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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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One of the iconic images of the great British seaside holiday of the fifties and sixties is of happy families playing beach cricket.  Everyone joined in, playing with children’s bats, balls and stumps that reduced fathers who fancied themselves as Dexter or Sobers to the same level of competence as their seven year old sons, non-sporting wives and even the family dog (when they were still allowed on the beach between May and September). Truly, we had “never had it so good”.

Sadly, the advent of the foreign package holiday, breakdown in traditional family structures and expansion of alternative leisure pursuits, all contrived to render such a scene virtually obsolete.  Over the past weekend, therefore, I embarked upon a one man (at least for now) campaign to revive this venerable but floundering tradition, pitching up on Ramsgate Main Sands with my wife at 2pm on Sunday for an impromptu game.

I say impromptu because my planning had left something to be desired – a brief glance at the tide times beforehand would have revealed that this was the worst time of the day to start.  Nevertheless, after twenty minutes inspecting the fast diminishing slither of sand along the bay, I found a strip that was marginally more playable than the Rose Bowl.  It quickly became clear, however, that if the game was to be remotely watchable, or attract other participants, it was pointless bowling anything other than full tosses because once the ball had pitched, it was firmly plugged into the sand.

“Sticky dog” wicket aside, it proved a batsman’s paradise as the leg side boundary shortened sharply with the onrushing scum brown tide, ensuring that the merest of flicks resulted in a boundary.  That said, the smacking of  my extra cover drives against the sea wall was more satisfying.  Frank Keating once wrote that Ian Botham played a net “as if he is on Weston-super-Mare beach and the tide is coming in fast”.  I’d like to think that if you substituted Broadstairs for Weston, that might accurately describe my batting on this day.

Public interest was negligible, evidenced by a succession of families, oblivious of the sacred nature of my work, plodding across the wicket at regular intervals.  It reminded me of my primary school football pitch which had a concrete public footpath running diagonally across it, constantly trodden by young mothers with prams during vital matches against our bitter rivals from the adjoining parishes of Luton, Delce and Arden.  Understandably, dribbling was a skill particularly valued at Glencoe Road.

But back to the summer game.

Human indifference was not mirrored in the reaction of the indigenous bird population. An improbable infield of gulls occupyied short square leg, silly mid on and extra cover loitered, more, I suspect, in anticipation of the next tasty titbit thrown up by the thrashing waves than hovering in hope of a bat pad.  Their noisy sledging would have done justice to any Australian test team in history. Eventually, with the wicket completely submerged, the players were forced to dash from the square to the nearest ice cream van.

Undaunted, I resumed my missionary work two days later with a game on the much larger and more suitable Viking Bay beach in Broadstairs.  Low tide was scheduled for 2.04pm but, conscious that the tide came in a lot quicker than it went out, I decided that play should get underway an hour earlier.

An early inspection of prospective wickets revealed not only a soft, dune-like sand texture inconducive to a meaningful contest, but also an unmanageable abundance of people, deckchairs, windbreaks and bouncy castles, along with the ubiquitous volleyball court, populated by hordes of young Latino youths, led me to cancel plans to play there.  However, we rounded the bend at the end of the beach to enter Louisa Bay which, a full hour before the scheduled start of play,  sported a vast expanse of dark, compacted sand. Only sporadic handfuls of spectators scattered around what would serve as the boundary.

My excitement was heightened by the sight of  TWO sets of wickets already pitched further along the beach.  This was promising.  Our game got underway and soon acted as a magnet for every bored child on the beach.  Questions such as “can I play?” and “can my brother / sister join in?” (only the absence of the suffix “mister” reminded me I had not been transported back to 1960) were music to my ears as I suddenly found I was setting fields for TEN kids of assorted ages and having to remember in what order they all batted and bowled to avert tantrums.

The majority displayed more willing than competence, all wanting to field at mid wicket for some unaccountable reason (maybe the proximity of the tea hut and toilets had something to do with that), but uncomplainingly hared after every ball, regardless of how far and in what direction it had been despatched.  Falling into a rock pool or getting entangled in the profusion of seaweed were no barriers to their enthusiasm.

On a more serious note, it was heartening to learn that you could still play an innocent game in public with a group of children that you had never met before, without being accused of wanting to take salacious photographs of or, worse still, interfere with, them.  In fact, the parents seemed content to allow them to play, even the mother who was called upon to console her ten year old when he retired hurt after being struck on the left thigh by one of my rising eighty mile per hour inswingers.

The most poignant moment arose when one small boy advised me, with evident pride, and in hushed tones, that the reason his brother was scoring so freely with quasi-classical strokeplay and bowling off a run up that appeared to start just to the left of the Goodwin Sands, was because “he PLAYS cricket”.

The game lasted nearly three hours, interrupted only by obligatory lunch and tea intervals, dictated more by my need for regular rest than by the tyranny of the clock.  Each succeeding resumption of play appeared to draw even more players until the relentless waves washed the wicket away completely.

So beach cricket is alive and flourishing in the cradle of the game, not quite the High Weald, but still in God’s own county.  It can be no coincidence that shortly after this pilgrimage, I moved to Folkestone which boasts one of the firmest wickets on the coast at Sunny Sands.

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I was born with cricket in my blood. My father was an enthusiastic if modest club performer who played for a team that, where once it had consisted largely of doctors from the local hospital from which it derived its name, and had been one of the strongest in the Medway area, had declined by the early sixties into a dad’s army of clerks, TV repair men and shipwrights (not to denigrate those trades but rather to demonstrate the disconnection over time from the medical profession).

My father’s skills were confined to a stubborn resistance to giving his wicket away easily (though, despite himself, he invariably did), and an aptitude for both pocketing slip catches himself, and occasionally by redirecting the ball from his commodious stomach into the hands of more agile teammates in the vicinity.

The team was my extended family – every player was an “uncle”, though not in the biological sense of the word, and I revered them, despite their limitations on the field. At the age of ten I graduated from mascot and scoreboard operator to become its official scorer. I fulfilled this role for the next five years, spending summer afternoons in cramped, rotting wooden sheds, invariably sat alongside grizzled, gap-toothed septuagenarians with a life long chain smoking habit.

But I loved it.

It wasn’t just the game that captured my young heart, but the environment surrounding it – the rickety double decker bus journeys through the Kent countryside, the team being forced to change on the bus if it was behind time, the sing-songs on the journey back (my party piece for some reason was Wouldn’t It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady) and the regular stops at pubs such as the Chequers at Loose and the Five Bells in Snodland. “Home” games at the Civil Service Sports Ground and Langton Playing Fields in Gillingham did not generate the same romance but were, nonetheless, events to be savoured. And then there was Tuesday night net practice, when I spent two hours building up a fearful sweat scurrying to retrieve balls that had been clubbed hither and thither (funny how they never managed it at weekends), was bliss.

At fifteen I made my own “first class” debut at Blue House Marden, a short walk from the Stile Bridge Inn and, “batting” at number eleven, notched a magisterial 0 not out in the customary crushing defeat. My other memory of that game was landing in a jungle of nettles, vainly chasing an edge down to third man. I could not sit down at school for the next three days.

And then there was the county side, on the cusp of its glory years of the seventies. Club commitments limited our outings to the Nevill, Garrison, Mote, Crabble, St Lawrence and Bat and Ball grounds, but my father and I managed a handful of days each season, courtesy of his Association of Kent Cricket Clubs pass.

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My greatest thrill came when our annual holiday to Folkestone in August coincided with the traditional Cricket Week. My parents would deposit me at the Cheriton Ground around ten o’clock in the morning and went off for a day of beach, bingo and Bobby’s shopping, allowing me to indulge in my busman’s holiday of scoring every ball of both matches and haring after Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood for their autographs as they left the field at lunch, tea and close. It was an era when, aside from newspaper photographs and occasionally black and white television coverage, we only saw our sporting idols “in the flesh” – yet they were more accessible for that.

Of course, I was playing cricket too at school, on both playground concrete and playing field grass. At Glencoe Road primary school I was the proud custodian of the chalk required to repaint the wicket on the wall at each break, lunchtime and long after the bell sounded to send us home. The only spectator sport that could compare were the regular fights outside the school gates at home time.

Although, unlike football, we did not play against other schools, I opened the batting in games at the Maidstone Road recreation ground in Chatham. My finest cricketing hour in those pre-eleven plus days was, however, imbued with tragedy when having, like Hutton at the Oval in 1948, carried my bat in a pathetically low team total, I arrived home to be informed by my mother that my pet dog, Patch, had been put down. I suppose the events of that afternoon taught me the value of treating those “twin imposters” of triumph and disaster equally.

Moving to Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School I was converted in my first year from an opening bat into a medium quick (for a twelve year old) bowler with a capacity for late swing – an pubescent Jimmy Anderson if you like. After flirting with the styles of Fred Trueman, Wes Hall and the mercurial Alan Brown, I began to model both my bowling action and fielding demeanour, if not my batting, which suffered in the process, on the mighty John Shepherd (though there was still the occasional Wes Hall whirl of the arms for variety).

My school had always been strong at cricket, competing successfully with teams from the Judd School, Skinner’s, King’s School Rochester and Dartford and Maidstone Grammar Schools to name but a few. At under twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen levels I was a prolific wicket taker, with regular six and seven wicket hauls. My proudest moment, and I suspect my father’s too, was when he slipped away from work early in London one evening to watch me play for the under fourteens against Chatham South Technical School. I took eight wickets for three runs in eight overs and we won by ten wickets. I don’t recall him coming again – perhaps he just wanted to cherish that moment always.

The most publicly acclaimed performance was seven for fifteen against Faversham Grammar School. The school headmaster, a fine club cricketer himself for, I believe, Linton Park, who umpired a number of the age group games, announced at the school assembly on the following Monday morning that my spell had been the finest he had ever witnessed by a schoolboy of my age.

My exploits caught the eye of the Kent under fifteen selectors and I played in a handful of trial games, including the final eliminator for the county team. Playing for East against West Kent, I chose that match, however, to misplace my customary accuracy and spray the ball continually down the leg side of Graham Clinton who, when he managed to reach it, clipped it to fine leg for four. He made the Kent team, and forged a strong county career – I did not.

But I didn’t fade into cricketing obscurity – yet. In the second of three years in the First XI at “the Math” I took forty nine wickets, falling just three short of the all-time record. I followed this with a couple of highly successful seasons at university, and subsequently – albeit briefly – played at a decent level in both Yorkshire club cricket and around south east London in the late seventies and early eighties, where, oddly, I reverted to being a middle order batsman who bowled a little.

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My playing is now limited to fielding the occasional ball on the boundary at the St Lawrence or Nevill Ground, and the beach (I recommend Sunny Sands in Folkestone and Viking Bay at Broadstairs). I wonder too if I’m alone in strolling around the ground in the breaks between innings or along the seashore in the hope of being called upon to pouch a skier or pounce on a straight drive from one of the ever diminishing number of impromptu games.

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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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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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