Since we moved to Folkestone a decade ago the Folkestone pier has been somewhere that has fascinated us. A few days ago we went for a walk to the end of the pier and through the derelict Folkestone harbor station. The whole place is rotting in front of your eyes and decay hangs heavy in the air. From the train tracks grow prodigious weeds left unchecked except for a random statue plonked in the middle of the tracks called Rug People. The paint is peeling and half hearted graffiti decorates the walls. There are some cheap metal fencing tied together to stop you walking along the tracks to the end of the Pier because the floor has rotted away in sections, forcing you to walk up a piss stained stairwell to the top of the pier.
There is absolutely nothing here, though, that tells you that you are, in fact, stood on one of most poignant pieces of land in the UK.
This Station and Pier is the point where over 10 million soldiers were brought to and packed off in boats to go and fight in WWI and WWII. For the lucky ones it was also the first bit of UK soil they returned to if they survived. However, for millions of young men and women, it was the last piece of British soil they ever touched before being killed in action.
Can you just imagine the strength of emotions that must have been experienced on that thin piece of land? As a soldier you would get off the train and wait there for the ship to take you across the Channel. You would look over at France and see explosions and hear aircraft fighting overhead. You would notice the wounded slumped all around being transported to hospitals and you’re only thought would be ‘Will I survive this?’
Imagine also, how many times that slim piece of land would have been kissed by the lucky ones who made it back alive? They lived through true horror for years, saw things that we could never imagine and witnessed their friends killed all around them and finally they are back, safe, on British soil. Can you just imagine what emotions they felt as they took that first step back on British soil at Folkestone harbour?
The only memorial you will find here however for those brave souls are a couple of A4 pieces of paper, laminated and stapled to the wall. They tell the brief life story of a couple soldiers who passed through this station, placed by someone who wants to remember the life of a loved one, who never returned. There is a haunting poem by the war poet Wilfred Owen, himself a soldier who left Folkestone pier for the last time and never returned from France. There is nothing else.
It seems hugely remiss and slightly immoral that the importance of this strip of land is not marked, acknowledged and celebrated.
We (Bluesky Pie) did some fundraising for the fabulous Step Short Charity a couple of years ago and after researching the importance of the Pier we suggested that we should raise money and build something that lets the world know the poignancy of this piece of land. We wanted to install a light installation, a ‘white light tower’ powered by renewable energy, which shone up to the heavens every night as a remembrance to those that died. Unfortunately nothing came of this as the land is marked to be demolished and turned into a moneymaking project for some wealthy individuals to become wealthier.
Of course, if we could find a way to turn the Station and Pier into somewhere people could go to remember it’s importance. If the whole place was space we used to celebrate the past and a working space for the community to use. If we used some of the unique mementos we have from this time to attract visitors, Folkestone Pier would be a center of civic pride.
For example, in the station was a café that handed out free hot drinks and cakes to the troops which was run by many but notably the Jeffery sisters, who were both awarded the Order of the British Empire, the Queen Elisabeth Medal (Belgium)
and the Medal of Gratitude (France).
They had a book on display, which was signed by the soldiers waiting to go to France. Over 300,000 soldiers signed it including: King George V, Lord Derby, David Lloyd George, Wilfred Owen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and many more. Imagine if this were digitalized and displayed.
To use Folkestone Pier as a place of remembrance like the Dover Tunnels would make it a center of civic pride and it would create jobs for the area. There is, however, a much stronger reason for doing it. Thanks to the Internet and a surge in interest in genealogy, there are now around 500,000 people every year who go on war tours. Thousands of British, American and Canadians go on holidays to try to trace the footsteps of their relatives who died in the wars. All these tours start in Dover. No one bothers to come to Folkestone because no one knows the significance of the Pier.
If we made Folkestone Pier into an interactive museum, if we had an installation that shone at night and could be seen from France at night and by everyone using the ferries. Folkestone would be on the map. Imagine what half a million tourists would do to the economy of our town?
For me, allowing the Pier to fall into rack and ruin and then turned into a concrete monstrosity like every other homogenous seaside town must be a criminal waste of an asset, which could hugely boost the economy of our town.
On top of that it seems hugely disrespectful to all those millions of young people who lost their lives in the wars.