I took a stroll outside our mass vaccination centre the other day. A cold wind blew through the precinct and rain was not far away but on the breeze was the warming hum of people enjoying a post vaccination coffee sitting in the open air. The few coffee shops were full but nobody seemed to care. They were just enjoying the freedom from lockdown that the vaccine promises and getting away from the depressing media for a while.
A Google search for: “news reporting makes me angry” brought 189,000,000 results in 0.61 seconds. The pandemic has affected TV news editors badly. They are not the most reasonable or happiest bunch at the best of times but success is anathema to them.
Our TV news programmes these days, if you can bear to watch, comprise a sequence of visual cliches: Research; a lady with a multipronged pipette. Vaccine; crowds of colourful little bottles mournfully progressing on a conveyor belt and the vaccination programme: a prolonged frantic, obsessive sequence of long thick needles penetrating arms, enough to make a needle phobic of the most pathetic drug addict.
Then there is the visual cliché of lockdown; an empty high-street. Each evening I shout out; ‘oh look, they are in Folkestone’ but no, it was somewhere completely different. But not completely, in fact not at all different. Every high-street in the country looks the same. Paved pedestrian areas of block and chewing gum, lined with a succession of national stores; well, just buildings with store names above boarded windows.
Then I Google searched; “Town planning disasters” which brought 24,800,000 results. Mind you it took 1.21 seconds so all cannot be bad!
Over the years there have been a series of money wasting exercises in managing town centres. Pedestrianisation, traffic calming and restricted parking, created a central ‘plaza’ with dead-end side streets into which no one dares enter. These changes cannot be called experimental as they were done in every town at once. Towns were slowly strangled by planners who had not a business brain between them.
One by one large chains closed. Disaster. The end of the High Street as we know it. The virus came and closed everything else. But not in Folkestone.
The vaccination programme has given the town an amazing opportunity for a new lease of life. The closing of Debenhams spelled real disaster but having been bought by the Council it can now be the focus of recovery.
Now a vaccination centre serving a wide area of Kent and beyond, the old store draws thousands of people to the town centre every day seven days a week. Many have not visited the town for years, some never before. When people say after their vaccination that they are heading off to explore the town I have felt a self-conscious shudder but I am wrong.
We took a stroll at the weekend by the sea. It was fantastic to see so many on the beach now that the sun has returned . We walked past the beautifully renovated beach huts on to the boardwalk, past the new building to the Harbour Arm and up through the Old High St. there were so many people everywhere enjoying our town; thanks to Sir Roger every step of the way.
But when we reached the town centre precinct there was a lone busker with few to enjoy her singing. Gone was the feeling of summer and of holiday.
On my journey there was so much to enjoy. The beach huts which are part of Triennial 21. The beach, the board walk, the High St and so much more. I have just Googled: “how many outdoor sculptures in Folkestone” 568,000 results.
I copied below from Creative Folkestone: 74 artworks by 46 artists – including Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Yoko Ono, Mark Wallinger, Cornelia Parker, Bill Woodrow, Michael Craig-Martin and Ian Hamilton Finlay – offers an experience like nowhere else in the world: great contemporary art with an invitation to explore, examine and understand the town’s geography, history and potential future.
The Harbour Arm is so successful, let’s have a little healthy competition between it and the Town Centre precinct. Let us advertise all that is nice about Folkestone. Give the people what they want especially now when we have so many visitors who leave our vaccination centres in a great frame of mind in search of a little pampering.
What young talent do we have who could join the lone busker for example? What other entertainment could be provided to those who highly value their visit. Virus has brought an opportunity not given to many towns through the vaccination centres. An opportunity to aid our business recovery.
It is fantastic to seen Castle Hill Ave’s new installation this week. The Triennial starts in September on the same weekend as the Channel Triathlon by Channel Rotary. Two weeks later will be Folkestone Rotary’s Half Marathon. Rotary is doing its bit.
Rana Begum, No.1054 Arpeggio, commissioned for Creative Folkestone Triennial 2021 in partnership with Folkestone & Hythe District Council. Photograph by Thierry Bal