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… and how an emphasis on culture and the arts revived a seaside town

BRITAIN’S seaside towns have faced a crisis over the past century. As tumbling air fares opened up sun-kissed destinations across Europe and the world, the appeal of the humble British seaside holiday dwindled.

Some, like Brighton, Blackpool and Newquay, lent on their nightlife to become party towns ideal for stag and hen parties or weekends away with friends. Over time, their culinary offerings caught up, ensuring year-round trade, helped by attractions such as the Blackpool Illuminations, or Brighton’s i360.

Others, like Sidmouth, Lyme Regis and Whitby relied on history, postcard-worthy quaintness and the notion of ‘Quintessential Britishness’ to attract tourists.

Folkestone food

But what of the thousands of other towns dotted around our kingdom’s coastline? Well, they’d all do well to visit Folkestone, and in particular, the town’s remarkable Harbour Arm, which has led the area’s rejuvenation with a focus on culture, the arts and a celebration of local, independent businesses.

The Harbour Arm loosely starts at the beautiful, glass-fronted RockSalt restaurant, which serves locally-caught fish, oysters and free range meat dishes across various rooms, roof terraces and balconies delicately cantilevered over the water.

Protruding from the terrace of Rock Salt is the first section of the Harbour Arm’s walkway - a repurposed railway track that once ferried soldiers towards ferries departing for the Western Front and refugees arriving to the relative safety of Britain.

Folkestone’s Harbour Arm station was the point at which soldiers returning from the Dunkerque evacuation knew that they had escaped the horrors across the channel, and over 41,000 passengers boarded 64 trains here over a nine-day period in May-June 1940.

Folkestone's Harbour Arm was a vital part of Britain's history

When cross-channel ferries from the harbour were withdrawn in 2000, the history - and much of the infrastructure - were left to erode, until the Folkestone Harbour Seafront Development Co stepped in with an ambitious plan to rebuild and celebrate the area.

The central walkway is a perfect example of the way in which the area’s past has been enveloped into its present. Where it would have been easier to demolish or pave over the deteriorating remains of the harbour, its new owners instead worked to incorporate them into the new attraction. The old train tracks - mostly still visible along the walkway - have been planted with columns of beautiful wildflowers that teem with bees and insects in the sunshine.

Folkestone light house

The old buildings have been restored, too. An old signal building is now an Italian bakery and behind it, the old, curving platform has become a seating area - overlooking more gorgeous displays of wildflowers - and toilets have been sensitively built behind the old, seemingly unchanged walls.

One side of the platform opens out to The Marketplace, a bustling village of converted shipping containers (itself a nice nod to the harbour’s past), each of which are home to a local, independent trader. Everything from imported Japanese furniture to custom-printed t-shirts and vintage clothing can be found here, sold from containers painted in a riot of pop-art colours and adorned with bold typography and artwork.

It neighbours The Goods Yard, where a collection of picnic tables are surrounded by street food stalls dishing out Greek gyros, pulled pork, pizzas, burgers, bao buns and Poke Bowls. It’s all served up in front of a huge, outdoor screen that flashes out The French Open when we visit, but also promises free movie nights and The Euros.

The Harbour Arm's Goods Yard offers free movie nights on its big screen

Further up the Harbour Arm, we find more tastefully repurposed artefacts. Three disused cargo wagons have been transformed into SheSells Seashells, a restaurant serving local Moules, Lobster and Steaks; the lighthouse has become a luxury champagne bar and the far end of the station is now The Tasting Rooms, home to French/English cuisine, huge platters, an Oyster Bar and regular live music, where guests can eat on the platform overlooking the sea and Sunny Sands - Folkestone’s large, sandy beach.

The Seafood Platter at Folkestone's Shesells Seashells

There are well-known artists on show, too. Hidden beneath the Arm, Antony Gormley's Another Time XVII sculpture looks out across the sea, and there are two cartoon bungalows by Richard Woods on show - one overlooking the car-park and one floating in the harbour itself. These are part of a six-bungalow installation around the town, a response by the artist to the influx of second home owners in Folkestone - a nod both to the incredible success of the Harbour Arm and the social implications it can bring about.

Artist Richard Wood's bungalows can be seen throughout Folkestone

The Harbour Arm sits between two beaches and back across across the ‘tracks’, it spills out across the pebbles of Folkestone Beach, where a new area was launched in 2021. More, pastel-coloured sea containers house a luxury seafood restaurant from the owners of RockSalt; beach-bar The Pilot; Brewing Brothers taproom and a sprawling, open-air crazy golf course with beautiful views across the sea and the various, £2 million apartments that are now springing up along the beach in celebration of the town’s newfound attractiveness to young, wealthy home seekers.

The terrace at Harbour Arm's beach bar

The beauty of the Harbour Arm is that it’s an entirely local, independent affair. As property developers and town planners throughout the country look to national chains to shoulder ever-rising rents, Folkestone Harbour Seafront Development Co boldly - and brilliantly - turned in the opposite direction.

No doubt a vast, glass-fronted McDonald’s would’ve multiplied Gobsmak’d Burgers’ rent ten-fold for a spot on the Arm, and a marquee Primark overlooking the sea would’ve made headlines in a way that Dickie Smiles Tattoo Parlour for Clothes never could, but that would be at the expense of the community The Harbour Arm regeneration has built - and the incredible effect it’s had on the town’s national reputation.

Hula's Beach Shack serves unbeatable burgers on Folkestone Beach

As we stroll through the marketplace with Ice Cream Bubble Waffles and an Aperol Spritz in hand as music gently bounces across the sea breeze, it’s easy to see why Folkestone was named the “best place to live in South East England” by the Sunday Times in 2024.

If you’d suggested back in 2009 that this weather-beaten old town could win such an accolade, you’d have been laughed back to Folkestone Central station, but now other seaside towns will be looking to the Kent coast for inspiration on how local culture and arts can restore a community.

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