FOLKESTONE HARBOUR STATION
‘There is no antidote against the opium of time.’
W. G. Sebald
The grand finale of this atmospheric journey, an imagined form of time
travel, suggested by the process of documentation, culminates in a
sculptural installation of the railway line. Together with archived sound
effects, the ghost like presence of a boat train, leaving Folkestone Harbour
Station in 1956, interrupts the monumental stillness of the sepulchre like
Comrades-at-arms, the custodians of a dying era stand to attention on either side of the railway line at Folkestone Harbour Station. The Corinthian columns, their capitals adorned with the leaf of the Acanthus, bear out witness to the history of a brave little station, one that has survived the powers of nature, and two world wars. Its fast approaching demise is now imminent; its lungs corroded with neglect, with rust and with debris, it struggles, this day, to even draw breath.
Early in the 18th century, Folkestone was chosen as the rendezvous of the Pigeon Post, prior to the appearance of the telegraph and telephone. It became the headquarters for the reception and transmission of Stock Exchange, and other commercial messages, passing between London and the Continental capitals. It was these connections that gave Folkestone its name as a wealthy aristocratic marine resort, attracting many affluent gentlemen to build their stately homes on the West Cliff.
Reference is first made to Folkestone Harbour in 1543, when Henry VIII inspected works there. On 25th July 1807, an Act of Parliament was passed, ‘For constructing a Pier and Harbour at or near the Town of Folkestone, in the County of Kent’.
The plans comprised a Western Pier 2,000 ft long and an Eastern Pier 3,100 ft in length. In 1808 the foundation stone of the pier was laid. The Folkestone Harbour Company was formed that same year, but failed financially and passed into the hands of the Lords of the Treasury. In 1842 the harbour was put up for sale. In 1843 the South Eastern Railway reached Folkestone and negotiations were opened for the acquisition of the existing harbour. The South Eastern Pavilion, with its ninety bedrooms was built to the design of Mr. William Cubitt, the first purpose built hotel of its kind, to cater for cross channel passengers. Folkestone only had one station at this time, namely the Upper Junction, and it was a one mile walk for the passengers to reach the harbour. Amongst the many illustrious passengers, who graced the station in its heyday, was Charles Dickens. He was a regular traveller on the South Eastern Railway, travelling, on a weekly basis to the Household Words’ office, at London Bridge.
In 1844 a branch line, known as the “Tram Road” was completed from the Upper Station to the harbour for goods traffic. In 1848 the line was passed by the Board of Trade for passenger use and called the Harbour Branch. In 1858 an extension of the New Pier was started and three years later the first steam cranes were erected. On 1st March 1876 it was possible for the trains to run alongside the steamers and in 1904 the French Ambassador open the new pier at Folkestone, with accompanying Customs Hall, Refreshment Room, Cloakrooms, Lavatories and Ticket Office. The lighthouse, some 30ft high, was also built at this time; the Folkestone Harbour Station that we see today, was now complete.
Through the portals of this ‘bastion of the Kent coast’ have passed the rich and famous, the poor and the needy.
Now it remains but a mere shadow of its former glorious past; a station of great strategic importance, throughout WW1 when many thousands of weary feet and throbbing hearts trod its platforms, on their way to, or return from, the Western Front. If we care to walk along its now deserted platforms, we may discern voices; perhaps the echoes of the Last Post or a whispering, from some dark corner, telling us, the Harbour Station slumbers, it is not yet, dead.
Ruth A. Parkinson BA(Hons)