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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?