The Kent town of Folkestone is blessed by its geography: the North Downs protect the town’s rear; an undulating strip of shingle and sand beaches is bisected by a picturesque harbour at East Wear Bay; while to the west, a lush park offers south-facing seaside and clifftop views across to France.
What to see and do in Folkestone
Before hitting the beaches and harbour, head to The Bayle, one of the oldest parts of Folkestone. To reach it, head for the east end of Sandgate Road; the town’s main commercial artery may be far from inspiring but along it are glimpses of Folkestone’s illustrious past in buildings such as Folca, built in the 1930s as the department store Bobbies.
At the junction with Guildhall Street is the well-presented Folkestone Museum, occupying part of the handsome town hall that dates from 1861. The eclectic collection, over two floors, ranges from prehistoric fossils to a Victorian painted silk parasol. A highlight is the 1915 canvas Landing of the Belgian Refugees by Fredo Franzoni, depicting Folkestonians opening their arms to World War I refugees. In 2019, some 300 locals gathered at the harbour to recreate the image as a large-scale photograph, also part of the museum’s collection, as a demonstration of the town’s continued welcome to those fleeing conflict and persecution.
On walls around the district, information panels installed by the local residents’ association, provide insight into The Bayle’s history.
A set of stone steps from the Bayle connects directly to the steeply raked and cobbled Old High Street – one side of a rough triangle bounded by Rendezvous Street and Tontine Street that constitutes the Creative Quarter. Ground zero for Folkestone’s embrace of the creative industries over the last two decades, many of the zone’s brightly painted buildings are rented out to artists, craftspeople and small businesses. Alongside artist studios such as the Stables, small galleries like CT20, and quirky and boundary-pushing arts venues like DIY4FOLKE are cafés, bars and independent shops. There’s also plenty of public works of art, including Banksy’s Art Buff along the Old High Street, on the wall next to the bar Folklore.
At the top of the park nearby, where it joins with the Old High Street, look for the Pocket Gallery atop a blue-painted post in the community garden; exhibitions in this tiny space change every three weeks. On a much more monumental scale is F51, the world’s first multistorey skateboarding park with facilities also for BMX, climbing, bouldering and boxing, as well as a café. It’s an extraordinary building, designed by Guy Hollaway Architects, wrapped in perforated aluminium panels and containing giant, suspended concrete skating bowls, as well as the largest lead climbing wall in southeast England.
The harbour, bobbing with a small flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure craft, is split in two by the former railway viaduct bridge, now landscaped into a flower-planted walkway to the Harbour Arm. Henry VIII considered building a harbour at Folkestone in 1541 and for several centuries the town was also a limb of the Cinque Port of Dover. In 1842, the South Eastern Railway Company took over the harbour, subsequently constructing a branch line out to the pier, which had been completely rebuilt in concrete and granite by 1904.
This quarter-mile-long extension into the sea is the Harbour Arm which in its contemporary iteration has become a place where Folkestonians come to eat, drink, fish, watch live music and films, attend events and promenade out to the lighthouse at its tip, also the venue for a champagne bar.
The Leas and Lower Leas Coastal Park
Snaking west along the shingle beach from the Harbour Arm, a pathway made of reclaimed wooden railway sleepers leads to the award-winning Lower Leas Coastal Park. Containing a green amphitheatre and a superb kids’ play area including a wooden pirate ship, giant spider and zip lines, this lush park with meandering paths tumbles down the hillside to shingle beaches sheltered by granite groynes.
The Lower Leas runs parallel with the upper Leas promenade, laid out in 1843 by Decimus Burton, the designer of Hyde Park and buildings at Kew Gardens. The two are linked by steps and footpaths, including the gently sloped Zig Zag Path that starts near Leas Bandstand, where concerts are held in the summer months. A listed structure, the path is a very believable replica of natural cliff faces and grottos, made from waste material coated in special a cement called Pulhamite, after its creator James Pulham.
Beyond the East Head of the harbour is Sunny Sands, Folkestone’s only truly sandy beach, overlooked by Cornelia Parker’s The Folkestone Mermaid, a bronze sculpture lifecast from local resident Georgina Baker. Steps up the hill at the beach’s far eastern end lead to East Cliff, a grassy headland with superb views across the harbour. The squat round structure atop Copt Hill here is one of 16 remaining Martello Towers out of 27 built along the southern Kent coast in the early 19th century as defensive forts when fears of an invasion by Napoleon were at their height. Folkestone has three of these towers (four if you count the ruined one at the far western end of The Leas) with the first two, also in the East Cliff area, converted into private homes.
A pitch-and-putt golf course surrounds the tower and there also public tennis courts. Nearby archaeological digs have uncovered remains going back as far as 10,000 BC, with the most significant find being that of a large Roman villa built around 100 AD. The remains of the villa have been turfed over, but a selection of finds from the site are on exhibition in Folkestone Museum.
Accessed down a narrow hillside road veering off from Wear Bay Road, the Warren is Folkestone’s magnificently wild frontier. Just under two miles long and covering nearly 740 acres, this undulating undercliff, rich in plants and wildlife, tumbles down to a mostly sandy beach that is littered with fossils. It’s a landscape formed by landslides, caused by powerful geological forces acting on the soft, erodible bedrock of Lower Greensand and Gault clay, which is overlaid with chalk.
The most notable landslide of recent years was that of 1915, one so destructive it closed the railway line between Folkestone and Dover until 1919. Engineering works in order to mitigate further erosion were completed in the mid 1950s, creating a promenade, sea wall and broad concrete skirt along the Warren’s coastline.