A town guide to Folkestone
- Credit: Archant
A little seaside town with ambitious plans, Folkestone is being tipped as the next big thing
The residents of Folkestone are pretty tired of hearing their town described as the ‘new Margate’ or the ‘new’ anything else for that matter.
An ancient and proud port that, like so many of our coastal towns, is seeing the benefits of regeneration, Folkestone does indeed have big plans for the future. But its increasing trendiness isn’t in danger of overshadowing its important history any time soon.
Although evidence suggests the area has been occupied since the Stone Age, Folkestone remained a fairly small fishing community for centuries due to its rough sea and a shingle beach, which made it hard to land boats.
Although its strategic importance was always recognised, becoming a ‘limb’ of the Cinque Ports in the 15th century, it wasn’t until 1809 that the construction of a pier and a harbour changed the town forever.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries it was one of the country’s major shipping ports, with ferry services to the continent, as well as a popular seaside holiday resort.
But it’s been a long time since tourists flocked to Folkestone’s beach and the port has suffered since the opening of the Channel Tunnel. It seemed its glory days were sadly behind it – until a transformative, long-term vision for the area was put forward.
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A great deal of work has already been carried out, including regeneration of the old town area – now called the Creative Quarter – and reviving the harbour arm last year, while work is currently underway to restore the listed harbour viaduct, the swing bridge and the old harbour station.
The viaduct, which once carried trains right into the harbour, is set to become a new walkway, allowing visitors pedestrian access along the old platforms, down the tracks and onto the harbour arm itself.
There are even plans to restore three old Pullman carriages and locate them in static positions. After that, the next step is a major seafront redevelopment, with plans for 1,000 homes and 10,000sq m for retail use.
Despite these changes, Folkestone retains its seaside charm, offering fresh sea air, affordable family homes and the promise that it is ‘up and coming’.
Leisure time here is spent walking along the coast, at the lovely Lower Leas Coastal Park, The Warren and Sandgate beach; enjoying the arts at the Leas Cliff Hall and The Quarterhouse; or exploring the galleries, workshops, boutiques and cafés in the Creative Quarter.
The only negative hanging over the town is the recent closure of its historic cliffside funicular, the Leas Lift, due a lack of funding for expensive repairs. It’s since been mothballed in the hope that it can be financed in the future.
Shopping and eating
The town is spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out. With a particular focus on independent cafés and restaurants, some of our favourites include the sublime Rocksalt, The Smokehouse, Steep Street Café (see our postcard from Folkestone), Googies, El Cortador, Conchitas, The Pullman and Follies. There are also several great places to eat and drink on the harbour arm.
For the full Folkestone experience, take afternoon tea at the The Grand hotel with views across the Leas Promenade and, on a clear day, across to the French coast.
And if it’s little independent shops you’d like to browse through, the Creative Quarter - packed with artists, makers and businesses - including Kitty McCall fabrics and lifestyle boutique, The Great British Shop, Pearl & Hemingway vintage and Hot Salvation records - is just the place.
For more mainstream shopping there’s also the excellent Bouverie Place shopping centre.
Harbour Arm 2017
Having been fully renovated and become home to a small community of independent businesses last year, Folkestone’s harbour arm is in the swing of the summer season again - and that means food, drinks and plenty of live entertainment.
Only closed when poor weather and rough seas make it dangerous, the harbour arm in summer feels like a food festival.
Most of the small traders are now open regularly at weekends, with extended opening hours during school holidays and in the peak months. Entertainment is also organised at weekends, with the emphasis on providing a platform for local musicians.
Harbour arm curator Diane Dever says: “From the outset we have made it a priority to create opportunities for local entrepreneurs to establish businesses on the harbour arm, so visitors will encounter no national chains or high street logos.
“Our outlets are often also creators and makers, and we are proud that many of them have grown with us.”
New developments this year will see favourites That Burger and The Greek Bus (literally a converted double decker serving Greek food) introducing their own take on breakfast. Cockles will also expand its traditional offer, adding to its menu with fish and seafood offered sushi-bar style.
• Keep up with the latest developments and the entertainment programme by searching Folkestone Harbour Arm on Facebook or following @FstoneHbourArm on Twitter.
Folkestone’s role in the First World War
A new book by author Stephen Wynn looks at the important part the town played in the First World War. An estimated 10 million troops and nurses passed through its harbour between 1914 and 1919.
Because of its geographical location, the town was always going to be heavily involved in the course of the war. Shorncliffe Camp saw the arrival of Canadian soldiers; infantry who had come to practice in its purpose-built trenches, and cavalry units who put their horses through their paces on its open grounds.
As well as this, there was an influx of Belgian refugees who arrived in the town, having escaped the advancing Germany army. Most stayed for the duration of the war, enjoying the hospitality of local people who had taken them in with open arms.
With the town a hive of military activity, the people of Folkestone went about their business as best they could. For many this included worrying about the wellbeing of a loved one who had gone off to fight in the war, but it wasn’t just on the Western Front that death reared its ugly head.
On one occasion it happened in Folkestone, in what has become known as the Tontine Street Air Raid. A total of 71 men, women and children were killed and another 94 were injured in this German air raid, which took place on 25 May 1917.
It’s an affordable place to buy property, which is part of the reason it’s attracting young families moving out of London. Expect to pay between £75,000 and £150,000 for a one-bed flat, between £160,000 and £300,000 for a two-bed terraced property and between £190,000 and £370,000 for a three-bed semi. Larger detached properties, many with views across the sea, are on the market for up to around £1.7million.
On the coast, between Dover and Hythe, Folkestone is easily accessed via the M20 and has a regular rail service with trains to London and Dover Priory. It takes around 90 minutes to get to Charing Cross.
Sat nav: CT20 1AU.
Postcard from Folkestone
I’m Alice Larkin from Steep Street Coffee House, a literary café inspired by the book cafés of Paris. We have been here, in the midst of artist studios, tiny boutiques and seaside antics since 2015. Our aim is to create a warm and atmospheric space where people can come to enjoy our freshly roasted Steep Street House Blend and home baked food.
In my opinion a good café is an essential part of community life and we loved the idea of being part of the buzzing Creative Quarter in Folkestone. The books work because they set a welcoming and homely atmosphere that makes people feel comfortable and relaxed - we also operate as a book shop so they aren’t just for display.
It sometimes feels like Folkestone chose us rather than the other way round. We were visiting with no intention of setting up a business and moving here from our home in Brighton but over the couple of days we spent here we just fell in love.
The old town is beautiful; we are right beside the coast with a gorgeous coastal park on one side and the secluded, cliff edged Warren area on the other. Mainly though, what attracted us was the feeling that things were happening here. We came across various events organised by local groups of people. It felt like things were possible in Folkestone.
As a casual diner you are spoilt for choices: Big Boys Burgers, Googies, Luben’s, El Cortador, Beano’s, The Pullman and Follies are just the tip of the iceberg. If you are celebrating then you should head to Rocksalt or Blooms. In the summer there are loads of street food venues on the harbour arm - it’s heaving with activity and the converted lighthouse Champagne bar at the end is the perfect place to treat yourself.