The modern story of Folkestone Harbour goes back some 200 years, with its origins in the fishing industry. Much of its development took place in the 19th and 20th centuries to enable its use as a ferry port.
Before this, since at least Roman times, trading ships had been landing on the shore at East Wear Bay in Folkestone, and from about ad 1100 fishermen are known to have pulled up their boats close to the mouth of the Pent Stream, which still flows into what is now the inner harbour. However, the constant movement of the shingle beach by winds and tides made it a dangerous place to land, and boats were often damaged by storms.
In 1804 Lord Radnor petitioned Parliament for permission to build a stone harbour, and an Act of Parliament was granted in 1807, partly to provide potential anchorages for warships during the Napoleonic Wars.
Plans drawn up at this time were considered too expensive to implement in full, but civil engineer William Jessop and a team that included Thomas Telford designed and built a western pier that was completed in 1810, followed by another, running north-east at right angles, completed in 1820. Together these drystone walls, which can still be seen today, provided some shelter from the prevailing winds.
The original Folkestone Harbour Company had insufficient funds to deliver the full scheme and was declared bankrupt in 1842. The harbour was by then somewhat derelict, but the South Eastern Railway Company purchased it with the intention of developing Folkestone as a rival to Dover for steam packets to France. Their new railway line reached Folkestone in 1843 and the harbour branch line was constructed soon afterwards.
The arrival of the railway meant that over the next 50 years the new resort of Folkestone grew rapidly and by Edwardian times it had established itself as one of England’s most fashionable coastal towns.
In the past the Harbour Arm was an industrial site, equipped to handle imports and exports, as well as being the terminus for Folkestone’s cross-channel ferries.
For many decades little or no maintenance was carried out on either the stone wall of the Harbour Arm or the structures that stood on it. By 2004, when the present Folkestone Harbour Company took ownership, the harbour’s infrastructure had deteriorated to the point where much of it was unsafe and could serve no economic purpose. Ferries had ceased operating in 2000, and following many years of decline and after widespread consultation, the Office of the Rail Regulator declared the branch railway line officially closed in 2014.
Following the change of ownership a new purpose and vision has been proposed for the harbour and seafront, and outline planning permission was agreed in early 2015. This new approach will see the rejuvenation of the area according to a plan conceived by world-renowned architect Sir Terry Farrell.
The £ 3.5 million renovation of Folkestone Harbour Arm is an important step towards realising this rejuvenation of the wider harbour and seafront area. It has included careful and intensive work, respecting the site’s heritage, to correct the damage caused by many decades of neglect and persistent battering from storms, which had led to serious deterioration of the stonework, wooden enclosures and the original ironwork of the canopies.
Since the Harbour Arm is no longer either an industrial site or ferry and rail terminus, for the first time in its history it can now be made accessible and available to the general public, a new place where residents and visitors can enjoy their leisure time.
For the time being the fenced-off area of the derelict railway and the former station remains the responsibility of Network Rail. Folkestone Harbour Company hopes to reach an agreement with them in the near future so that the restoration of the stone platforms and ironwork can be completed.