It’s not breaking news that Kentish seaside towns are back in fashion. There’s Whitstable with its candy coloured beach huts and genteel clientele; Broadstairs and its sweeping sandy beaches seemingly borrowed from across the channel; Margate, now an embarrassingly gentrified hipster parody; and Dungeness, its barren seascapes popular with artists and students back from university. Then you have Folkestone, the scrappy underdog with its growing art scene and seafront pubs where locals stare with fleeting suspicion as you walk inside.
It’s not a particularly photogenic place upon first sight. Anyone who arrives at Folkestone Central expecting sandy beaches and colourful architecture will be disappointed; the two most prominent buildings that greet visitors are the Saga HQ building and a supersized Asda. This isn’t a town overburdened with visual charm. Folkestone is no Brighton, Whitby or Falmouth - and that’s no bad thing.
It was the Channel Tunnel that finally spelt the end of days for Folkestone. At the start of the 20th century, the town was a thriving port and a popular holiday destination among royalty and the British elite. Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express from the town’s Grand Hotel, and King Edward VII apparently spent so much time there that locals would peer into his hotel to spy on him and his mistress, Alice Keppel. The first and second world wars weren’t great for business and, if ever there was a fact to illustrate how unlucky Folkestone has been over the years, it’s that the Germans used to drop their leftover bombs on the town before they headed home. The 60s and 70s welcomed overseas travel for the masses and Folkestone slipped into decline. The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 meant that its port was more redundant than ever before.
I have always loved Folkestone. I like the regeneration of it, but only because it seems to be an example of one of the few seaside gentrifications that has managed to do so in a respectful way. The locals are still included and it hasn’t tried to arrogantly recreate Peckham by sea, then blithely, righteously quip that it’s boosting the local economy through seasonal employment or by erecting craft breweries that the locals can’t afford to drink in.
Unlike some of Kent’s most aesthetically gifted seaside towns such as Whitstable and Broadstairs, Folkestone radiates a stoic, dour quality that is so singular to coastal towns that were once popular; if you’d spent centuries being battered by storms and icy, salty water, being picked up and dropped by DFLs (Down from Londons), you’d be pretty grumpy too. Its high street – not the cobbled stone-covered ‘creative quarter’ – isn’t much to look at, although I challenge you not to enjoy the Italian ice cream at La Casa Del Bello Gelato. It remains steadfastly and resolutely plain in comparison to its quaint postcard-perfect siblings further along the coast. This is a place where Banksy created a mural and a resident spray-painted a penis over the top of it. And yet, despite itself, Folkestone has always possessed certain charms – such as the majestic Leas, a picturesque clifftop promenade overlooking the sea. It was designed in the mid 1800s by Decimus Burton, who also worked on buildings and gardens at London Zoo and Kew Gardens, which gives you an indication of its visual prowess. In the middle stands a Victorian bandstand, surrounded by deckchairs in the summer. Folkestone has a lot of crummy hotels (read the TripAdvisor reviews of the Grand Burstin Hotel if ever you want a good giggle), but The Grand on the Leas is unarguably beautiful – a century-old building designed to be town’s sunniest spot with towering windows and views looking across the ocean to France.
I have fond memories of being treated to a ride in the Grade II-listed Leas Lift, which during the '40s and '50s carried thousands of tourists every day to and from the promenade to the seafront. It was closed in 2016 for health and safety reasons, but there are plans to restore it back to its former glory. If you carry on walking along the seafront you’ll reach the Lower Leas Coastal Park, which boasts the largest free adventure play area in the South East. There’s an amphitheatre that hosts children’s workshops, live music, opera and theatre, some of which are free – Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale is on the agenda for this summer. The award-winning space offers plenty of picnic tables and picturesque spots to sit with a drink, or there’s the Mermaid Café which sits high above the beach below and has long been reenergising walkers and tired families with paninis, jacket potatoes and big cups of tea.
On the other side of town, you’ll find Sunny Sands – a small, but perfectly formed sandy beach overlooked by grassy hills decorated with wild thyme and flowers. Charles Dickens came here to write the first chapters of Little Dorrit and described the view from his window: “The cliff overhanging the sea beach and have the sky and the ocean, as it were, framed before you like a beautiful picture." In fact, he continued, his vista was so pretty that he found himself distracted constantly and barely wrote anything. If you keep walking above the hills, you’ll come to The Warren and the East Cliffs, in which overgrown grassy meadows descend to a usually empty pebbly and sandy beach below. It’s overgrown now, but I like that about it – there’s nothing manicured or polished about this side of town. Steep grassy corridors of foliage and rock sea lavender lead down to the sea and the tiny bays themselves look out across to the White Cliffs of Dover. A rare colony of Grayling butterflies has made the Warren its home. You can swim here, but the water will be freezing so approach with caution.
A lot has been said about Folkestone’s rising arts scene. This small coastal town has the largest urban outdoor collection of contemporary art in the UK. The changing exhibition currently consists of 74 artworks by 46 artists, most of which have designed their respective piece with the exact site in mind. Think a treasure hunt of outdoor art and you won’t be far off. There’s Cornelia Parker’s mermaid sculpture, which sits high on the rock above Sunny Sands; under the Harbour Arm’s arches stands Anthony Gormley’s cast-iron human statue, which resolutely stares out to the sea; Lubaina Himid – the first Black woman to ever receive the Turner Prize – created a giant ceramic jelly mould where Folkestone’s former fairground, The Rotunda, used to be; and then there’s my favourite, Richard Woods’ Holiday Home, six colourful, cartoon-like bungalows that are dotted in unusual or unlikely spots around the town – in the middle of the shingle beach, floating in the sea or perched on top of rocks in a carpark – to open a discussion about second homes. The idea is that no site is too small, too unlikely, or too inconvenient for its neighbours, for a holiday home. The fifth Folkestone Triennial, The Plot, arrives from Thursday 22 July – Tuesday 2 November 2021, bringing together over 20 new outdoor artworks.
There is an argument that the long-standing locals couldn’t care less about public art, but there is a singular quality about these installations that eludes an art gallery which people often feel intimidated by. Public art is inclusive – whether you decide to engage with it or not is entirely up to the viewer.
My favourite way to do Folkestone is to start at the harbour. You could eat at Rocksalt, the town’s Michelin-starred restaurant, but you’d be daft to miss the fresh prawns and crab sticks at seafood stall Chummys. If the weather’s bad, head along the cobbled road and under the railway arch to The Ship Inn for hearty pub food in a warming, cosy setting. The fish and chips are particularly good. Afterwards, walk across the new landscaped walkway to the Harbour Arm – one of Folkestone’s biggest recent success stories and an example of gentrification done respectfully. The Harbour Arm was originally a railway terminal (and also a departure point for soldiers on their way to the Western Front), but remained desolate and unused until five years ago, when it was regenerated.
Now, it’s peppered with independent food and drink trucks and stands that span Greek food to excellent flat bread pizzas. Live music is a big part of the activity down on the arm, as the locals call it, and there’s no fee to watch any of it. In the summer, there’s a regular vintage market, where prices feel genuinely affordable, as well as film screenings where two tickets cost only £10. Picnic benches and tables and deckchairs look out across the sea to the majestic White Cliffs of Dover. Yes, there’s the family-run champagne lighthouse at the end of the arm, which plays a mix of reggae, blues and funk vinyl, but the best thing about the Harbour Arm is that people from Folkestone actually use it. There are as many people drinking canned beer and sandwiches bought from Asda in the town centre, as there are DFLs. Everyone is invited to watch the live music, soak up the atmosphere and look out to sea.
Once you’ve walked up and down the arm, explore the Old High Street or the ‘Creative Quarter’ as it’s now called, which offers a mix of colourful independent shops, cafes and bars, from record and vintage shops to galleries selling unusual neon artworks. My favourite is Rennies Seaside Modern, a beautifully-curated store which sells furniture, vintage seaside posters, ceramics and textiles by 20th Century British artists. Its owners, Paul and Karen Rennie, have such in-depth knowledge and a contagious enthusiasm for every single item in their shop. You won’t want to leave this tiny cabin of unique curiosities.
It’s a steep hill up the Old High Street, but a pretty one – each of the buildings are painted different colours – and a lot of the cafes and bars double up as performance spaces that host talks, workshops and gigs. Keep on walking until you come to Church St. Relative culinary newcomer Folkestone Wine Company has received positive reviews from the critics (and also from my grandad, who loved the food, even if he didn’t understand why the plates were mismatched), and The Pullman next door offers that rare thing of being a pub that works just as well in the summer as the winter – its garden and the terrace is pleasant during the warmer months and a seat by the open fire is warming beyond autumn. As nice as the Pullman is, I still prefer the British Lion which is about two minutes’ walk away in a picturesque, secluded spot called The Bayle. The British Lion is thought to be the oldest pub in Folkestone with parts going back to the 1500s and was a favourite of Dickens' when he visited. It’s a snug, welcoming place that locals love and is decorated with dried hops that hang from the beams. End your day here with a pint at the bar or hunker down in one of the booths.
Perhaps part of the reason I love Folkestone so much is that it’s where I first fell in love as young teenager. It makes me happy because it reminds me of a time when I was madly happy – that unique form of mad happy that only happens with intense, first love. I remember my first kiss in the then-dilapidated Silver Screen Cinema and long days spent at the Warren or Sunny Sands usually slightly cold and damp but never minding much. I remember listening to garage compilations in his room recorded off the radio and running through town singing them. I remember proms in run-down venues wearing dresses bought on sale at TK Maxx. Maybe I’ve looked at this grumpy little town with rose-tinted glasses ever since.
It’s not as uninviting as it used to be, but it’s as genuine and hardy as ever. Folkestone, you’re all that and a bag of very nice chips.
Photographs courtesy of Poppy Hollis.
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