Why You Should Go To... Folkestone

Why You Should Go To... Folkestone
It is a sunny winters day. The photo is of an old restored harbour arm. At the end of the phot is a small granite lighthouse, now a champagne bar. To the right of the image is a brick wall, and to the left is the english channel. People are seen walking along the length of the walkway of the harbour arm
The harbour arm - the heart of Folkestone life. Photo: Craige McGonigle on Unsplash

With the vast sandy dunes of Camber, the bustling port of Dover, and the tourist hotspot of Dymchurch all a short distance away, Folkestone is an all-too-often forgotten Kent coastal town.

Thing is, Folkestone is home to noteworthy beaches, excellent independent shopping and food offerings, and an extremely active artistic community. Time to put this place on your radar.

It's an artistic hub

Quirky and unexpected art underpins the blossoming art movement in Folkestone over the past decade, and nothing brought attention to the town more than the £10,000 worth of gold bars buried on the beach in 2014. No one knows whether they were all found — maybe reason enough to visit!

Folkestone is the proud home to the UK's largest outdoor display of contemporary art. Maps are available online with suggested walking routes, or just saunter around and make accidental discoveries. That said, with 74 different art works by 46 different artists (including Yoko Ono and Tracey Emin) it's harder to miss them than it is to find them...

It is a sunny day. "FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL" is painted in multiple colours on a white wall next to a slightly overgrown train platform.
Art is all around, and greets you as you arrive via train. Photo: Thierry Bal

Even if you see nothing else of the public art show, you cannot miss "FOLKESTONE IS AN ART SCHOOL" emblazoned on the platform wall as your train arrives into the coastbound platform, and the thought-provoking bronze handprints as you exit the station.

The physical art works aren't the only creative connection; art flows through the veins of this town, with its beating heart in the Creative Quarter, a community of businesses and artists grouped together around the old town. Once a year members of the community fling open their doors in a celebration of the area for Open Quarter — a behind-the-scenes look at their studios.

It's got a beautiful harbour ghost station

Folkestone Harbour station was formally closed in 2014, but was laying abandoned and falling into disrepair for five years prior. For 160 years it had been part of the rail-sea-rail connection to mainland Europe that initially enabled travel between London and Paris, and after an extensive restoration in 2018, the station continues to be a part of Folkestone's heritage, albeit in a different way.

Seagulls are swooping down over an expanse of water. There are 2 cartoon style houses seen. One is floating in the water and is pale pink in colour. The second is perched on a plinth on dry land in the background. The harbour arm and lighthouse of folkestone can be seen in the background.
The view from the viaduct. Photo: Craige McGonigle on Unsplash

Access to the Harbour Arm is via a beautifully repurposed Grade 2 listed viaduct and steel swing bridge over the harbour where the old train tracks remain, now enclosing footpaths lined with shingled gardens planted with wildflower and grasses.

Moored boats and a pink cartoon style house bob up and down next to you, with another bright orange house (the work of Richard Woods) precariously perched on a plinth nearby. Surreally enchanting stuff.

A curved former train platform stretching off into the distance is seen. The canopy is white with green plinths holding it up. The sky is bright blue with fluffy white clouds. A man and child can be seen walking along a walkway where trains would have run in the past, but is now a linear shingled garden and footpath.
The respectfully restored and repurposed harbour station. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

As you approach the former station, the curved shape of the former platforms draws you in for further exploration. The gardened footpath design of the viaduct continues through to the former train tracks of the station, and the loving restoration of the area becomes immediately apparent as soon as you glance at the former signal box — now Bobby's Bakehouse. This is the place to go for a lunchtime salt beef bagel. (More on the foodie scene later in the article.)

A homemade bagel is stuffed full with chunky salt beef and gherkins.
One for the carnivores. Bagels from Bobby's Bakehouse. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

Look out, too, for a frequently-busy set of skating friendly sculptures which starts your journey onto the Harbour Arm. Meanwhile, secreted away in an inaccessible part of the arm is an ever-evolving cast iron sculpture from Anthony Gormley’s Another Time collection — finding it is a real treat.

A rusted metal figure is staring out into the distance. It appears to be underneath a wooden walkway and standing on a weathered, green concrete standing.
Antony Gormley's "Another Time" is nestled away in the harbour. Photo: Thierry Bal

Quietly admiring the undisturbed view of the white cliffs of Dover from the reclaimed wood benches on the harbour while eating your lunch provides the perfect respite from life. Everything in this passionate restoration tells a story of Folkestone's maritime past, and the more you dig, the more fascinating it becomes.

A perfectly clear day with blue skies. The photo is taken from the perspective of someone sat on a bench looking out to the seat from the folkestone harbour arm. The white cliffs of dover are visible in the background. The sea is beautifully calm and the metal barrier of the harbour arm is visible, as is a reclaimed wooden bench.
Admire the white cliffs of Dover. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

The food scene is banging

But now back to that bagel...

The vast majority of Folkestone's best food offerings are dotted in or around the Harbour Arm. If seafood's your thing, try Little Rock — a hip little fish restaurant inside a shipping container, serving Folkestone crab on sourdough, and Hastings hot smoked salmon caesar.

For something a little special, Rocksalt provides undisturbed panoramic views across the harbour as a side to their exquisitely cooked fish and seafood. Spendy, but great for a special occasion.

At the far end of the Harbour Arm is the Lighthouse Champagne Bar, where you can rest up with a well-earned glass of English fizz.

A vegan 'Reuben' sandwich and chips are on a wooden table.
Vegan offerings from Dr Legumes. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

There's more food — plus booze, big screen sports, films and the like — at the Goods Yard, while has the vibe of something like Vinegar Yard in London — but with the added benefit of being right by the sea.

In town itself you'll find street-food-stall-turned-bricks-and-mortar Bao Baron (try the spiced duck leg offering), while Luben is a Folkestone fave with its delicious wood-fired sourdough pizzas.

By the way, Folkestone is a haven for the coast-loving plant eaters among us. Dr Legumes (which does innovative but environmentally-conscious food) and Planet Earth Kitchen (good for hearty feel-good dishes) are solid places to start. But you won’t have to look far for a cacophony of herbivorous options.

It's a great place to go shopping too

A steep traditional shopping street strung up with christmas lights at night time.
The Old High Street, lit up ready for Christmas. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

Expect to see all of the standard high street favourites in Folkestone town centre, but venture to the Old High Street (also known as "Steep Street" for a reason) for an entirely unique shopping experience. Here you'll find a wide mix of independent retailers where you can buy records, fabric, gifts, cards, vintage clothes, homewares and various other bougie bits and bobs.

A trip down this steep cobbled street is not complete without popping into award winning children's shop Moo Like A Monkey, which previously featured in Vogue magazine.

Even if shopping's not your jam, the narrow cobbled street is a beautiful sight. And before you leave the street, there is (of course) more art to see, namely Folkestone's very own Banksy masterpiece, Art Buff. This was reinstalled in the town following a fierce legal battle by Creative Folkestone, to have it classified as public property after it was removed for sale.

The beaches are rather marvellous

Folkestone has some wonderful beaches, and whether you prefer stony or sandy, you're catered for.

In the foreground is a large expanse of the english channel. In the distance you can see arches of a sea wall, infront of which is a sandy beach (Sunny Sands beach) in folkestone. There are hills behind and multiple houses and buildings can be seen in the background. The end of the harbour is seen to the right of the image.
Sunny Sands beach from the Harbour Arm. Photo: Craige McGonigle on Unsplash

Overlooked by a mermaid statue, Sunny Sands beach is the home of the town's annual sandcastle competition. If you don't want to catch too much sun you'll find areas of shade in the arches of the sea wall. Fish and chips, as well as ice cream, are available nearby making this a shoo-in spot for families.

For a gentle coastal stroll, the reclaimed railway sleeper promenade that snakes through the stony Folkestone beach might be just the ticket. Starting at the Harbour Arm, it meanders past multiple artworks to reach the entrance of the Lower Leas Coastal Park and the Grade 2 listed (but currently non-functional) funicular railway Leas Lift.

A long curving wooden footpath across a stony beach made from reclaimed railway sleepers disappears into the distance. The sea is seen in the distance as are 2 beach shelters. Tables and palm trees are seen on  the beach to the right of the image. The sun is setting in the background.
Folkestone beach looking exotic at dusk. Photo: Joel Vogt on Unsplash

The Lower Leas Costal park is a magnificent multipurpose outdoor space with an adventure playground at its heart. It runs between the seafront and the cliff edge and its existence is due to a landslide that created an extra strip of beach adjacent land in 1784. It is a treasure-trove of sea air-loving flora and fauna, and in the summer the open air amphitheatre hosts a variety of free performances.

If you get to the station early for your train back to London, pop round the corner to visit the tranquil tree lined Kingsnorth Gardens. An unusual mix of Asian and Italian gardening styles, this public space was opened in 1928 and has remained a beloved meeting place since.

It's changing all the time

With extensive regeneration to the area, new and exciting projects and events are frequently popping up in Folkestone.

The recently opened and unique F52 skatepark is the world's first multi-storey skate park — and also contains the highest climbing walls in the south east. (So maybe your teenager WILL want to come with you on this day trip after all.)

5 planes are seen flying in formation in the sky. They have blue and red fumes coming from their tails. A crowd are looking up at the sjy to see them.
Folkestone Air show is always popular. Photo: Charlotte Maughan Jones

Book festivals, air shows, the Folkestone triennial and Christmas marketplaces — to name but a few — pepper Folkestone's calendar. It's always worth checking for seasonal festivals and events, as well as shows at Leas Cliff Hall or the Quarterhouse before you arrive.

Folkestone Central station is just under an hour from St Pancras on the HS1. For a more budget-friendly option, it's 1 hour 30 minutes from London Bridge on the mainline service. The station itself is a pleasant 15 minute walk from the town centre.

Last Updated 26 August 2022

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