At the beginning of the 20th century, Folkestone was a seaside town at the height of fashion. A hundred years later, it had fallen victim of changing trends, its once busy port by-passed by the Channel Tunnel.
Fading fashion – a seaside town in decline
The summers following the opening of the Metropole hotel in 1897 and the Grand, six years later, marked the zenith of Folkestone’s history as a seaside resort. Kings and Queens and their entourages entertained in these palatial new buildings and took the air on the Leas, the grassy sward from where on a fine day it is possible to glimpse the coast of France. Folkestone was, for a time, the most aristocratic resort in the country where ‘the sea itself keeps at a respectful distance, acts as a good servant, silently supplying the necessary ozone’ to ‘a class who do not sit on the beach’ (quoted in C. H. Bishop, Folkestone: The Story of a Town, 1973, p120).
It was inevitable that Folkestone would be unable to long maintain this elevated reputation but in the years following the First World War the town continued to attract holiday makers to its sandy beaches and the opportunity of a day trip to Boulogne or Calais. In the straitened years following the 1939-45 war, English seaside resorts continued to maintain a short holiday season. It was not long, however, before the attraction of cheaper holidays in the almost guaranteed sunshine of the Mediterranean began to seem more enticing than a day in France. In the last thirty years of the 20th century, in common with other resorts, Folkestone’s popularity as a holiday destination began a rapid decline.
Folkestone had at least another string to its bow. Since August 1843 when the Sir William Wallace was the first passenger ferry vessel to depart from Thomas Telford’s harbour, ferries had plied a regular trade across the Channel. At their peak the cross channel ferries to and from Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk carried over 1.25 million passengers and 900,000 cars. In 1987 work began on a Channel Tunnel at Cheriton just a mile or so north of Folkestone. When the tunnel opened in 1994, cross-channel travellers no long had reason to come into the town, depriving local businesses of a significant proportion of their custom. When the Seacat ferry service to Boulogne ceased operation in September 2000, it seemed a final blow to the town’s fragile economy.