Coming Soon…Radical Folkestone Walk

It’s Friday morning and I’m buying a return ticket for the train. Yet again comparing notes with the woman in the ticket office about our hoped for retirement dates. It feels as if time is in limbo and we are both frozen for ever in a world of toil. Like billions of others. She asks me if I’ve seen a poster in town which apparently features someone who looks just like me. This double is advertising retirement apartments.

The train rides along the coast. The sea is blue, the sky is blue and there are nice big white fluffy clouds bouncing along in stately glory.

The journey would be better if there was a bit of peace and quiet on the train. But the rail network is managed by one-dimensional people whose sole purpose is to ensure that buying a ticket is as expensive and complicated as possible.

They have created a culture on the railways where travelling by train has long ago had any fun sucked out of it. They imagine that if they pump endless announcements into the carriages that they have created an information system. This is yet another measure of how much they don’t know.

I wonder who these people are? They appear to have had something injected into their heads. Whatever it is has also been injected into the heads of most of the politicians in England.

Nothing works. Transport systems, health services, housing provision, schools, controls on pollution; they are all struggling. And yet a layer of grinning people with yapping mouths insist everything is getting better. It is a curious tension and contradiction and it will be interesting to see how it is resolved.

The first thing to do in Folkestone is collect a book. The door of the bookshop is locked but the sign says ‘open’, and underneath a notice with an arrow, ‘please ring the bell’. I hear it sound in some deep space within. It gets to the point where I’m wondering whether to ring again but then I sense movement and an elderly man emerges from behind a bookcase. He seems surprised to see me. I explain that I’ve come for a book. He explains he’ll get the owner.

Inside the shop the books can be examined during the wait. History books of the wars of Irish independence, the class struggles of the early years of the industrial revolution, battles against enclosures. Local history about the development of Folkestone from a fishing town to a centre of pleasure and entertainment for the new middle classes, the development of mass production from the 1880s onwards.

The woman appears. I introduce myself and explain that I’ve come to collect a book by John S Clarke ( Satires, Lyrics and Poems, Chiefly Humorous). I explain who John S Clarke is, ‘poet, parliamentarian and lion tamer’.

‘He really was a lion-tamer’, I add for emphasis. She stands looking at me and doesn’t say anything. I wonder if she thinks I’m half-mad.

‘Well’, she says eventually, ‘it sounds like it’s found the right owner’. Nicely done.

The book is much smaller than expected. For some reason I was expecting a large book, but this is like a Penguin paperback. It was published by The Socialist Labour Press, Glasgow, in 1919. The Red Clyde. The book as an object has it’s own powerful atmosphere and design.

There is no plan on how to initially approach Folkestone. I will walk along the Leas to see how I will be blown around by those mysterious forces which take us down this street rather than that street, make us stop outside this building, rather than that one, wander into this church, sit in this particular garden and so on.

The new flats on Mermaid Beach are the first part of the masterplan by billionaire Sir Roger De Haan. The building has a ‘value’ of £44 million. What the ‘value’ of the beach might be is not so easily discovered.

Clifton Crescent is just off the Leas. I rather like this stucco stuff. There are curious bits and pieces, angles, curves, chimney pots and here and there some ornamentation. They seem homely and cosy and there is nothing wrong with that. The idea of living inside a machine is quite frankly absurd. Most of the crescent is mid 19th century and listed.

Holy Trinity Church on Sandgate Road was a ‘discovery’. I could see the octagonal tower through gaps in the housing in Clifton Crescent. The gaps, the trees, the bay windows, the tower in the distance all created a scenario which encouraged exploration. Multiple points of small interest which accumulate and come together in different ways can have a more satisfying impact than a single giantic ‘iconic’ building which dominates and oppresses and suffocates its surroundings.

The church gets a sniffy review in the original Pevsner for the area. Perhaps tastes change in ways which a new generation might not properly understand. It can be fashionable to be arch in one period, and gushing and effusive in the next. I’m not clear what the fashions of criticism are in 2023 but I rather like this church. For it’s indifference to passing fads, it’s hat-tip to the emergence of Arts & Crafts and that it still has an air of Pugin about it. Cocky, defiant and armed with a huge chip on the shoulder against the gross indecencies of the industrial revolution.

Inside there is stained glass by the firm of Morris & Co. A rather nice surprise on a Friday morning when one would usually be at a desk, in an office, in front of a computer screen.

One of the many delights of architecture is the emergence and development of different styles. Dogma in architectural tastes is as tedious as dogma in politics, religion, music and any other realm of life. I am suspicious of people who shout through megaphones, ‘it must be traditional!’ or ‘it must be modernism!’ or…perhaps the worst, ‘it must be post-modernism’. And even with the latter there is stuff which is interesting and enjoyable.

It is also puzzling why some image that if people live in ‘modernist’ architecture they will somehow become revolutionary socialists whereas if they live in 18th century cottages or 19th century townhouses they will never be able to shake off the influence of the Whigs and Thomas Babington Macaulay.

On the left, the jaunty Quain Court, completed in 1936. Discovering something like this – just by walking around the streets – is one of the joys of a good urban environment. In 1940 it was advertised as being the ‘safest place to live in Folkestone’ because it had a steel frame. This was of course the time of the Blitz and the Kent coastal towns were vulnerable not only to aerial bombardment but to shore guns in France.

Quain Court features in the Panama Papers. The freehold is now held by a company based in the British Virgin Islands. This framework of offshore tax havens and shell companies encourages and facilitates tax avoidance, corruption and money laundering. I’m not saying that it applies to this particular freehold. But it is obvious that neither the Conservative Party nor the Labour Party are ever going to do anything about it.

Folkestone. British Virgin Islands. It will make a good talking point for the walk.

The flats appear to have been originally built for sale but with buy-to-let and property management companies and so on, tenure can be hard to establish. A three bed room flat was advertised for rent in 2017 for £1,500.

The object on the right hand side is Garden House Court. It can be put into the genre of ‘anti-architecture’. The inspiration was perhaps a cardboard box. It is meant to appeal to all tastes and therefore appeals to none. These are retirement flats with all the trickery of service charges and leases and difficulties of selling on.

This was once the site of the Garden House Hotel which was burned down in a ‘mysterious fire’. It was the Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald of Thursday 15 July 1999 which came up with the ‘mysterious fire’ headline, not me. The site was a pile of rubble for a few years, and then, mysterious fire over, this collection of bricks was assembled. What’s the quality like?

Cordova Court was completed in August 1939 and appear to be initially for rent. While searching through the British Library Newspaper Archive I discovered the details of several wills of people who had once lived there. These were for substantial sums of money.

There were references along the lines of ‘Mr so and so ….’ died, 1960, ‘left £20,000 to his executor Mr so-and-so’. Which made me think about the LGBTQ+ history of Folkestone. Which would have been rich and extensive, as it would be in much of the country. Except hidden and by necessity, secretive.

There’s a lot of this Tudorbethan stuff in Folkestone. Again, I rather like it and it’s a good contrast with the white stucco and neo-Gothic. It’s a good contrast with most stuff to be honest. The square block of flats in the right hand photo could do with some investigation. If it was modern it might work. But a brick box? Surely not. Who agreed this? Who built it? What was the profit?

A lot of the Tudorbethan would have been built as boarding houses and bed and breakfast seaside accommodation. One of these boarding houses, ‘Trevarra’ in nearby Bouverie Road West, was run by ‘Miss Kay’. She was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and used to advertise holiday rooms in Votes for Women.

One wonders what bombing, arson and other militant campaigns might have been planned in such a place. The Suffragettes tormented Asquith when he visited Saltwood Castle which is only a few miles away. Was there a connection?

Here’s more of Clifton Crescent from the seaward side. When this was built there were no marketing departments and PR firms telling the world how marvellous it all was. An advert or two in the local press and that was about it. It has an air of being a 19th century idea of what the 18th century might have been.

This is fabulous. One The Leas (formerly Fortune House). Folkestone’s own bit of Brutalism and extremely well done. And it all fits together. The white stucco, neo-Gothic, Tudorbethan and a bit of avant garde.

But this is the starting point for the next bit of research. So we’ll leave it here as a sampler for more to come.

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