Saturday, February 11th 2015
Folkestone is an ancient settlement whose origins go back at least to the Mesolithic era. There was a town here in Roman times and later, the Anglo-Saxons chose it as the site for a nunnery built for Eanswith, the daughter of King Æthelberht of Kent (c. 560 –616 AD). The origin of the town’s name is uncertain and appeared in many versions until it was fixed in its current form in the 19th century. A mention in the 7th century of Folcanstan leads linguists to think that the name derives from Saxon words meaning ‘Folca’s Stone’, though who Folca was and what role his stone played in the community remains a mystery.
In 1843, a steam ferry service was opened between Folkestone and Boulogne. This developed in the 20th century with the addition of Calais and Ostend as destinations and the introduction of car ferries and, later, hovercraft. Folkestone was always under the shadow of Dover, however, and the introduction of Eurostar international rail services through the Channel Tunnel came as a further blow. Cross-Channel passenger services finally ceased in 2000, leaving Folkestone to reinvent itself as a town of art and culture, a project in which I think it has been increasingly successful.
We arrived at Folkestone Central Station and descended to Cheriton Road whose bridge is looking spick and span with a coat of fresh paint. There were once three stations here but only two now survive. The earliest, built in 1843 no longer exists, leaving Folkestone West (1864) and Folkestone Central (1884). This was originally called Cheriton Arch, presumably after the bridge which must already have existed by then.
This time we didn’t go into town but headed for the cliff-top where there is a broad thoroughfare consisting of a road for motor vehicles, a pedestrian footway (unfortunately also open to cyclists) and, between them, a central strip of parkland. It is called The Leas.
From the Leas you have dramatic views of the beach far below and of the sea and sky, an immense panorama. The beach along the coast is mainly shingle, sand occurring only in patches, sometimes having been imported specially. There are no facilities for bathers, tourists or day-trippers along this section of seafront. People still seem to come here, however, perhaps because they thus avoid the crowds and the din of the conventional seaside resort.
Looking east, the sightline ends at the Harbour Outer Pier (as it is now called), the harbour itself being hidden by a bend in the coastline.
A setting such as this with fine views is an obvious place to build houses for those who can afford it. I think this terrace, whose design is reminiscent of many seaside squares and terraces in favoured watering places, may date from late Georgian or Victorian times. Several houses on the right of the block have been combined to make a hotel.
The process continues into our own day, of course, and beside the older terrace is a sizeable modern block but of apartments, not houses. (We may live more luxuriously than our forebears but we do so in a smaller space.)
One of the more intriguing buildings in this area is the Grade II listed Leas Pavilion designed by Reginald Pope. Its peculiarity is that it is somewhat like an iceberg in that only the top part shows above the surface, its bulk being below ground. Its low-slung shape and terracotta tiling make it unique among the neighbouring buildings. Today it looked empty and abandoned but perhaps a new purpose and life can be found for it. A plaque tells its history:
This building was constructed underground, so as not to block the light to the hotels then on either side of it. Opening in 1902 as a tearoom, with luncheons costing 2/6s and afternoon tea sixpence1, the lease required that it be used for “the highest class tea and refreshment trade with a view to securing the best class of visitor only.” In 1928 a stage was built for theatricals, becoming well known for its tea matinees where the actors had to compete with the noise of clattering tea cups.
In the 1960s it was home to the Arthur Brough Players. Arthur was a local actor best known for his role as Mr. Grainger in early episodes of Are You Being Served?
Another ‘iceberg building’ is Leas Cliff Hall. This extraordinary place of entertainment, now Grade II listed, was built into the face of the cliff and so only the top part is visible from the Leas. To see the main part of the building, you need to descend to the shore or take a flight in an aircraft, neither of which we were in a position to do. A picture will be found here. Designed by J.L. Seaton Dahl, it opened in 1927. The part of the building with a pointed roof serves as a cafe and we had a cup of tea here before continuing our ramble.
After our tea break we turned back east along the Leas, stopping to admire the colourful flower beds.
The point of transition from The Leas to a thoroughfare now called the Road of Remembrance is marked by a metal structure called the Step Short Centenary Arch. It was erected as part of the commemoration of the First World War as a memorial to ‘the millions of men and women who passed through Folkestone in the service of their country during the first world war’.
Near the arch stands this small memorial. I have not been able to find when it was erected or who designed it but it is quite recent. Memorials to to RAF are often found but one that makes reference to that service’s forerunner, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), are less common. It’s good to see the RFC remembered here.
At the top of the Road of Remembrance stands Folkestone War Memorial. By F.V. Blundstone and erected in 1922 it is a Grade II* listed building. As with many monuments of the period, the figure at the top is allegorical. I am not sure what she represents and English Heritage describes her simply as ‘a bronze female figure’. She is probably Victory or Peace or some variant of these. The railings were a later addition, perhaps when increasingly heavy traffic suggested a need to protect the monument.
We walked along the Road of Remembrance which slopes down to the shore. I looked over the rooftops to the beach and the sea as many must have done who marched down here on their way to the ships that would carry them to war and perhaps death. Today the scene was peaceful but the knitted poppies that decorate the railings are a reminder of those terrible events.
We walked to the beach where stands this interesting structure, officially called Out of Tune. As you can tell by comparison with the couple below it, it is huge in size. Two tall steel posts hold between them, strung on a wire, a 16th century bell. This originally belonged to the Church of All Saints in the village of Scraptoft in Leicestershire but was discarded because it was deemed out of tune with the other bells. The installation is by A.K. Dolven and a commentary on it by the artist will be found here. If truth be told, however, it seems that this installation results from ‘recycling’ a previous project entitled Untuned Bell.
Down here on beach level we also find elegant dwellings from a previous era when Folkestone was a resort for that ‘best class of visitor’ sought by the Leas Pavilion tea room in its heyday.
We wanted to visit the Outer Pier and thought you could get to it by walking along the beach. It turns out that you can get to it by this route but not onto it. After crunching our way across what seemed acres of shingle dotted with sea kale, we found that the pier presented itself as an impregnable wall. Fortunately, what I might call an unofficial path, made by people bursting open a wire fence, provided a route to the harbour from whence we could access the pier.
The harbour (see this map) is protected at its eastern end by the East Pier (designed by Thomas Telford in 1829 and Grade II listed) and crossed, near the western end, by a railway line which, unfortunately, is no longer used. The small arches render this part of the harbour accessible only to smaller craft. When we passed, the tide was out and the boats where sitting on the mud.
This is the station at which trains crossing the harbour arrived to meet the above mentioned steamer service to Boulogne. Apart from interruptions caused by two world wars, this popular service managed to continue until 1980 when it finally succumbed to competition from roll-on/roll-off ferries. The infrastructure remains as a sort of open-air museum exhibit of railway history.
What is known these days as the Harbour Outer Pier was also known as the Railway Pier. It was built for the steamers that carried passengers between Folkestone and Boulogne, many on the famous ‘no-passport’ trips. The first pier was built in 1861-3 and extended in 1881-3. A final extension, creating the pier as we know it today was added in 1887 to 1904. The lighthouse (Grade II) was built as part of this project.
The wording ‘WEATHER IS A THIRD TO PLACE AND TIME’ is a quotation from the works of artist and writer Ian Hamilton (1925-2006) and is one of the artworks displayed around the harbour and the town.
Having explored the pier, we returned to land once more.
As we passed beside the harbour again, we saw that the tide was coming in, restoring to the boats their normal element.
As it was a hot day and there would be a climb to the station, we went to a cab office and enquired for a cab. We were told there would be a wait of 25 minutes, so we decided to walk. By the time we reached Rendezvous Street, we were ready for rest and refreshment. We found our needs met in a Baptist Church.
The once Baptist Church, built around the 1870s by Joseph Gardner and now a Grade II listed building, has been taken over by Wetherspoons and converted into a pub called the Samuel Peto. Here we enjoyed a cooling drink and rest for our weary legs before confronting the last slopes to the station.
Though not so popular as some of its flashier neighbours, Folkstone has a charm and an interest of its own and is fast becoming a centre for art and culture (see Multi-cultural and artistic Folkestone). We are fond of it and will certainly back be for more of what it has to offer.
1These amounts in pre-decimal currency convert as follows. 2/6, “two and six” or “half a crown” (i.e. two shillings and six old pence) would be worth 12½ modern pence and sixpence, 2½ modern pence.