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Posts Tagged ‘White Cliffs of Dover’


A fanciful proposition?

Maybe.

Probably.

After all, there are no breathtaking bridges (unless you count the Foord Road railway viaduct), no crippling hills (no, not even the Old High Street), no $40 million properties (how much IS the Grand worth?) and no former high security prisons once claimed for Indian land sitting off the shore in Kent’s garden resort.

But, having spent a lot of time in San Francisco over the past twenty years, and written extensively about it in the past five years, I believe there are enough similarities to entitle me to suggest that it has more in common with my childhood playground, and now home, of Folkestone than one might at first think. The only differences are ones of scale and international repute.

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Before I plunge into this pool of fantasy, a brief disclaimer.

The only photographs included in this piece are those of Folkestone – for a variety of reasons: 1) Many people will already be familiar with some of the sights I refer to in San Francisco; 2) If they don’t, there are probably millions of images and billions of words on the internet to fill them in, and 3) I have posted hundreds of images elsewhere on this blog and I’d be delighted if you were inspired to go hunting for them!

Back to the proposition.

Firstly, they are both marine ports with world famous stretches of water/land on their doorstep (the Golden Gate and the White Cliffs of Dover) as well as glorious bay/sea views in all directions and weathers.

The boats in Folkestone’s pretty harbour hardly match up to the million dollar vessels you will find docked in Sausalito or Tiburon across San Francisco Bay. But the scene has a timeless charm that is endlessly captivating, whether at high or low tide.

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Both places teeter on the edge of their nation. Folkestone, with its proximity to mainland Europe, cemented by the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, has long vied with neighbouring Dover for the title of “Gateway to England” (personally, I think it’s a draw), while San Francisco is on the seismically challenged tip of a vast continent.

And because of that position, they have both served as major embarcation points for their nation’s military in time of war. In the 1914-18 conflict, it is estimated that as many as eight million soldiers marched down Folkestone’s Road of Remembrance to the Harbour Station en route to the fields of Flanders and France, while in the Second World War, more than a million and a half soldiers left for the Pacific conflict from San Francisco and its neighbour on the other side of the Bay Bridge, Oakland.

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“The City” (as (we) San Franciscans call it) is consistently placed high (invariably first) on culinary surveys. The Foodie Capital of the U.S.A is no idle boast. Folkestone may not have attained that elevated status (for a start it’s not in the U.S.A. but you know what I mean), but a number of fine cafes and restaurants have sprouted in the town in recent years, a visible and tasty manifestation of the regeneration, courtesy in no small part to the beneficence of Sir Roger de Haan.

Rocksalt, the seafood restaurant perched alongside the small railway bridge that separates the inner from outer harbour, has recently been named the thirtieth best in the U.K and Googies has been adjudged Restaurant of the Year in the 2016 Taste of Kent Awards.

There are a number of other quality restaurants (Copper and Spices, Blooms @1/4 and Follies are personal favourites), both in the town and dotted along the recently reopened Harbour Arm, capped by the lovely Champagne Bar at the foot of the lighthouse.

And one can’t forget, this being a seaside resort, that there are many establishments serving up fish and chips (not forgetting the mushy peas, white bread and butter and mug of tea).

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Coffee culture is strong too – many shops provide coffee and cake in addition to their primary products – and there is a distinct hipster vibe about Folkestone that mirrors – on a smaller scale of course – the atmosphere in neighbourhoods like the Mission, Cole Valley and Potrero Hill on the “left coast” of America.

Any self-respecting coastal resort would not be complete without its harbourside seafood stalls selling freshly caught crab and lobster as well as cockles, whelks and prawns. Bob’s, Chummy’s and La’s are all well established and popular purveyors of the denizens of the sea. A Fisherman’s Wharf in miniature you might argue.

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Home to Jack London and Dashiel Hammett, the Beat poets and the Summer of Love, inspiration for the WPA and Mission muralists, San Francisco has always had a reputation for being a town for artists, writers and musicians. After all, it provides a gorgeous natural canvas upon which to create. However, one of the consequences of astronomical rents in recent years has been to drive many artists out of the city.

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In contrast, Folkestone’s star as an arts venue of international repute is rising. Every three years – the next is in 2017 – it becomes host to a prestigious arts festival (Triennial), where artists are permitted free rein about town to create public artworks (there are already twenty seven pieces on display by luminaries like Yoko Ono and Tracey Emin).

This is the most high profile manifestation of a burgeoning arts scene centred on the Creative Quarter where galleries and performance space adorn the once run down Old High Street and Tontine Street. Indeed, it is the arts that has been the fulcrum of the regeneration that has become the envy of other coastal resorts around the UK (which, admittedly, have not had the benefit of a sugar daddy like de Haan.

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The City by the Bay is renowned for its year round cavalcade of neighbourhood and city wide festivals and fairs celebrating its cherished devotion to diversity, including Pride, the Haight Ashbury Street Fair, North Beach Festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Folsom Street Fair.

In contrast, Folkestone’s admittedly more modest, but nonetheless impressive, calendar of annual events, notably Charivari, the Harbour Festival, Leas Village Fete, Armed Forces DaySkabour and the Folkestone Book Festival among many others.

I cannot resist including a pet (not literally) subject of mine – gulls.

Both places boast a feisty, ravenous population, hardly surprising given their coastal position, but these, reflecting their human compatriots in each town, are genuine “characters”. The giant seagull artwork, now serving on Folkestone’s Harbour Arm as an unconventional tourist information kiosk, has become an unofficial poster boy (or is that gull?) for the town. But generally, so far, I’ve found the local birdlife noisy but reasonably friendly, especially when I cross Radnor Park of a morning when they waddle up to greet me (but don’t let me get too close).

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The same cannot be said for those that begin to circle San Francisco’s (base) ball park during the late innings of a Giants game in anticipation of feasting on leftover garlic fries. Fans remaining until the end of evening games have to have their wits about them.

There is one aspect of San Francisco life that I would not want to see replicated in Folkestone. San Francisco rents and the broader cost of living are the highest in the States, due largely to the influx of tech workers from Google, Facebook and Oracle to name but a few.

Now, the Alkham Valley doesn’t have quite the same cudos as Silicon Valley (pretty as it is – Alkham not Silicon), but there are other forces at play – improved accessibility to London through the high speed rail link, continued development and gentrification and relatively cheap house prices (for now) – that increase the risk of Folkestone becoming a town split between affluent “transplants” and residents who cannot afford to live in the place they were born and brought up in.

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There is a more substantial analysis called for here, and I may attempt it in due course. Moreover, there are other issues I might have explored – dogs and drinking spring to mind (that’s not about the bowls left outside the Leas Cliff Hall for the delectation of our canine colleagues but rather two very distinct subjects).

But, for now, there is certainly one further similarity between the two places that I must mention – I left my heart in both, in Folkestone as a ten year old gleefully gambolling (not gambling) in the rotunda and in 1995 on a fateful West Coast tour of the U.S.A.

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That may not strictly be true.

But it’s how it should work out.

The majority of my summer holidays between the ages of ten and eighteen (when I became too cool to hang on to my parents’ swimsuit tails) were spent in the once fashionable seaside resort of Folkestone in Kent, a seagull’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 and his cousins handsomely entertained for two weeks every August.

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Just occasionally, the vacation coincided with cricket at the Cheriton Ground where the county team hosted opponents from what appeared then to be exotic, distant places named Derbyshire and Northamptonshire.  My parents would install me in the stand around 10am and go off to do whatever it was they did while, 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 would corroborate either assertion.

But I don’t care – I was in Heaven.

In the absence of cricket I could be found staggering around the bracing pitch and putt golf 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 harbour and sandy beach. The family that ran our bed and breakfast, who went by what, to a ten year old in 1963 (and probably one in 2016 too), was the hysterically funny name of Clutterbuck, owned the shop at the beach end.

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Finally, there was a daily ferry service to Boulogne-sur-Mer in Northern France, where I spent my first day abroad. Unfortunately, my recollections of a youthful life on the ocean wave have more to do with leaning over the side of the boat than tucking into a full English breakfast in the café. It was a few more years, therefore, before I could indulge in what became lifelong passions for Brie and Roquefort cheese and French 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.

And now my wife and I have, or will soon have, means, motive and opportunity to live that dream ourselves. We have been frequent visitors to Folkestone and the neighbouring Kentish seaside towns of Margate, Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Deal and Whitstable in recent years, and enjoy each one for its particular attractions and atmosphere.

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When it became apparent that my father’s life might be 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 have the small task of selling two homes in Medway and buying a property on the coast. It is a slightly daunting, but undeniably, exciting prospect. It might be fanciful to think that, by mid to late summer, we will be opening our curtains and shouting “bonjour” to our French neighbours across the English channel every morning.

But it won’t be for want of trying – even foreign holidays this year might need to take a back seat.

So, apart from the obvious charms that childhood still weaves, what is it that lures us to Folkestone?

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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 greater leisure time and resources to travel further afield. The rotunda and surrounding attractions were demolished, the lively, cobbled Old High Street that winds up to the modern town centre fell into disrepair and many of the businesses dependent upon holidaymakers closed.

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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. And gone was the shop with the big picture window at the top of the Old High Street through which children and adults alike gaped in awe at sticks of Folkestone rock being made.

But, with extensive investment, there have been signs in recent years that Folkestone is beginning to stir again. The Old High Street has undergone a makeover. One of a kind gift shops, artisanal food stores and galleries, and attractive restaurants have emerged, along with a burgeoning artistic community.

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There may no longer be any cross-channel services, and the former harbour railway station may, for now, 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. And, of course, it is home to the Channel Tunnel and the swiftest escape to the continent.

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The East Cliff beach has been re-branded Sunny Sands and is as rammed with humanity as ever on a warm day. There are few better places to play beach cricket when the tide is out.

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And, last summer, the Harbour Arm, after years of abandonment, re-opened for several weekends with music, food and drink decorating its bracing promenade, providing “new” thrilling vistas back across the harbour. Currently closed for the winter, it is scheduled to resurface full time in May 2016.

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Our permanent residence could not have been better timed.

The jewel in Folkestone’s crown remains the Leas, once described as “indisputably the finest marine promenade in the world”, a wide clifftop walk with well tended flower beds and glorious views across the channel. Imposing old hotels speak of the resort’s former glory, no more so than the Grand and Metropole, though some are now holiday apartments. The Leas Cliff Hall is a popular stopping off point for musicians and comedians on tour. I will never forget a long and hilarious night with Frankie Howerd there back in the late sixties.

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On a clear day, you can almost pick out individual buildings on the French coast as you head towards the charming neighbouring resorts of Sandgate and Hythe with its access to the world class attractions of Port Lympne Wild Animal Park 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 later than the first. At the end of the line, you arrive at Dungeness on the tip of Romney Marsh with its end of the world atmosphere, where the abundant birdlife shares the shingle with two nuclear power stations .

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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.

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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 have not visited in recent years, will snigger or even guffaw at the idea, but the town is showing signs that it has a future.

We might even put you up while you visit!

Now, if they could only rebuild the Rotunda and resume playing first class county cricket there ………….

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With the exception of a couple of years in County Cork, all my summer holidays between the ages of 10 and 18 were spent in and around the once fashionable seaside resort of Folkestone in Kent, on the southeastern coast of England, a handful of miles from the fabled White Cliffs of Dover.

Although there was only one small, and invariably packed,  patch of sandy beach along its lengthy seafront (most was pebble and shingle), the magnificent Rotunda amusement arcade, fringed by fairground rides, putting green and boating lake, kept this young boy and his cousins handsomely entertained for two weeks.

And if, in the unlikely event we got bored, there was county cricket at the Cheriton and a testing pitch and putt golf course on the windswept cliffs overlooking the small but bustling harbour, where plates of fresh cockles and whelks were in abundant supply. Finally, there was a daily ferry service to Boulogne in Northern France, though my recollections of a youthful life on the ocean wave have more to do with leaning over the side of the boat than tucking into a full English breakfast in the café.

Folkestone may not have enjoyed the cheeky, “kiss me quick” ambience of Margate or Southend, but I loved its quieter, more refined atmosphere, and have much affection for it still. My parents even spoke on occasion of retiring to the resort but, sadly, it never happened.

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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 have taken advantage of greater leisure time and resources to travel further afield. The rotunda and surrounding attractions have 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.

Gone are the shops selling postcards, beach balls and buckets and spades. Gone are the traditional tea rooms and fish and chip restaurants. And gone is the shop with the big picture window through which children and adults alike gaped in awe at sticks of Folkestone rock being made.

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But there are signs that Folkestone is beginning to stir again. The Old High Street has undergone a makeover. One of a kind gift shops, artisanal food stores and galleries have emerged in recent years, along with a burgeoning artistic community. A handful of attractive restaurants have sprung up around town and extensive investment has been forthcoming. There may no longer be any cross-channel services, but the town’s accessibility from London and the rest of Kent has been enhanced by the arrival of a high speed rail service.

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The jewel in Folkestone’s crown remains the Leas, once described as “indisputably the finest marine promenade in the world”, a wide clifftop walk with well tended flower beds and glorious views across the channel. On a clear day, you can almost pick out individual buildings on the French coast as you head towards the neighbouring resort of Sandgate.   Imposing old hotels speak of the resort’s former glory, no more so than the Grand and Metropole, though some are now holiday apartments.

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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.

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The arrival of the Turner Contemporary, projected rebirth of Dreamland and high profile exposure on television have given Margate a disproportionate amount of attention in recent years. And that really ought to bear fruit in time. Broadstairs and Whitstable, with their attraction for more affluent Londoners, are already bucking the trend of decline.

But the Guardian newspaper’s recent rating of Folkestone as one of the world’s best holiday destinations in 2014 may serve to redress the balance somewhat. Those heady days of the past will never return, but Folkestone is showing signs that it may have a future.

Now, if they could only rebuild the Rotunda and resume playing county cricket there ………….

 

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You may be familiar with Mr Jingle’s assessment of Kent in The Pickwick Papers: “Kent, sir – everybody knows Kent – apples, cherries, hops and women”. Although the abundance of the first three may have been diminished in recent times (being a happily married man I could not possibly comment on the fourth), this still holds true to a great extent.

An alternative definition that I would subscribe to might be “coast, countryside and cricket”.  It is certainly a triumvirate of glories that make me a proud product of its soil. That pride has been rather dented over the summer months with the dismal displays, both on and off the pitch, of the county cricket club. The cradle of the game, home to some of its greatest ever players and with a tradition of playing cavalier cricket in front of large festival crowds in beautiful surroundings, now reduced to a laughing stock in the cricketing world.

Rising debts, the result of a succession of poor financial decisions, a stalled ground redevelopment programme at its Canterbury headquarters, poor communications with its members and supporters and woeful performances on the field leaving the team second bottom in the county championship, all combined to make the season one of the worst in the modern Club’s distinguished 141 year history.

And in the past few days, the coach and two of the senior batsmen have all departed, leaving the team desperately short of both numbers and experience. With doubts remaining too over whether the player of the season will get the new contract that he deserves, that situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

But in the past week, I have sought solace in some of the county’s many other delights – country walks through the full to bursting apple orchards of haunted Pluckley and the beechwoods and meadows of handsome Harrietsham, a stroll among the bookshops in civilised Tunbridge Wells, and Kentish beer and seafood at the Broadstairs Food Festival, overlooking the packed beach of Viking Bay, basking in the baking October heat and looking like a scene out of the nineteen fifities.

Though I currently live in the “compost heap” of the “Garden of England”, I am no more than an hour and a half, by car, bus or train, from any of its attractions – the castles of Hever, Scotney, Leeds and Rochester, the gardens of Sissinghurst and Emmetts, splendid houses like Groombridge Place, Finchcocks and Knole and what J.M.W Turner called the “loveliest skies in Europe” along the Thanet coast. Throw in two world class animal parks dedicated to conservation, the White Cliffs of Dover, otherworldly Romney Marsh, the rolling North Downs and atmospheric Wealden woodland – the list goes on (my apologies to any favourites of yours that I have missed out).

I count myself lucky in having been born, educated and, after a brief but largely loveless affair with other parts of England, lived in this wonderful county. I’ve been equally fortunate to have grown up hearing and reading  of the exploits of Woolley, Ames and Freeman and watching Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood in their pomp.

But whilst the experience of the cricket, at least at the professional level, has sunk in the past couple of years, there are still those other two features, and much more, to fall back on in the coming months.

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