We’ve been to Folkestone quite a bit recently, to both of East Kent’s two vaccination centres in the town. Although the weather wasn’t brilliant for our visits, we made the most of having to drive the 20 miles each way by re-acquainting ourselves with the place and seeing if work on the regeneration had begun again following the ‘lockdown’.
Folkestone is a coastal town in Kent, about 7 miles South-west of Dover. A harbour was built there in the 17th century, primarily for fishing boats. In 1843 the railways arrived, and the South Eastern railway bought the harbour, transforming the town into a successful cross channel port, where Charles Dickens regularly caught a packet ship to his favourite Boulogne, although he also stayed in Folkestone to write. With the coming of the railway the population expanded rapidly. In 1885 the Leas Lift, a water powered funicular railway, was built to link the promenade on The Leas with the seafront below. At the end of the 19th century Folkestone was becoming very fashionable amongst the rich and famous and many luxurious hotels were built, notably two on the The Leas – firstly The Metropole, followed soon after by The Grand, which was initially a Gentlemen’s Residential Chambers and only became a hotel in 1903; Edward VII was a frequent visitor, sometimes with the Queen and at other times with his mistress, Alice Keppel. The Leas is an attractive space that was designed by Decimus Burton, an important Victorian architect, and a good place to walk or sit on one of the many seats; there are sea views and on a good day you can see France quite clearly. The Metropole is now entirely divided into apartments, but part of The Grand is still a boutique hotel (the rest is flats) and I’ve had lovely afternoon teas and at one time a lunch in the conservatory style Palm Court at the front.
The start of WW1 brought an end to the glory days. During the First World War, Folkestone was a major embarkation point for millions of soldiers bound for the trenches of France and Belgium. After WW1 Folkestone again became a holiday and day-trip destination, largely for middle class families, and in the 1920s The Leas Cliff Hall was built on the site of an earlier hall with the main structure on the side of the cliffs and entrance from the promenade above; it’s still an important entertainment venue.
Then came WW2 and due to its close proximity to France Folkestone suffered a great deal of shell and bomb damage but this time rebuilding took almost 20 years, with some rather ugly buildings filling the bombed gaps, although I do like one of the 1960s block of flats on the clifftop. Ferry crossings to Calais and Boulogne were enjoyed by many and day trip `booze cruises` became popular: my first experience of going `abroad` was on a ferry trip from Folkestone to Boulogne, which is a lovely old town that sadly is no longer an option for a day trip. But with the building of the Channel Tunnel at nearby Cheriton the regular ferry service ended, the goods yard closed and Folkestone once again went into decline. The harbour station became derelict, the Rotunda amusement park closed, the Leas lift closed due to safety issues and recently Debenhams, the only department store, closed. However, now it’s apparently `on the up` again, helped by the regeneration project including the Creative Quarter and art Triennials (which I review separately).
Work has started again on the seafront with apartment blocks and houses being built on the site of the old Rotunda. Whether this is an improvement or not, I’m not too sure, although I think it’s a shame that they are being built in front of Marine Crescent, a row of Victorian houses, which although a bit run down will now be stuck behind the new builds. Presumably the money generated by these seafront homes is necessary to pay for the other improvements in the town. I only hope that next on the list for repair will be the Leas Lift as it’s a steep walk from the seafront to The Leas, making it difficult for those with mobility problems to see both parts of the town without having to drive between them. On the positive side there is quite a lot of parking in Folkestone, the majority of it paid, although there is some free parking by the sides of roads for up to 2 hours.
Folkestone has good transport links – there are two remaining railway stations – unsurprisingly Folkestone Central is the closest to the town centre and harbour. Highspeed trains take less than an hour from London St. Pancras, making Folkestone commutable, but from Charing Cross it’s more like an hour and forty minutes. The M20 motorway ends at Folkestone (junction 13) and the road continues to Dover as the A20. I can recommend the bus service from Canterbury to Folkestone on the Gold No. 16 route (board destination Folkestone or Hythe); these buses run every 20 minutes and the journey takes about 50 minutes. This bus passes the end of Folkestone Central station road so that’s an option to get into the central Folkestone bus station in a few minutes if coming by train.
Roger De Haan, formerly of the Saga company, set up a charitable trust to support many projects in and around Folkestone, including the Harbour Arm, which has been turned into a food and drink destination that is popular with visitors and locals alike; there are various free events such as vintage fairs and film shows taking place, mainly at weekends. The Roger De Haan Charitable Foundation is also funding a project to build an indoor multi-storey urban park for skateboarding and climbing, currently under construction at the end of Tontine Street near the harbour. Another project, completed to coincide with the centenary of the beginning of WW1 was the Step Short Arch at the top of renamed Remembrance Road where it meets the end of The Leas, erected as a memorial to the soldiers who marched down the steep hill on their way to the harbour.
A lot of work is still being carried out by Folkestone and Hythe District Council in the Lower Leas Coastal Park which is a linear park on the undercliff and has a very large free adventure playground for children, a large amphitheatre for performances, formal gardens with some unusual planting and wildlife areas. There are public toilets in the area behind the Mermaid cafe on the seafront towards Sandgate and rows of colourful beach huts overlook the shingle beach and sea. Road access is via Lower Sandgate Road, but pedestrians can walk down the paths and steps from The Leas above or over the Boardwalk across the shingle beach from the Harbour Arm. National Cycle Route 2 runs from Sandgate along Lower Sandgate Road.
Although Folkestone, like many seaside towns, has ugly and untidy areas and its fair share of vaping shops and empty premises it does seem to be `on the up’ – and it still has something to suit every pocket – from the upmarket Rocksalt restaurant (other good restaurants are available!) to seafood stalls, or even buying fresh fish from Folkestone Trawlers’ fish shop in the Fish Market, as I did in lock-down when everything else was shut.