Blown Away by Folkestone

In 2009 I discovered the North Norfolk coast. It was thrilling. The landscape was wild and beautiful and, in early March, my dog and I had the beaches to ourselves. I told all my friends about my new find because, well, I was a pioneer. None of them had ever travelled that far east. I took a cottage for a week and when I wasn’t proselytizing to my friends, I was congratulating the locals on their great good fortune to be living in an area of such extraordinary beauty.

I grew up in Folkestone in the 1970s. I moved away in the 1980s and even further away in the 1990s. When people asked me where I was from, I would say Kent rather than Folkestone. I was embarrassed by Folkestone because it was ugly and seedy and I often wished that my parents had founded their English language school in a prettier town, like Brighton or Eastbourne. I have lived in land-locked Hertfordshire since 2003 and for years I would drive down to Folkestone, just for the day, just to smell and see the sea, just to walk along the Leas and hear the seagulls. In spite of myself, I loved my hometown and I missed it.

In 2015, I was researching for a book and began to return to Folkestone more regularly. During casual conversations with strangers, I would tell them that I lived in Hertfordshire. This frequently led to rapturous descriptions of Folkestone –  the Harbour, the Creative Quarter, the Leas, the wonderful high-ceilinged apartments which they had bought for a song. They had moved down from London. On a whim, they told me. They’d come for the day and loved it. No regrets. Best decision ever.

These stories began to irritate me:

So you live in Hertfordshire, they’d say. Is this your first visit to Folkestone?’

No, I grew up here (ie. when it was gritty and edgy… long before you arrived).

Before long my hometown was being mentioned in The Times and The New York Times. Tom Dyckhoff in the Guardian described Folkestone as a bit like Detroit, without the Motown. I felt strangely uncomfortable about all this favourable attention. I thought too about my experience in Norfolk and realised that I must have appeared equally annoying to the residents of Cromer.

It was with these complicated and conflicting thoughts in my head that I sat down to a conversation with Diane Dever. In 2015, thanks to the generous investment of local businessman, Roger de Haan, the old Folkestone ferry and railway terminal was undergoing extensive renovation and Dever was given the responsibility of curating the Harbour Arm as a social space.  She has a degree in Art in the Public Space but her first degree was in Geography: Physical Geography is about the world and what it’s made of and Human Geography is about people and the patterns they create, she explained. I am interested primarily in how people work and fit into the natural environment. When you put that together with art, you’re trying to connect people emotionally or change them physiologically (through improved health and well-being).

When the Harbour Arm project came up, she was curious to see whether art-led regeneration could be done well; whether the maxim A rising tide lifts all boats could successfully be implemented in Folkestone or whether there would inevitably be winners and losers. The town has gone through many changes so Dever knew that change was possible:  The question I had was how would it change and how would people change with it?

Folkestone has a diverse history. At the turn of the last century it was considered to be the most aristocratic seaside resort in England. During WWI soldiers from across the Empire and Commonwealth gathered in Folkestone as they waited to cross the Channel to fight on Flanders fields. In 1914 one hundred thousand Belgian refugees arrived, fifteen thousand of whom subsequently settled here. The refugee crisis of one hundred years ago is currently being  replicated in Folkestone with, as yet, no satisfactory solution in sight. The Leas was described as one of the finest marine promenades in the world and the King of Belgium declared the town to be the prettiest place in existence. World War II was less kind to Folkestone. During the Battle of Britain fighter planes from nearby Hawkinge Aerodrome were shot down, either into the sea or onto the town itself. The military mined and wired the beaches and placed gun batteries along the Leas. Thirty-five thousand residents moved away. There followed more than two decades of demolition and re-planning and from the rubble of bombed Victorian villas grew brutalist blocks, so favoured by urban planners in the 1960s. In the 1970s Folkestone lost its edge as a seaside resort when affordable package holidays in Europe re-routed the masses to Malta and the Costa del Sol. In the 1990s came the Channel Tunnel.

We are experiencing our fourth or fifth wave of ‘in-migration’, reflected Dever. How do we welcome those who arrive here? How do we protect those who live here from feeling threatened?

This made me think about my own parents who moved to Folkestone from London. My Irish grandfather had lung damage from fighting in WWI and my Swiss mother had spent a year as a tuberculosis patient at a sanatorium in Davos. There must have been plenty of ‘people like us’ who wanted to escape the polluted air of London in search of a better life for themselves and their families. As my father wrote, in a letter to his uncle soon after we arrived in 1959: The air down here in Folkestone is worth a guinea a box. We promptly invited hundreds of foreign students into the town. Many people welcomed them and for sixty years students from the School of English Studies lived with Folkestone host families. Life-long friendships were made. Some people, however, weren’t enthusiastic about all these foreigners living in their community. It made them feel uncomfortable. It made them feel as though they didn’t belong.

I asked Diane about her origins. She was born in rural Ireland and her family moved to the Middle East when she was 18 months old. Her father was a civil engineer who worked on large scale infrastructure projects, such the construction of the Jebel Ali port. Friday was a holy day and we didn’t go to school. Instead we accompanied my dad on site visits. Other kids played in parks but we climbed through concrete tunnel segments that were used for drainage and roads. As an artist I have an obsession with construction sites and I’m fascinated by how economies grow. I remember Dubai as dirt roads. Now there are six-lane highways. Dever spent every summer in Ireland. Things were changing there too. When she was eleven, the family left Dubai and settled in south east London. She remembers coming down to Folkestone for day trips and, even as a teenager, she recognised the socio-economic challenges of seaside towns. She moved here in 2003. People are moving to Folkestone from London and elsewhere because it’s a great place to live. It’s not their fault and we shouldn’t blame them. After all, we did the same.

How can we study these migration patterns and learn from them? How do we resist the desire to criticize and exclude? Dever is answering the challenge through art. Some artists make paintings which they hang on walls and you can go and look at them. It’s a particular kind of relationship and it requires the crossing of a physical threshold. This can act as a barrier. If you’re making art outside, there’s no threshold, simply an encounter which can feel more democratic, more inviting. This is for you.

In 2015 Folkestone Fringe worked in partnership to create four festivals – Profound Sound, SALT, Festival of the Sea and Environment, Women of the World and Normal? Festival of the Brain. This created an opportunity for different kinds of people to come together. Renovations on the old harbour station were already underway and residents were expressing regret that plants were being uprooted and destroyed. For Salt Festival, a community decision was made to capture every species along the railway tracks before all the vegetation was removed. A gardening club was formed, seed heads were collected and catalogued and four oak trees were re-planted at Martello Primary School. When the project was complete, a BBC expert on shingle gardens came down to give a talk. It was a way of processing change that was already happening, said Dever. It offered people the opportunity to make a positive impact. It was also a way of grieving and letting go. We don’t know how this will roll out. All we can do is be open to it because it’s happening. Each wave of new migration looks with uncertainty and a critical eye at the wave that follows.

So how can we address the fear? How do we engage with the very real concerns that people have such as: ‘This is too big/it’s happening too fast/who are you?/where do I belong?. Folkestone is by no means unique. Similar changes are taking place in other waterfront towns as quayside marinas are developed. Community organisations such as Go Folkestone and the New Folkestone Society play a vital role in co-ordinating and discussing issues of public concern and working for the best future of our town.

In the early 1900s the Leas was a restricted area, privately policed in order to keep the working class out of the west end. Urban legend has it that some, who lived in the east end of Folkestone, would pawn what few valuables they had in order to dress up in fine clothes and parade freely along the Leas on a Sunday. One hundred years later and the development of the Harbour Arm established the old fishing community at the centre of this new space. Today there is no separation or exclusion. Everyone is welcome, says Diane. No one has to pay to go there. The music is free. You can enjoy a beer. The children can run around. Those who live along the Leas come down too. We created a social space there. The Arm is not in the town, it’s an out-at-sea place, a place that people go to at the same time, in the same way, for the same thing. And those who live here can look back at their town and see how beautiful it is.

Folkestone is on the map, not just because it’s pretty but because there is a vibrant culture in the town. Young people are no longer turning their back on Folkestone but are returning to live and work here, as artists and owners of small shops and cafes. People are moving to Folkestone because the town is an exciting place to be. We should be proud of that, says Dever.

Published in Go Folkestone, July 2022