Behind the Seaside – thinking about Folkestone and it’s water.

I’m planning to make water going vessels, and I live and work in a coastal town. And so the following is some thoughts, ideas and investigation about Folkestone as might pertain to what I’m going to be doing in this project. As will become normal, this post is just a slither, it’s a thread to lead to work. It is not a resolution.

Folkestone’s history with its boats and its water is at first blush worn pridefully and obviously, and yet much is hidden and still more has been transformed. Folkestone, like Dover nearby is at a key strategic location in the channel when it comes to trade, travel and war. But most starkly represented as you walk about the town is our fishing and our tourist industries. Our tourism is memorialised in the austere Hotels of Folkestone’s west end that stand mausoleum-like above beaches tamed by concrete and landscaping. Our fishing, an east end affair, is venerated each year by the blessing of the fisheries performed by the local parish church of St. Peter’s. It is a moving tradition that honours our relationship to the natural world and also has all the inscrutable trappings of high church ritual.

These things feel like they’ve always been here. It almost feels as if the culture of middle and upper class holiday-making created the leas. Walking there now, in an environment that is in every inch designed, when even the rocks and caves were shaped by humans and not nature (I’m thinking of the zigzag path leading from the upper leas to the amphitheater that contains a number of concrete grottos and arches parading as natural rock), when the place is lit by ornate lampposts that regiment what green space remains – it is hard to imagine that the place could have ever been else: That once there was a time before plant beds and sea defences: A time when the leas was for the wild and not for the parasol twirlers.

Folkestone didn’t get its harbour till 1810, and the blessing of the fisheries wasn’t established until the 1890s. And, so the same is true in the East as the West. I assume we’ve always fished, and I had assumed that fishing always looked -to an extent- like it did today. But really it’s barely more than 200 years old. A blip in the grand scheme of this patch of land that has been occupied by humans for (according to archeological finds) up to 6000 years if not much longer.

Our waterway, the royal military canal was also man made in the 1800s, and so this water is also strangely recent, and strangely disconnected from the natural. Much of what we think of as essential to folkestonian identity with sea and water was either established within the last 200 years, or it has been so transformed by it as to be rendered unrecognisable. Fishing is not like it was, we didn’t have a harbour before, nor a holiday industry, and a chip shop on every corner to supply. With a long view, archaeology again suggests that fishing was done using traps down at the warren in Roman times, and remarkably that during the Saxon period fish was completely absent from the diets of those living here (thanks folkestone museum for those facts).

Whilst fishing in Folkestone existed before the 1800s, it must have. It’s character was profoundly different, and there are significant gaps. Like the concrete sea defences and promenades, the harbour helped to tame the sea and fundamentally change our relationship to it.

In his book The Edge Of The World Michael Pye described the rise of the ‘seaside’ that began in the 1700s, he says that the holiday industry and the infrastructure that came with it created “a definite and squared-off boundary between man and the sea.” And a book called The North Sea and Culture states that “the emergence of the bathing culture marks the end of the North Sea as common cultural ground.” – Thats amazing isn’t it, Pye says “It [is] hard to imagine that there had once been a world that centred on the sea itself.” Our culture has been so transformed in such a short time, and at the same time – in many ways today’s concerns haven’t shifted all that much from those in the 1800s.

What all this highlights to me is that the way culture is passed on is not wholly linear, nor is it steady. In the first years of 1800s Folkestone got the rich, it got the military canal and Martello towers and it got its harbour and this changed everything, it made us. Yet we are not wholly cut off from the past that was before. The Pent river that in the distant past flowed above ground and is now buried and further hidden by the urban history of comparatively recent times, still makes itself known occasionally. And recent interventions and investigations by artists are reconnecting us to it.

It also shows me how diverse our past is. It is mad to me that their was a period in which the humans around Folkestone didn’t eat fish. Folkestone, like everywhere is not a place with a history, but it is one with histories. In that sense my intention to refer back to ‘traditional techniques’ and a ‘history of boat-making’ is much more complex. Which tradition do I go back to? what history do I refer to? What past am I reaching for? History is a many layered thing and the idea that we might draw a straight line of history through any one place (like Folkestone) of any one history (like that of boats) is misguided.

This realisation excites me because it gives me as an artist some license to experiment and pull from different histories. It gives me to the opportunity to explore and highlight histories that may not yet be well known and by making new boats around new concerns I am contributing to that mixed up and layered history.

I also believe that we are now in a period very much like the 1800s, again promenades and walkways are being built in an attempt to tame and beautify, again we have an influx of the rich, again the harbour is at the centre of a shift in the town’s culture, and again our area is under the eye of the powerful because of our proximity to the shores of Europe. And so as we undergo the same things and wrestle with the same concerns I think it would be interesting to pursue some of the other and more ancient histories, to remind us that there is more in the coast and in our identity than these contemporary concerns and this narrow perspective.

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