Rebirth of Folkestone

At the turn of the 20th century, the ancient Cinque Port Limb of Folkestone enjoyed an Edwardian  heyday, with the future king patronising the Metropole and establishing a mistress at the Grand next door. H. G. Wells lived at Sandgate, west of the town, and other writers, including George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford and Henry James, stayed in the town. It was still a fishing and trading port, with excellent rail links from 1844, and ‘a daily steam-packet’ to Boulogne, its sister town across the Channel.

In the First World War, these connections served a grimmer purpose, as more than 1.3 million men, vast quantities of munitions and hundreds of thousands of cavalry horses and transport animals passed along what is now known as the Road of Remembrance, on their way to the Western Front. Folkestone continued to attract visitors into the 1950s, even if it was no longer such a draw for Society.

The hotels along The Leas overlooking the Channel were backed by more modest lodging houses and B&B establishments. However, from the 1960s, cheap air travel and package holidays led to a rapid decline in the town’s fortunes. In the 1990s, the death knell appeared to have been sounded by the opening of the Channel Tunnel, and the consequent loss of ferries and rail services to London. Like other south-eastern coast towns, notably Hastings, Folkestone exhibited all the signs of terminal decay. Of the traditional local industries, the herring and mackerel fisheries were in decline, coal mining had collapsed and agriculture had serious problems.

The population was ageing, schools were failing and unemployment, teenage pregnancy, drugs and crime were on the rise. The historic centre of the town, where fishermen’s houses clung to the steep streets above the harbour, seemed literally close to collapse. The central Harvey Ward of the town was the worst in Kent for health deprivation ironically, as it is named for William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood and worst in the South-East for unemployment. Next door, East Folkestone had 40% unfit housing and the fourth worst secondary school in the country. One of the few economic bright spots was that the town was headquarters to the Saga Group, specialising in tours for people over 50.

The company had been founded in 1951 by Sidney De Haan, who, with his wife, ran a small hotel in the town. He had realised the potential represented by their out-of-season clientele, who tended to be older. In 1966, their son, Roger, joined the company, later succeeding his father as chairman and overseeing a dramatic expansion of its business, notably into insurance, publishing and radio. In 2003, he set up the Creative Foundation, and, when he sold Saga to a management buyout in the following year, he decided to plough back some of the proceeds into a partnership plan to regenerate his home town. For once, the arts are not surface decoration designed to proclaim the project’s worthiness; instead, with education, they are the very core of the Creative Foundation.

In the 1960s, the town had been well served by the Metropole Arts Centre Trust, initially under the patronage of Lord Clark and Sir Gerald Glover, but that, too, was failing in the mid 1990s, when Roger De Haan took over as chairman with a new board of trustees and director, Nick Ewbank. The arts and regeneration charity now embodied as the Creative Foundation grew from this, but is a much more ambitious operation.

The foundation has concentrated initially on two areas: the Harbour, and the old centre, now dubbed the Creative Quarter. So far, more than 40 properties in these areas have been restored and leased at sustainable rents to creative businesses and individuals. As well as artists, there are filmmakers, brass founders and glass workers. The Quarter includes the Old High Street, where the dilapidated buildings have been replaced by galleries and boutiques that would not be out of place in the Brighton Lanes. Significantly, Mr De Haan noted the precedents of Temple Bar in Dublin and London’s Hoxton, where successful regeneration due to artists pushed up rents and forced out the original people involved. The foundation model is working to avoid this trap.

The foundation has helped to establish the town’s first higher-education courses, at the University Centre, Folkestone, a joint venture between the University of Greenwich and Canterbury Christ Church University. The Harbour, bought for £11 million, may provide a site for an expanded university campus, and the £800 million scheme to redevelop the Harbour and Seafront is being masterminded by Foster + Partners. Quarter-house, a new performing arts centre designed by Alison Brooks Architects, will open later this year. Foster is also responsible for the City Academy replacing the under-performing East Folkestone secondary school.

Despite the involvement of such internationally known architects, the policy is very much to create local employment, and most restoration schemes have been given to firms and practices within 30 miles of the town. Several hundred more jobs should be created over the next three years. As Mr De Haan has said: ‘This project will only work if the community backs it, if the local authority and county council want it to work.’ Another matter vital to the long-term prosperity of the town is the re-establishment of efficient communications, and high-speed rail links to London are scheduled to open late next year. Who knows, some version of the Sea Cat link to Boulogne might one day be relaunched. An early plan was for a permanent sculpture park along The Leas.

From this came the idea of the Folkestone Triennial, which had its first outing this summer to considerable critical acclaim and public interest. Scarlett Rickard wrote in the monthly magazine The Quarter: ‘Folkestone has such a history of great things being planned, but not quite happening. Initially, a lot of people thought this was another one.’ No longer. Folkestone is enjoying its Lazarus moment.