Words: Jeremy Miles
I am standing in a place of ghosts, a place that over the past 100 years has tasted the sweetness of success and the bitter agony of violent death and financial ruin.
Looking at its grimy, broken buildings and graffiti-scarred, boarded-up shops, Folkestone’s Tontine Street appears to be just another object lesson in urban decay.
Yet at the turn of the 20th century this broad sweeping road, which runs to the town’s harbour, was the thriving business hub of one of England’s most successful Channel Ports.
Today, after years on its uppers, Tontine Street and the nearby similarly challenged Old High Street stand at the centre of the town’s regeneration plans. Already sprouting small galleries and artists studios and lofts, these grimly neglected streets are the focal point of Folkestone’s Creative Quarter, the grand scheme masterminded by billionaire businessman and former Saga boss Roger De Haan to trigger new prosperity and investment in his home town.
It is also where you’ll find the headquarters of the first Folkestone Triennial, an arts event that has attracted a mass of national media coverage and put the town firmly back on the tourist map.
With international artists like Tracey Emin and last year’s Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger involved in three months of exhibits and installations, Folkestone is suddenly seen as a cool place to visit. The Triennial, curated by awesomely well-connected arts world mover and shaker Andrea Schlieker, has generated acres of newsprint, TV and internet coverage. The Financial Times critic called it "The most refreshing show of public art I think I have ever seen," The Observer said it was "inspired and….bound to change perceptions of Folkestone dramatically." While the Evening Standard reckon it’s the "best-value day out" around. With a combination of credit crunch blues and air fuel surcharges clipping the wings of many domestic travellers, Folkestone is already attracting large numbers of short-break visitors from across the UK. They are greeted by a truly inventive and pleasing arts event plus a town beginning to display something of its former genteel glory but with a new very 21st century slant. Although they were given no specific brief, the 22 artists involved have largely focused on Folkestone itself for the source of their inspiration. For instance in a reference to the large number of teenage pregnancies in the town, Emin has cast baby clothes and toys in bronze and then sited them across the conurbation as though accidentally discarded from prams.
American Mark Dion has created a giant mobile seagull and Robert Kusmirowski has re-created a mini version of the town’s old fish market out of driftwood and other flotsam.
Several others though have focused on the First World War as a pivotal point in the town’s history.
Christian Boltanski has recorded letters home from soldiers destined for the fields of France and Flanders and sited audio listening points on cliff-top seats looking across the channel to the French coast.
Most poignantly though Wallinger has numbered 19,240 pebbles, each one representing a man who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His work, which will remain as a permanent shrine, is set into the cliff-top greensward known as The Leas, a point past which many of the soldiers would have marched, never to return, on their way to the troop-ships moored below.
Although no one realised it at the time the beginning of the end for Folkestone probably came one sunny early summer’s afternoon in 1917.
Though it was three long years into the war and the town was one of the main embarkation points for troops leaving for the front-line, the hostilities had little direct effect on daily life on the home front.
All that changed just before six on the fateful afternoon of Friday May 25. Tontine Street was teeming with shoppers busy stocking up for the Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend.
My own great grandfather, greengrocer William Henry Stokes (left), a well known Tontine Street trader, had just taken delivery of a new supply of potatoes – a sometimes scarce commodity during wartime – and a large queue was forming outside the Stokes Brothers store.
Suddenly 17 huge German bombers swept out of the bright evening sun. The noise, the terror and the carnage must have been indescribable as dozens of 50 kilogram bombs rolled from the massive planes onto the street below.
Buildings collapsed. Stokes Brothers took a direct hit. A tornado of shattered brick, splintered wood, glass and molten metal tore though the potato queue killing and maiming dozens. My great grandfather and three of his staff and helpers 17-year-old Florrie Rumsey, 18-year-old Edith Eales and my Great Uncle, Arthur Ernest Stokes, just 14-years-old at the time, were dragged from the wreckage with terrible injuries. All died within days.. In a few minutes 60 people were dead or fatally injured. A hundred others needed medical treatment. In that moment of extreme terror things had changed forever for this prosperous seaside town. Not that anyone much talked about the day of the bombing. When I was a child, 40 years later, no one ever mentioned that fateful day. By then Folkestone had suffered two world wars and crippling economic depression. Air-raids had become commonplace during World War II. Almost everyone living in the town they called Hell-Fire Corner had lost someone. You didn’t complain, you just got on with things.
The site of the old Stokes Brothers store has never been redeveloped. It is marked by a small plaque that simply states: ”This tablet marks the place where on May 25th 1917 a bomb was dropped from a German Aeroplane killing 60 persons and injuring many others.” It seems somehow fitting that this grubby, chipped and largely forgotten marker stands literally within a few feet of two beacons of the future – the Folkestone University Centre and the Triennial headquarters. The Folkestone Triennial runs until September 14th 2008.