I travelled for a change through south London’s Wandsworth and other dismal districts to reach Folkestone, which is only three hours by coach from Victoria Station. This was Wednesday, and I just fancied a break from the usual grind, and thought that fresh Ozone and the proximity of the sea might do the trick.
I’m so glad I booked in to the vast Grand Burstin Hotel on the seafront, as it epitomised everything I was looking for in an English seaside resort. All the buildings in Folkestone exude a bittersweet atmosphere of their glory days between the wars, but the Grand Burstin outdoes them all in every respect. It’s ugly, shaped like an ocean liner and has been allowed to fall into a dusty, decrepit state, so that only complete demolition remains as a viable option for any developers who might want to transform the beachfront.
And yet I absolutely adored it. I met more eccentrics in one day here than in the last twenty years. Everyone was older than me and seemed to belong to a different age. I suspect that many of them had been here as children on happy holidays and just kept on coming back. I paid a bit extra to dine on bacon, eggs, beans and sausages in the huge, ornate breakfast room, where the only sound was of waiters carefully setting or clearing tables and the gentle chink of china cups or silver cutlery.
When one of the waitresses asked an elderly woman eating alone at the next table whether she was enjoying the food she replied without looking up or changing expression, ‘It’s horrible’. The waitress simply walked off, as if she was used to it, or more likely wasn’t even listening.
I was on the top, tenth, floor, having changed my room on arrival because it was so awful. Far below in the evening the fairground started up and kept on until after ten o’clock, with screaming speakers and those fairground organs that bring the memories of candy floss, toffee apples and the Ghost Train back to anyone whose childhood was filled with such colourful objects, as mine was.
The two things that sprung irresistibly to mind whilst staying at the Grand Burstin were the Overlook Hotel in The Shining and Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock. Going up to my room in the evening, remembering to keep turning left through long, narrow corridors, in absolute silence and with the overhead lights flickering, I half-expected to see two dead girls materialise in front of me and blood come crashing through the doors.
Folkestone itself is a pleasant little town if you ignore the newer parts that have sprung up beyond the Old High Street. I especially liked the narrow, steep flights of steps and the cobbles of the old town, and the many tiny shops that must once have housed local artisans and fishermen.
Strolling along the Remembrance Gardens at the top of the cliffs, past the antique funicular railway that takes you down to the beachfront, I was delighted to stumble on what remains of the old Leas Club.
Opening in 1902 as a tearoom, with luncheons costing 2/6s and afternoon tea sixpence, the lease required that it be used for ‘the highest class tea and refreshment trade with a view to securing the best class of visitor only’.
In 1928 a stage was built for theatricals, becoming well known for its tea matinees where the actors had to compete with the noise of clattering teacups. I can imagine that many of the older characters in the Grand Burstin were brought here for afternoon tea as children.
Most visitors these days are merely passing through on their way to Dover and on to the Continent via the Thames Tunnel or the ferry lines, but I think it’s worth a stay of at least one night. I did expect better fish and chips, but you can’t have everything, and the faded glories of the Grand Burstin and the ghostly echoes of clattering teacups from the Leas Club more than compensated for any other shortcomings.