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Posts Tagged ‘seaside’


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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No fey fairy tale figure this Folkestone maid

But mature, full-bodied, strong and wise

Rooted firmly on the East Cliff rocks

Staring intently out on Channel skies.

Some try to clothe her in pity, some in fun

Hats, bikinis, scarves, have all adorned her form

But she is perfect as she is – broad, naked, deep

Impervious to pounding waves and winter storm.

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Her hair forever drenched from tidal spray

Slicked back and sweeping down along her spine

Her lusty feet replace the mermaid’s tail

Resist and spurn the bitter lapping brine.

To the dogs released from summer servitude

On Sunny Sands she’s just another stone

Their ball might bounce upon from owner’s throw

Or where they can relieve themselves alone.

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A bare six summers has she settled there

Yet it seems to have been so many more

As if she’d witnessed history’s changing tides

Declining fish trade and the road to war.

When packet steam trains trundled down the hill

Into the harbour station and France bound ships

When English tommy first tasted foreign food

Snails, mussels, garlic, frites instead of chips.

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I trudge across still slippery lower rocks

To reach the stone she’s made her coastal home

And sit at her feet to see what she might see

While thwarting tourists with their camera phones.

Could she be looking to France or Belgium’s shore?

But rather her gaze looks upwards to the sky

As if in thanks this piece of Heaven should be

Where Cornelia Parker chose that she should lie.

Oblivious to the sights and sounds around

The squawk of seagulls or wave smashed shores

Mindless of games that gleeful children play

Upon the drying beach when tide withdraws.

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Unheeding of the dirt and noise of building sites

Coronation Parade and Harbour Arm are now

She sits serene, majestic ‘midst the rush

A friend and confidant to all that vow.

Margate may have its Turner,  Blackpool its Tower

Brighton its i360, St Ive’s its Tate

But none sing of the sea like our Folkestone girl

Stately and brave at England’s coastal gate.

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I rise from the rocks with wave washed, creaking knees

While hers are as fresh and smooth as first she came

Two hours have passed since I joined her on that rock

A better use of time I could never dare to claim.

Two ferries cross each other in Dover’s strait

As the sun slides down over a silvery sea

Over her shoulder through darkening clouds

The coast of France gleams and bids bonne nuit.

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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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This is the final part in a trilogy of posts centred on our recent relocation to Folkestone. The first outlined the historical and emotional reasons for making the move in the first place, whilst the second described the sometimes rocky road of searching for, buying and moving into our coastal retreat.

At the end of the last piece, written a fortnight after our arrival, I concluded that, not least because of the excellent weather we had enjoyed, it still felt as if we were on an extended summer vacation.

But now that another month has passed, and although the climate gods continue 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.

We have purchased a number of new household appliances (and perpetrated an epidemic of hernia repairs among the delivery men into the bargain).

My wife has settled into her new office in town.

We are on first name terms with a pair of crows that have taken up residence in our beech tree. They love nothing more than to join the ducks in the lake across the road and the seagulls on the roof in a chaotic (pre-) dawn chorus.

And we have entertained guests from Norwich and Philadelphia.

For now then, it is fair to say that the fabulous Folkestone fairytale continues – as the images below demonstrate.

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Folkestone must have more outdoor benches per square metre than anywhere else on the coast!

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A blissful Sunday afternoon scene looking towards Coronation Parade and the East Cliff (unfortunately, that’s not my boat!)

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One of the many attractive features of the award winning, child friendly Lower Leas Coastal Park – it can’t be claimed that this seaside town is the preserve of the elderly!

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This shop in the harbour thrilled me as a child, and it is no different now as we’ve already adorned our apartment with artefacts from its shelves

 

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The Grade II Leas Lift, a much loved icon, was restored to full operation this summer

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“Ok, I get it that you won’t let me have any of your fish and chips, and you’re only looking after my own welfare by not feeding me, but just remember who runs this town”

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Folkestone’s own Little Mermaid, modelled on local mother of two, Georgina Baker, gazes on our “chums” on the Cote D’opale from the rocks of Sunny Sands

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On a warm weekend day, you need to hover at the top of the steps of the Lighthouse at the end of the Harbour Arm to stake out a spare table at the Champagne Bar

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My fetish (I prefer to call it passion) for directional signs is amply satisfied around town

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The wild, weird, wonderful Warren is a secret jealously guarded by (us!) locals 

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Cafe culture at its best at Steep Street – welcoming smiles, potent coffee, delicious pastries, stacks of books, literary competitions and seats for great people watching – a killer combination

In conclusion, a couple of general observations. Cynics might 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 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. Only last weekend, for example, a group of innocent bystanders was attacked in the early hours of the morning in Sandgate Road. 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!

 

The first two posts in this series can be found at:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/it-was-always-folkestone/

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2016/08/18/so-glad-we-made-it/

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I explained in my last post (in what appears now to have been a different archaeological period) why my wife and I had decided to move to the Kent coast, specifically my childhood summer playground of Folkestone.

( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/it-was-always-folkestone/ ) .

Well, two house sales, one flat purchase and much frustration and spasmodic heartache later, we descended upon the town a fortnight ago. And every night over the dinner table we interrogate 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 an almost bank-busting propensity to go on expensive holidays, particularly to the west coast of the U.S.A, 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.

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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. Their prerogative, of course, and they did afford us nearly an hour of their time on two occasions, making us tea and establishing a strong personal rapport (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, explained by a combination of work commitments and regular retreats to their holiday home in France, proved immensely frustrating and stressful as progress on the sale of our house in Gillingham proceeded smoothly.

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Moreover, half way through the process, and completely out of the blue, their solicitor delivered an ultimatum to us, insisting 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 only averted through 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 and submitted an offer at the asking price within five minutes of leaving 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.

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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 I felt a little guilty as I 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.

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.

By the way, 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?

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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 landing in Folkestone, we will have had to wait three weeks before we have an operational landline, broadband or TV in the apartment. Consequently, we have not seen 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 have caught 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 GrandSteep 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).

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Margate, on the north eastern tip of the Isle of Thanet in Kent, sixty four miles east of London, epitomises the rise and fall of the English coastal resort.  A booming seaside town in its Victorian heyday, and still hugely popular as recently as the nineteen sixties, it declined into decay and dilapidation in the past quarter of a century. But now it is slowly emerging from the ashes with an ambitious regeneration programme designed to re-position the resort as an artistic and heritage destination.

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Turner Contemporary

It was the association, during the eighteenth century, of seawater with good health due to its spa qualities that sparked an interest in the coastal resorts around Britain. Initially a fishing town, and a haven for smugglers, Margate capitalised on the growing passion for “taking the cure” in the sea by constructing, as early as 1805, bathing machines that allowed ladies to enter the water from its beautiful sandy beaches with the utmost modesty.

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The Main Sands (during Quad Bike show)

Growth, however, was slow in the early decades because it took several hours to travel from London to the town and the cost was prohibitive for the average worker   Moreover, accommodation provision was negligible. This all changed in the nineteenth century.  Firstly, steamboat services reduced the cost and time of travel from London, with a discrete service operating to Margate by 1820.  Grain hoys unloading their cargo at London docks would return to the town “laden with passengers”.  Piers were built, initially to provide landing stages, but they soon became the places to be seen.

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The Harbour Arm

The expansion of the railway network, along with the enactment of the Bank Holiday Act in 1871, put the resort within the reach of working class Londoners.  For those who could afford a longer stay than the customary day trip, guest houses began to emerge, often in impressive Georgian and Victorian houses.  Margate was invariably in the forefront of innovation and convenience for the holidaymaker, not least in being the first resort to provide deckchairs on its attractive, sandy beaches in 1898.

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Fine, sandy beaches abound

With improved transport links, fine sandy beaches and a carefree atmosphere, Margate was a highly popular holiday destination during Victorian times, welcoming, by 1879, between 16,000 and 24,000 people every day during the summer.  Its popularity endured beyond the two world wars and well into the third quarter of the next century.  Day trippers, often on works or club outings, would stream off the trains and coaches from the capital for a “day on the sands, donkey rides, cockle and whelk stalls, fish and chips, Punch and Judy and amusement arcades”.

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Queues for fish and chips are long all day

Tracey Emin, a Margate native and impassioned champion of the resort, speaks lovingly of her upbringing in the town, and recalls, in the late sixties and seventies, visiting the “Lido – a giant art deco half-moon pool with an array of diving boards”, and listening to Tony Savage playing the organ while “old ladies dance together to Tea for Two”.  Thousands of striped deckchairs adorned the golden sands and the “Golden Mile would be a siege of people walking eight-deep with candyfloss and kiss-me-quick hats”.

Every day from May to September was “full of golden sunshine and beautiful emerald green seas”.  Carnivals, talent shows, bathing beauty contests, puppet theatres thrived and the Winter Gardens and Theatre Royal welcomed the major music hall and, more latterly, TV stars of the day.

The jewel in the crown  was the fifteen acre Dreamland Amusement Park.  The site was formally opened in 1920 when, inspired by Coney Island, the mile long Scenic Railway wooden rollercoaster was unveiled, carrying half a million passengers in its first year alone.  Other rides followed and the site was augmented, partly with investment from Butlins, by the construction of a huge ballroom, cinema, pleasure gardens, ice rink, zoo and Big Wheel.

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Improving refreshment facilities

Purchased in 1981 it became Bembom Brothers White Knuckle Theme Park, reverting to the Dreamland name in 1990, and, with the addition of a number of “high tech” rides, it was one of the top ten most visited tourist attractions in the UK.

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Once it lived up to its name………maybe again?

But a lethal combination of longer paid holidays, inexpensive package tours to Spain and, more latterly, the rise of low cost airlines, spelt the end of the halcyon days of the domestic seaside resort.  British tourists could now afford to travel abroad where sunshine was guaranteed and the cost of living was often cheaper.

Margate was especially badly hit by the dash to the Med. As fewer visitors stepped off the trains, much of the Victorian infrastructure – piers, sundecks and Grade II listed buildings – were blown up or left to rack and ruin. Natural disasters also put paid to much loved icons, with the 123 year old pier perishing during a violent storm in 1978.

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Sunday lunchtime outside one of its many pubs

Many of the large guesthouses, of which the town was once proud, were split up into bedsits, others became care homes or social housing, inhabited by asylum seekers, refugees and the elderly, placed there by local authorities from as far afield as London.

As the number of visitors dried up, local industry declined, resulting in abnormally high levels of unemployment and social deprivation for the region with the accompanying increase in crime.

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Only the sign remains

The sale of Dreamland in 1996 led to many of the rides, including the Big Wheel, being removed to other parks or sold off.  In 2003 the new owners announced that the park would close and the land sold for retail and commercial use.  Its closure came two years later, sold for a fraction of its real value. Around a third of the Scenic Railway, now Grade II listed and the second oldest in the world, was severely damaged in an arson attack in April 2008.  Despite having its Listed building status upgraded to Grade II* (buildings of special architectural or historic interest) the Dreamland Cinema also closed in 2007, replaced, inevitably, by an out of town multiplex cinema.

Even the famed Main Sands progressively lost their glamour.  The only remaining donkey ride licence holder in the resort gave up his licence in 2008, signalling the end of a service that had thrilled small children for more than two centuries. And as recently as June 2010 year businesses complained that the “stench of rotting seaweed” on the seafront “driving away tourists”.

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Looking back towards town from the harbour arm

To compound the frustration for Margate, its neighbours Broadstairs and Whitstable , have both enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, trading primarily on their respective Victorian and “foodie” identities.  That said, the typical visitor to those resorts was always a little more sophisticated than the traditional working class visitor to Margate.

In order to remain a viable tourist destination, the challenge for Margate is to enhance and, where necessary, revamp the unique and appealing parts of its product to meet changing tastes.  If it can develop new attractions and facilities that satisfy the modern holidaymaker, as well as entice customers craving a lost past, then even better, especially in a period of austerity.

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Heaven for every child from ages 2 to 102

And despite its recent troubles Margate still has outstanding natural features that ought to be marketed to the hilt.  The beaches are excellent, in particular the lovely sweeping curve of the Main Sands, which has consistently achieved Blue Flag status, though controversially and, it is anticipated, temporarily, it was removed in August 2010.

Moreover, despite their current shabbiness, many of the remaining Georgian and Victorian houses along the seafront have an air of gentility that, with careful renovation, could light up the promenade again.  And the Old Town, with its narrow lanes and streets, also exudes a charm that could be better promoted to attract the missing tourists, though the preponderance of boarded up shop fronts makes it hard for the visitor to look beyond the current down at heel atmosphere.

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Scenes from the  burgeoning artistic quarter

There are two major developments, part of a wider regeneration project, which might just put the town back among those premier seaside resorts such as Blackpool and Bournemouth that have successfully ridden the storm. Dreamland is Margate’s core, talismanic built attraction.

There is now hope for its future.  Rejecting the previous owners’ desire for it to become a retail and commercial site, local people and Government have secured its continued use as a leisure facility. The aim is to redevelop it as the world’s first amusement park of historic rides and attractions, the centrepiece of which will be a renovated and restored Scenic Railway.

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Another of the lovely beaches

Some vintage rides have already been donated, including many of the unique rides from the defunct Pleasureland Southport amusement park such as the 1940s Catapillar Ride, King Solomons Mines rollercoaster, workings from the Ghost Train and River Caves and Hall of Mirrors. The Junior Whip from Blackpool Pleasure Beach and the now-demolished water chute at Rhyl are also destined for new homes on the North Kent coast. The success of Dreamland’s new incarnation when it opens will be fundamental to the town’s financial and spiritual well being.

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Main Sands with artistic quarter in background

Art and culture stand alongside heritage at the heart of Margate’s regeneration plans.  Conceived as a new twist on its tourist offer the £17.4 million Turner Contemporary art gallery is located in a plot of land adjacent to the harbour.  It is already having the same positive impact as the Tate Gallery in St Ives in Cornwall has had.

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Turner Contemporary watches over the fishing boats

J.M.W. Turner said that Margate had the “loveliest skies in Europe”, and painted more than  a hundred  scenes to prove his point.  The controversial gallery named in his honour plans to exhibit work from a variety of artists, including that of Tracey Emin.  The gallery is designed not only to attract high paying visitors but also to reduce the town’s reliance on the summer season by providing year round exhibitions.

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The evidence for Turner’s claim

Margate has endured spectacular growth, maturity and depressing decline over the past two hundred years.  Restoring it to its former glory will be a daunting task but, through the planned marriage of art and heritage, spiced with nostalgia and allied to its wonderful natural assets, it deserves to succeed.

And on a glittering March afternoon like that on which I wrote this piece, there are fewer finer places to be.

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