Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Sugarloaf Hill sloe gin

The hills of the Folkestone downs – Sugarloaf Hill, Castle Hill, Hoywell, Cheriton Hill and Round Hill – rise out of the gently undulating Kent countryside like green bowling balls, left by some giant en route to the channel. If they were to crouch down, survey their target, flex their arm and roll them across the flat landscape they’d hit the cliff-top town of Folkestone, which diffuses out from the sea in dense avenues of former redbrick mansion blocks and neat semis, rarely letting up to allow in parks or open spaces.
From a distance, the blueness of English Channel intensifies. The steps of an ancient earthwork ripple like the sea below; a more contemporary artwork, the white horse of Invicta, spreads out across the downs. It’s Folkestone’s answer to the Hollywood sign, a bit of modern-day branding for a town which has for many years seemed relegated to a comfort break on the side of a motorway, a stop on the train line between the coast and the capital. Folkestone was hit hard by the twentieth century decline of domestic tourism and the closure of its ferry and hovercraft links.
From up on Sugarloaf Hill the town’s former grandeur as a tourist destination is apparent in a way it might not be at street level. The Grand and the Metropole hotels are lumbering redbrick footprints teetering at the edge of the cliff like non-identical twins. The high-rise offices of the town’s newspaper, the Herald, rise above the empty shops of the town centre. The premises of an insurer that’s long since left town – now a curry house – offer a rare bit of streamlined modernist glamour. A tall Victorian railway viaduct tiptoes across terraced houses, bringing daytrippers in and connecting commuters with better-paid, higher status employment outside. Up high are wartime ditches built to defend the south coast. Below, two Martello towers represent an earlier era of threatened invasion, one pristine, one overgrown. Close up, the town becomes more anonymous, a familiar scene of grey out-of-town retail sheds and the teen haunts of drive-thru fast food joints. Then, the landscape begins to empty out, towards the eerie remoteness of Romney Marsh and Dungeness in the distance.
Straight ahead, the French coastline hides behind a hanging mist or smog, but it’s only a train ride away: Eurostar speeds past, trains and wires sloping across the countryside. Trains no longer stop at the Folkestone Harbour train station, stretching out into the sea like a tentacle feeling its way to the continent, but visitors are now greeted by a text work by Ian Hamilton Finlay at the end of the harbour arm, a legacy of the Folkestone Triennial’s attempts to reinvent and inject some poetry back into the town.
Sugarloaf Hill and its neighbouring rotundas feel like the countryside, but it’s an illusion. Highway cattle roam woods and scrubland, fields of wheat, hay and wild marjoram, and thick passageways of blackthorn bushes, but the motorway's hum is hard to ignore. We pass through these hills in polluting metal boxes – an A-road on stilts goes in at Folkestone and comes out at Dover – and drink its water, from hidden reservoirs. In summer, runners puff up and down and young lovers picnic in relative privacy. Sugarloaf Hill is both of the town and a place to escape from it, to watch it from a distance, to bring a bit back with us, as sloes to mix with sugar for winter sloe gin.