Story and photos by Bo Zaunders
A Week on the English Channel
This place exudes history.
On our visit to Folkestone in south-east England, I was sitting at the bar of The British Lion, a pub from the 18th century, sipping a sampling of three recommended ales: Young’s Bitter, Hobgoblin and Ringwood Fortyniner. “Didn’t Charles Dickens use to come here? I asked the bartender. “Oh yes,” she said, “he loved it here.” She then pointed in the direction of what used to be the B&B where he stayed during his many visits to Folkestone.
Before leaving I noticed an old sign, stating the rules of the inn:
NO THIEVES, FAKIRS, ROUGES
or TINKERS –
NO SKULKING LOAFERS or
NO ‘SLAP an’ TICLKLE o’ THE WENCHES
NO BANGING o’ TANKARDS on the TABLES
NO DOGS ALLOWED IN THE KITCHEN
The Grand, the apartment hotel where Roxie, my wife, and I were staying, was not just any old hotel. Built in 1899 when Folkestone was one of England’s most fashionable and prosperous coastal resorts, it soon became the place to be and be seen.
The King himself, Edward VII, became a frequent visitor. The locals would wander along the Leas promenade in front of the hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of the monarch gathered with friends in the glass-enclosed Palm Court. Because he and his guests were all heavily bearded in the fashion of the day, were all likened to monkeys in a cage. Thus the Court was nicknamed Monkey House.
The year 1909 marked the King’s opening of the Grand’s new ballroom. Famously, his first dance was with Queen Alexandra, his wife, and the second with Alice Keppel, his long-time mistress.
As for prominent guests, Agatha Christie was one. It was here, in the early 30s, that she wrote “Murder on the Orient Express,” after which she became a regular for decades to come.
Now to the Leas, Folkestone’s iconic cliff-top promenade. No longer the favored spot of Victorian ladies with parasols and enormous hats taking the sea air, it’s still a place for invigorating strolls. Walking out of the Grand and heading north in the directions of the harbor, you soon pass the bandstand, an elegant reminder of bygone days. Next you come to Leas Cliff Hall, another entertainment venue, presenting a varied program, including concerts, comedy, ballet – even wrestling.
As you continue, a more somber note is struck: a memorial of 19,240 numbered stones, commemorating the British soldiers who embarked from Folkestone during World War I and were killed on July 1st 1916 in the Battle of Somme. The Leas then turns into the Road of Remembrance, with homage paid also to the men who fought in World War II.
As on a previous visit to Folkestone we stayed in a penthouse with oval windows and a magnificent view of the English Channel. On our first day, apart from walking up and down the Leas, I reacquainted myself with the town’s main drag, Sandgate Road, and did some shopping in a large grocery store named Sainsbury’s. My visit to the British Lion prompted a revisit, so that’s where we went for the soup of the day and smoked salmon.
The next morning I took a double-decker bus to Canterbury. Sitting on the upper level, I marveled at the breakneck speed of the bus, and of how often it brushed against the thick vegetation on both sides of the narrow road.
Now and then on the 45-minute drive I glimpsed small towns and large green fields with herds of grazing cattle or sheep.
In Folkestone there had been relatively few people in the streets; and on the Leas mostly strollers with their dogs.
In Canterbury, by contrast, tourists were everywhere.
Of course, this should come as no surprise. For nearly 850 years, after Becket and the murder in the cathedral, people have been flocking to this major pilgrimage site. Now in Canterbury for the second time, I once again visited the cathedral, seeing The Shrine of Thomas Becket, the Tomb of the Black Prince, magnificent stained-glass windows, the recently restored Chapel of St, Michael, and more. I also ran into a guide who shared with me his intimate knowledge of the goings on during the reign of Ethelbert, the King of Kent, who along with his wife Bertha, established Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons about 600AD. From the way he spoke about Bertha you felt as if she must have been a dear personal friend of his.
The rich history of the city followed me as I went out into medieval streets and alleys. There was Butchery Lane, with pub signs such as City Arms Inn and Shakespeare, and a nicely framed view of the cathedral; there was High Street and the Old Weavers House, half-timbered, timeworn, and sitting next to the Stour River. Looking more like a stream than a river, the Stour swarmed with what in Britain call punts - long, narrow boats with flat bottoms and square ends, pushed forward by long poles. Most of them, I noticed, were filled with students, waving and laughing, obviously having a good time.
His Canterbury Tales were coming to life in the church of St’ Margaret, just a short distance from the cathedral. Given a mobile device, I went on a tour, following the guide from one room after another, all with colorful Chaucer characters, all steeped in medieval darkness. I listened to excerpts from the tales, marveling at how unrestrained and rambunctious they all were.
Before leaving for Folkestone I stopped by a Pret-a-Manger café and treated myself to a cappuccino and a Belgian waffle. Lavishly slathered with dark chocolate, it was the most delicious waffle I’ve ever eaten.
Lines from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach came to mind when, on the next day, I jumped on a bus to nearby Dover:
“The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair…”
No calm sea today, though. Strong winds had howled all night, waking both of us up, and they were still pretty strong. The sea had turned greenish, showing plenty of white caps.
Arriving in the center of town, I was treated to a spectacular view of Dover Castle, rising on a steep hill at the end of Castle Street. Impressive, indeed! Called the “Key to England,” this, the largest fortress in England, was founded about a thousand years ago and has, over the centuries, played a crucial role in the defense of the country. Another must-see: the white cliffs for which Dover is famous. I found a pretty good view of them from the Marine Parade, also known as East Cliff.
Dover is known for its labyrinths of tunnels, reaching far down into the bowels of the white cliffs. Built on Winston Churchill’s order, they were abandoned after World War II, but are now restored and open to the public. I was tempted to give it a go. Instead I took the bus back to Folkestone and Roxie.
Our weeklong stay also included a visit by the two of us to the town of Deal, eight miles northeast of Dover.
A large pebbly beach and a remarkable pier – over a thousand feet long – met us on our arrival. Walking to the end of the pier, we noticed a number of people fishing, and engaged in an amicable conversation with a man who had just caught what he said was a Lesser Spotted Dogfish.
Back on the beach, turning south and following the Strand, we sighted the Deal Castle, an artillery fortress built by Henry VIII to protect the country from France and the Roman Empire. Next we arrived at a bandstand just when a concert was about to begin. We stayed for while, enjoying the atmosphere and the music, before looking for a good place to eat.
We found Dunkerleys, situated by the beach, and renowned for its fresh local seafood. Crab-crested hake, Dover sole - the list went on. I chose honey-baked salmon fillet and Roxie settled for deep-fried scampi. Most satisfactory, and, adding to the pleasure, was the over-all friendliness of the place. Before we knew it, we were engaged in conversations with at least half a dozen other patrons.
Our apartment at the Grand afforded a tiny but workable kitchen. This didn’t prevent us from visiting pubs and restaurants. I mentioned the British Lion. A stone’s throw from Folkestone’s harbor, we found the Harbor Inn, a cozy seafood pub and restaurant, priding itself on locally sourced ingredients.
Then there was Tavernetta, the epitome of an Italian restaurant, near the main drag and just a few blocks from our hotel. Came time for a lasagna, we went there, as we had on our visit two years ago. Amazingly, the waiter remembered us.
At The Grand, for a relaxing drink and a bite to eat, there was always Keppels Bar, named for Mrs. Alice Keppel, the beauty of the naughty nineties and the king’s long-time mistress.
The talking benches.
Once, when walking on the Leas, and passing some empty benches, I was shocked to suddenly hear one of them talk. What on earth was happening? A nearby sign explained this art project: “Installed beneath four of the ‘memorial’ benches overlooking the Channel are solar-powered voice recordings triggered into audibility when someone sits down on the bench. You can hear actor’s voices reading letters from servicemen at the battlefields of France and Belgium during the First World War. All the soldiers passed through Folkestone, which was then the principal port of embarkation for all military personnel.”
More history… I listened. It was powerful, and poignant.
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