Hide and seek: a seaside story

It is August, and we are in Folkestone, an ancient, disreputable, bawdy seaside settlement of such extremes it fair takes ones breath away.

We have been taking time out here for around half a decade now: and it never ceases to entertain and appall us, this impoverished settlement which has become the haunt of the bohemian. We are drawn again and again to its utter, polarised paradox.

The wealthy live up on the hill outside the town with a view of the White Cliffs and the tankers and ferries navigating on the channel. The poor live further back, in brown-brick council houses squatting nearer the port-bound motorway.

As one walks through town one hears the darndest things: conversations which make you want to cover your children’sย ears, and which would turn the air purple if such a thing were possible.

Equally, the people are kind. They are unaffected, and their faces are open when they talk to you. I suspect this has always been the way, even when stagecoaches were putting their travellers up in the midst of smuggling rings and the harbourside bawdy-houses were a little over subscribed.

Today we armed ourselves with buckets and spades and headed, initially for the beach, but with a more pressing mission tugging at our arms.

For four years we would stand at our well-appointed window, and gaze at an uninhabited pier: a path stretching out to a lighthouse forsaken, a promenade unpeopled. The whole area surrounding the pier and the old ferry port has been utterly forsaken. It has a derelict air to it.

The station which once buzzed with World War I soldiers; with travellers on their way from London to the continent, and with those select few who could travel the Orient Express: it is sadly dishevelled.

The artistic community administers loving touches of first aid to its town: The Folkestone Triennial is a festival which happens once every three years and features the work of world-famous artists: Cornelia Parker used a Folkestone housewife to model the Folkestone Mermaid; Tracey Emin has dotted seven works around Folkestone. The town is one great art exhibition.

Folkestone pier is a marked contrast to many British seaside towns, where that man-made spur stretching out to sea is part of its personailty. Brighton’s pier, or that wonderful stark cobb at Lyme Regis where The French Lieutenant’s woman was filmed: they are the crowning glory of their towns.

But we’ve been here for five successive years: and never found the pier. Finally, this year, we spotted people there. There must, we concluded, be a way to get there.

We marched past the great hotel, in seventies star-wars white garb, which gleams over the harbour, and came to the abandoned station with daisies and ragwort decorating every crack in the worn tarmac.

We continued past the truckers rest-cafe: and unbelievably, came to a stop next to the gentlemen’s toilets.

Pungency was pervasive. The kids wrinkled up their noses. On the wall, next to the gents, was a sign: access to the pier, it said, was through this door.

A more unlikely pier entrance I have never seen. But sometimes one has to take a leap of faith. And a big, deep breath.

The door took us out on to the old platform. Where the footsteps of Orient Express passengers had once waited, we walked, noting the old framework of an empire and its subsequent crumbling.

A great sculpture stood on the tracks, a brand-new addition to stamp the town’s seal of ownership on this dilapidated landmark.Paloma Varga Weisz’s ‘Rug People’ are clearly in distress.

Her inspiration stretches back to the departure of soldiers from the station in the First World War. They set off in their droves almost a century ago: never to return.

A well-heeled group were coming the other way making plans about going to the pub and stocking up on some shopping at a high-end supermarket.

We were not, it seemed, the only pilgrims at the ruined stationย which carries such a weight of history.

Up the stairs we went, to a red rusty iron door which would have looked at home on a submarine, doubting with every second that we could possibly be anywhere near the spur we sought.

And all at once, we were there: out on an old pier in the briny breeze. And there are a whole community up there: people taking the air, others fishing, still more, like us, celebrating what this place once was.

We walked and watched, incredulous.It was as if we had found a Narnian door in the most humble of places possible.

Occasionally, the best things are not dressed up in finery. They are not where you expect at all. They require tenacity to unearth and often they require one to suspend judgement in order to perceive them.

But they are hidden jewels, nevertheless.

32 thoughts on “Hide and seek: a seaside story

  1. The entrance to the pier made me think of Harry Potter-style ways of getting into magical places. Glad you persevered!

    1. Harry Potter’s railway platform went through my mind as well, Patti…and walls that part to get into Diagon Alley….it really was quite surreal! Loved the toes, Patti, loved the toes…

  2. How lovely, Kate! As you wandered through the door . . . I wondered if you would end up in Wonderland ~ and then you mentioned Narnia. ๐Ÿ˜€

    The best way to get where you want to go . . . is to start walking in the right direction.

    Especially enjoyed:

    * an ancient, disreputable, bawdy seaside settlement of such extremes . . .

    * conversations which make you want to cover your childrenโ€™s ears, and which would turn the air purple if such a thing were possible

    * We marched past the great hotel, in seventies star-wars white garb, which gleams over the harbour, and came to the abandoned station with daisies and ragwort decorating every crack in the worn tarmac.

    Glad the holiday has been such a delightful adventure.

  3. Delightful! A real treasure in the rough, Kate, and you took me, right to that moment where you encountered the “old pier in the briny breeze”. I would have loved to have been walking with you all. Enjoy your further adventures.

  4. I would love to see Folkestone. But you’ve painted a fine picture in words and shared things I’d never have known to look for. Thanks much.

    I hope you enjoy Tunneling and all that comes after.

  5. Beautiful, Kate. The sculpture is wonderful and interesting (I love things like that — art in the most unlikely of places.) Hope the rest of your holiday is as great as this day you just described.

  6. How’d that happen? My comment just got eaten… Anyway, I was just saying something about a magical holiday, and loving the Rug People and being on the edge of my seat to read the next chapter of your great adventure. Something like that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. How rude of my site to gobble up comments…thank you for persevering ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thanks, the Rug people is rather wonderful but very sad. As is the whole station, actually. next chapter tomorrow…

  7. i don’t remember the door to Narnia being one to ‘wrinkle the nose’
    what a lovely outing, dangers braved (well smells braves) and the rewards earned. All in a day’s holidaying

    1. Not sure if I can visit the lighthouse, Rosemary, but I know someone who can tell me…the people from Pavement Pounders who commented are very involved in the Triennial, and they do free walks every Friday until September. So that’s Friday taken care of…

    1. The White Cliffs! Well I never! You never cease to amaze me, Col. Folkestone’s just around the corner, of course…the customs men at Dover Castle were always on the lookout for the town’s dastardly smugglers…

  8. I loved this one, Kate. I like anything where you can step back and walk through the same places where many have walked before, in years gone by. I feel as though I was at the pier with you!
    The odd thing I noticed is the photo you have included of the statue on the railway tracks reminded me of part of a dream I had several weeks ago (but the really odd thing was that I was in Bangladesh in my dream…)
    Anyway, great post once again! ๐Ÿ™‚

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