The daughter of King Eadbald, St. Eanswythe, an intelligent, wilful and devout young woman, rejected numerous Anglo-Saxon suitors and opted for the religious life by establishing a small nunnery and dedicating herself and other women to prayer and service of the poor. On her death in 640, her tomb became the object of prayer and pilgrimage and her relics were sought after and venerated. She was made a saint almost immediately.

Standing between bare winter trees and amidst battered headstones, the current Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe, built upon a twelfth century original, is a lovely, tranquil space.

There are several routes in and out of the churchyard. My personal favourite is to walk through the internal gate, along the path (which starts on Priory Gardens) back to the War Memorial, taking in glorious views of the Channel above the rooftops of Marine Parade.

I’ll leave my favourite rock band (again) to encapsulate how I feel about The Bayle:

Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart

You just gotta poke around.

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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.

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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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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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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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