In the last decade, Folkestone’s beachfront has been changed by art.

In the last decade, Folkestone's beachfront has been changed by art.

Four Folkestone triennials have attracted thousands of tourists, infusing the town with a creative spirit and introducing new culinary and music establishments.

Forget donkeys — in the early twentieth century, vacationers rode llamas along the beach in Folkestone. The town received the royal mark of approval: the Prince of Wales and his lover Alice Keppel frequented the Grand hotel. Additionally, it has the glitz of an international rail port, with boat trains bound for Boulogne calling at the harbour. Where the wealthy went, the others followed, as did funfairs, boating lakes, amusement arcades, and all of the British seaside’s trappings.

Folkestone was a very different place a century later. Tourism had shifted to Spain and further afield; the Channel tunnel had effectively shuttered the port. Unemployment and adolescent pregnancies were rampant, and there was little to retain young people in town, much alone entice visitors.

When my girlfriend and I visited Folkestone last month, both buildings were unrecognisable. The town has been changed over the last decade or so by art (with a little assistance from Saga multimillionaire Roger de Haan, who has spent £90 million).

The inaugural Folkestone Triennial took held in 2008, with artworks by Tracey Emin, Tacita Dean, and Jeremy Deller. To far, four triennials have been held, bringing 440,000 visitors. Following each festival, many pieces become permanent fixtures, and the town currently has 74 artworks by 46 artists — the largest urban outdoor contemporary art show in the United Kingdom – and four walking paths via which to see them.

We had missed art galleries during the lockdown, and a stroll around the art was the ideal way to spend the day while indoor places remained closed. I was particularly taken with Cornelia Parker’s Folkestone Mermaid, which is based on a real lady rather than an idealised form and looks out over the idyllic Sunny Sands. Among the other highlights are an Antony Gormley cast-iron figure positioned to be submerged during high tide; Mark Wallinger’s moving memorial to the 19,240 soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme; and Tracey Emin’s Baby Things, a series of tiny bronze baby clothes and teddies scattered throughout town.

The sixth triennial opens on 22 July and runs until 2 November. It features 27 new works by artists including Gilbert & George, as well as 100 new and restored beach cottages.

Additionally, the organiser, Creative Folkestone (CF), purchased and refurbished 90 properties along Old High Street and Tontine Street. The neighbourhood has now developed into a vibrant Creative Quarter, home to artists, designers, and makers, as well as independent stores and restaurants and the performing arts venue Quarterhouse. Gallery 66, for example, sells works by 15 East Cliff Creatives members, including paintings, photography, and jewellery. “The renovations have infused the town with fresh vitality,” says Alastair Upton, chief executive of CF. “Folkestone’s creative economy contributes to its appeal as a place to live and work.” And pay a visit.

Folkestone’s beachfront has also been rejuvenated. The Folkestone Harbour and Seafront Development Company has developed a landscaped walking trail connecting the viaduct and swing bridge to the rebuilt Folkestone Harbour station, the Harbour Arm (the pier), and a new boardwalk over the shingle beach to the Lower Leas coastal park. The Harbour Arm has been transformed into a social centre, complete with street food, bars, and restaurants, as well as a champagne bar housed in the ancient lighthouse. Helen Sharp, a resident who works for community radio station Academy FM, suggests the bagels at Bobbies Bakehouse in the former signal box, the Korean chicken at the Bao Baron, and the tacos at the Taco Shed. Along with cuisine, there is live music on weekends, a vintage and artisan market on Sundays, and a large screen broadcasting Eurovision and other sporting events.

The Harbour Arm is not the only dining establishment in town; the town is gaining a reputation as a gourmet destination. We sought for traditional fish and chips but couldn’t resist upgrading to the seafood plate at Rocksalt, a fish restaurant with a wonderful patio overlooking the port. Dinner was a kiln-smoked salmon, dressed crab, whipped cod roe, smoked mackerel paté, and marinated whelks and cockles feast.

While Rocksalt has been a destination restaurant for a decade, the Folkestone Wine Company, Pick Up Pintxos, and Luben’s Pizza are recent additions. Sharp also suggests the town’s few Nepalese eateries, notably Annapurna and Gurkha Palace, both of which are named after the neighbouring Gurkha army post. Additionally, there are several bars, including the Home Taproom, which serves local Angels and Demons beer.

F51, the world’s first multi-story skate park, will open in Folkestone next year. It will also have a climbing wall and a boxing gym. Additionally, plans call for the reopening of the Leas Lift, a Victorian funicular that connects the beachfront to the promenade.

Meanwhile, the Lift Cafe has opened in the site of the former funicular station. Some large Victorian hotels, such as the View, have been renovated recently, while new places to stay have appeared: Rocksalt offers four rooms, and Space Bar has launched space2stay, a two-person retreat.

“Folkestone has so much to offer,” adds Sharp, who has recently begun taking paddleboarding classes. “It is not like any other town; it has its own personality.” Upton concurs: “It’s a dynamic, creative town — with a beach!” A dynamic, creative town that also happens to be on the coast… What more could you possibly want? Perhaps they could reintroduce the llamas.

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About the Author: Kevin Rushby

Kevin Rushby is daily mid time Travel's 'Explorer' and a contributor to the Saturday Review. He is the author of four acclaimed travel books, including Hunting Pirate Heaven, an investigation of 17th century pirate utopias in the Indian Ocean. His most recent book is Paradise, an historical account of human searching for perfection over the centuries