Welcome to my hometown: How Folkestone has totally transformed since my childhood

·8-min read
Sunny Sands beach (Getty/iStock)
Sunny Sands beach (Getty/iStock)

During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home Towns” is a series in which we celebrate where we’re from.

Every run-down town in the Nineties and Noughties had one: the dodgy nightclub with a monopoly on teenagers wanting to find a hook-up on a Saturday night. In Folkestone, my hometown, that club was La Parisienne – better known as The Priz – which shared exactly none of the French capital’s charm, unless you count its grimier public toilets. Located on the beachfront next to the decommissioned port, The Priz was the scene of many ill-fated teenage snogs – a few of them my own – and summed up growing up in Folkestone back then: a bit grotty and sticky underfoot; a place to escape as soon as humanly possible.

It hadn’t always been so gloomy. The railway’s arrival in 1851 had transformed a simple fishing town on Kent’s south-eastern coast into a bustling cross-channel port, and a holiday destination in its own right. Grand hotels offered uninterrupted views of the Channel, and the Decimus Burton-designed Leas – a beautifully manicured clifftop promenade with access to the beach via funicular railway – was the place to be seen for Victorians. But like many other British seaside towns, the advent of affordable air travel in the Fifties triggered a sharp decline in tourism, and thus the economy. Construction on the Eurotunnel in the late Eighties brought jobs to the area, but in turn saw the port slowly decommissioned, eventually becoming obsolete in 2000 when the last SeaCat – or, as my dad referred to it, “the vomit comet” – departed for Boulogne.

All of this meant that, by the time I was a teenager, Folkestone felt past it. The high street was already starting to falter, with Marks and Spencer and Woolworths biting the dust and leaving large, hard-to-fill spaces. The Old High Street – a steep cobbled lane that leads from the town centre to the harbour – was unloved and unfrequented. At its end, you could turn left onto Tontine Street – the unofficial centre of all of Folkestone’s least salubrious activities – or right, to the ghost town of the port. Beyond that, on the beach, the Rotunda funfair had also met its demise, leaving just The Priz and the Grand Burstin Hotel, dominating the view like an ugly, beached cruise liner. Suffice to say, when I left for university, I didn’t ever imagine spending more than a few days in these parts again.

The pandemic had other ideas. When I found myself back home at my mum’s for three months between house moves last year, I thought, reluctantly, it would give me the chance to rediscover the town I had left behind. Instead, I was met with a totally different place.

Of course I had heard, read, and even experienced snippets of Folkestone’s regeneration over the years. The Folkestone Triennial launched in 2008, turning the town into a giant art gallery and drawing contemporary artists including Tracey Emin, Anthony Gormley and Richard Woods to create artworks now dotted across the landscape. The Quarterhouse, a buzzy cultural hub that hosts music, comedy and theatre, opened on Tontine Street in 2009 and quickly became a thriving community space; and Rocksalt, a glass-fronted seafood restaurant overlooking the fishing harbour, had opened in 2011 and began to pique the interest of the formerly oblivious foodie world.

Folkestone Triennial sees new artwork commissioned every three years (Thierry Bal)
Folkestone Triennial sees new artwork commissioned every three years (Thierry Bal)

But more than any single opening or event, Folkestone feels as if it’s been shown real love and consistent nurturing thanks to organisations such as Creative Folkestone and The Roger De Haan Charitable Trust (De Haan being the former owner of the Saga Group, still one of the area’s biggest employers).

The Creative Quarter, as it is now known, is totally unrecognisable – Tontine Street is dotted with gallery spaces, cafes and bars, each painted in a different pastel hue. The Harbour Arm has been reimagined as a community space, the disused train terminus turned into a leafy walkway leading to a fair-weather hub of award-winning bars (more on them below). The Old High Street, whose previous incarnation brought to mind JK Rowling’s Knockturn Alley, is hit after hit – upcycled furniture, bookshop-cum-cafes, ethically-crafted kidswear, and vintage stores selling chore coats and boiler suits that shouldn’t work but somehow do.

To my shock, now, when I hear people talk about Folkestone, I’m proud to tell them that it’s where I grew up

Of course, not everything has changed. Areas of deprivation remain, and youth unemployment is still above the national average. The town centre, like many across the UK, is struggling as major retailers shut up shop, not helped by the recent demise of Debenhams – although the former site is currently busier than ever having been commandeered as a mass vaccination centre since January.

But now, when I hear people talk about Folkestone, it’s of a vibrant seaside destination, just 55 minutes from London on the high-speed link from St Pancras. It’s about the UK’s largest urban outdoor contemporary art exhibition. To my shock, now, when I hear people talk about Folkestone, I’m proud to tell them that it’s where I grew up.

It’s genuinely hard to pick Folkestone’s best bits today because there’s so much good stuff here, but here are some of its must-tries (including some of the local stalwarts that have stood the test of time and were undeserving of my teenage antipathy).

Eat

It took a long time for Folkestone to champion its seafood, despite the little fishing harbour having landed crabs, lobsters and more for centuries. Today, alongside stalwarts such as Bob’s Seafood – a family-run stall that’s 45 years young – you’ll find Little Rock, a new seafood spot on the beach by the harbour arm, serving up locally landed mackerel, gilt head bream and shellfish platters from a slick shipping container. Wander up towards the Old High Street and you’ll find Pick up Pintxos offering Basque bites, a new outlet from gloriously filthy burger joint Lucky Chip, and The Folkestone Wine Company – a tiny, booking-essential restaurant from chef David Hart (alumni of The Sportsman in Seasalter) serving seriously good European-inspired dishes.

Seafront restaurant Rocksalt (PRESS PICTURE)
Seafront restaurant Rocksalt (PRESS PICTURE)

Drink

It would be remiss of me not to mention The Chambers, a cafe and subterranean bar just off Sandgate Road that my friends and I more or less lived in through our A-level years – it’s still a great spot for live music and DJ sets at the weekends. But if you’re here for the seaside, and the weather is good, the Harbour Arm is really the place to be, with The Lighthouse Champagne Bar – every bit as Instagrammable as its name suggests – and The Pilot, another spot on the new Beachside site where you can sip cocktails from deck chairs and old waltzer carriages on the pebbles. On the Old High Street, Folklore is a cool cafe by day and bar by night, and is well worth a visit not least for its disco-themed loo.

Play

Down the cliff from the Leas but before you hit the beach you’ll find the Lower Leas Coastal Park, the largest free adventure playground in the southeast, where there’s also a grassy amphitheatre hosting plays through the summer months. If you’re keen to hit the water, Folkestone Sea Sports and The SUP Hub operate on the harbour next to Sunny Sands beach and will guide you on a floating tour of the harbour by kayak or stand-up paddle board. Most excitingly for Folkestone, and hot off the back of the Olympics, the new F51 skate and BMX park will open later this year on Tontine Street. It’s been designed by local architect Hollaway and will be the world’s first multi-storey skate park, with each floor taking a different theme and offering varying levels of difficulty. There’ll also be boxing and bouldering facilities, plus a cafe for those of us better suited to having our feet on the ground at all times.

Folkestone has a vibrant skating scene (Thierry Bal)
Folkestone has a vibrant skating scene (Thierry Bal)

Walk

Until 2 November, the 2021 Triennial means that whichever direction you point yourself in, you’ll find yourself on an impromptu art crawl. For a more deliberate tour, visit the Triennial website where you can choose from three routes showcasing this year’s new pieces, including Rana Begum’s No. 1054 Arpeggio – a half-mile of beach huts painted into notes of colour on a keyboard – and Morag Myerscough’s Flock of Seagulls Bag of Stolen Chips, an installation of bright posters hung around a former gasworks which incorporate local residents’ descriptions of the town (even after the exhibition ends, some of the artworks will remain and become part of the permanent Folkestone Artworks collection).

If sea views are your primary objective, though, simply follow the coast east from the Martello Tower at the East Cliffs and you’ll hit the East Cliff and Warren Country Park, a nature reserve and series of forested trails with spectacular sea views.

Public artworks sit alongside Folkestone’s vintage shops (Thierry Bal)
Public artworks sit alongside Folkestone’s vintage shops (Thierry Bal)

Stay

One area that Folkestone still needs to work on is its hotel offering (if you don’t believe me, take a look at the TripAdvisor reviews of the Grand Burstin Hotel…). The best in town are the rooms at Rocksalt, with harbour views and cast iron bedsteads set against trendy open brick, Egyptian cotton bed linen and the requisite Nespresso machine. A more traditional spot, and channelling Folkestone’s former heyday, The Burlington is located overlooking the Leas promenade and is a classic Victorian redbrick hotel that, while a little dated, still provides a good location for exploring.

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