FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Folkestone Harbour

Folkestone Harbour is a quiet place these days, having long since lost its cross channel ferries and cargo ships, but it is still one of those places that I head back to every time I return to Folkestone. The appealing combination of the fishing boats, the historic viaduct and the seafood stalls along the stade are part of Folkestone’s charm and a lingering reminder of its history. It is also part and parcel of the history of most families with longstanding connections to the town.

Alongside this, the Folkestone Harbour branch is a rather remarkable piece of railway line in spite of only being three quarters of a mile long. It is particularly noted for it’s steep 1-in-30 gradient (probably the steepest climb on the Southern Region) which traditionally required the use of at least one banker during the steam era.

A short history

The branch line opened in 1844 but it was not until early 1849 that the line across the harbour and into a quayside station was opened for passenger use. Up to this point, passengers had been required to change at Folkestone Junction station for a short onward connection to the waiting ferries.

As the port prospered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries so the railway thrived on the steady passenger and freight traffic that flowed from the ships. The development and renewal of the harbour was matched by improvements to the branch line, the infrastructure that supported it (such as the swing bridge) and the facilities around the harbour station.

Inevitably the port and railways at Folkestone played their part in the flow of men across the channel during both wars1. There must have been a great many men for whom Folkestone was the last sight of England, some of whose names are recorded in the visitors’ books for the tea room/canteen that was sited on Folkestone pier during the First World War. In the opposite direction large numbers of Belgian refugees arrived – many of whom found shelter in the homes of Folkestone’s residents 2.

Towards the end of the 20th century a steady but accelerating process of change began to alter the railway landscape around the harbour. Competition from rival ports, alternative ferry routes and latterly from the Channel Tunnel all played their part in the decline of the port and the branch line that depended on it.

The railway that survives today is significantly slimmed down from its heyday – Folkestone Junction station closed in the 1960s, the footbridge and the crossing box at Folly Road have been demolished, the quadruple lines through Folkestone Central have been reduced to two lines and one of the island platforms has been closed. In this context the continued survival of the harbour branch is all the more remarkable.

The last of the traditional cross-channel ferries left Folkestone Harbour for Boulogne on 31st December 1991 but the port got a reprieve when Hoverspeed took the place of Stena, operating the same route using their Seacat catamarans until September 2000. The loss of this cross-channel connection and consequent reduction in passenger numbers led to the ending of regular passenger train services to Folkestone Harbour station in 2001.

Hengist at Folkestone circa 1991

Hengist at Folkestone circa 1991

The line had seen little in the way of traffic since regular passenger services finished in 2001. The sole remaining visitors were the VSOE, the occasional charter and an engineering train or two. In the face of such light use and increasing maintenance costs it would have been foolish to take the talk of closure lightly. All of this prompted a number of tour operators to try their hand at running the ‘last’ railtour into Folkestone Harbour.

The last train… or not

The saga of ‘last’ railtours carried on for a good few years until time finally ran out in March 2009. Remarkably the line had survived just long enough to hit the milestone of 150 years.

BR standard class 7 steam locomotive 70013 'Oliver Cromwell' on the viaduct

BR standard class 7 steam locomotive 70013 ‘Oliver Cromwell’ on the viaduct in 2009

I took the most of the opportunities presented by the various railtours between 2007 and 2009, visiting with a camera at the ready (although not always with the skill to take a decent photograph!). The list below highlight some of the railtours and VSOE trains that I saw in those final three years (with photographs available from the linked entries).

The steam specials lured huge crowds to the harbour whilst in contrast the diesel hauled VSOE trains sometimes attracted as few as one or two spectators on a wet mid-week run.

January 27th – The Kent Coast Express
June 15th – The Golden Arrow: Victoria to Folkestone Harbour
October 20th – The Atomic Harbour Master


April 5th – The Golden Arrow: Derby to Folkestone Harbour
April 12th – The Golden Arrow: Taunton to Folkestone Harbour
April 12th – Three EDs from Hoo Junction to Folkestone Harbour
May 15th – VSOE
August 17th – VSOE
December 21st – Christmas Onward Tour

January 24th – The Golden Arrow: Victoria to Folkestone Harbour
March 14th – The Golden Arrow: Waterloo to Folkestone Harbour

Ironically, the ‘last’ railtour with Oliver Cromwell proved not to be the last train down the branch line at all. To avoid costly formal statutory closure procedures Network Rail have run the occasional train down the line. One such train ran on 24th February 2012 with GB Railfreight class 73 electro-diesel 73205 (6Y99 from/to Tonbridge West Yard via Folkestone Harbour) and a de-icing unit.

The future

In 2009 a proposal to redevelop the seafront and harbour was tabled which would have seen the viaduct and swing bridge demolished to make way for a modern marina which seemed somewhat at odds with the surrounding heritage. However, following public consultation a subsequent re-working of the plan allowed for more of the history to be saved.

The new approach outlined by the company proposes the retention of the railway viaduct across the harbour as a public walkway, the retention of the harbour station’s current track footprint as a new street and the creation of a public square that would incorporate the Harbour master’s house, former customs house and the signal box. An outline planning application was submitted in September 2012.

Folkestone Harbour Station in 2011

At the same time a community led project from the Remembrance Line Association has argued that the branch line itself need to be preserved, envisaging the retention of the line as a destination for charter trains and the restoration of a fast ferry link with Boulogne. In my heart I hope that the Remembrance Line can breathe new life into the line, but whichever scheme prevails I hope that the promises to preserve Folkestone’s unique harbour heritage are honoured.

Family connections

As a coastal town the fortunes of Folkestone Harbour have probably played a significant part in the history of most local families. On my paternal line my ancestors had both direct and indirect connections to the sea, whether that be as mariners, smugglers or innkeepers in the harbour environs.

Folkestone Harbour and its railway connection has always held a special place in my heart as the branch line was just a stone’s throw from my grandmother’s house at Edward Terrace, Folly Road (which looked out on the old goods shed and yard until all that got swept away). On any visit the views of the Skew arches, the Folly Road crossing and the harbour itself were wonderful – though it was always a particular delight to see the crossing gates closed – forcing us up over the long-vanished footbridge to watch the train from overhead.

Although it had disappeared long before my time, my father’s family grew up with the activity of Folkestone Junction station and the harbour branch part of the fabric of everyday life. On occasion it played a rather more dramatic role. My grandfather was put on a train after being evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940 but hadn’t realised where he was until he saw Warren Halt (a small station in Folkestone Warren). He hurriedly completed a field card with his father’s address – 12 Folly Road – and the message ‘Arrive in England. Safe and O.K.’ before throwing it out of the window.

A message home

A message home: Safe and O.K.

My father had watched the trains pass through Folkestone Junction with his friends in the early 1950s, little suspecting that one day he would work through here himself (after joining the railways at Ashford in 1954). Around 1956 he was loaned to Folkestone, who were short of firemen, and it was at this time that he worked on a train up the Folkestone Harbour branch – firing the R1 tank locomotive acting as banker at the back of a train. On another occasion he recalled working the connecting steam service out of Folkestone Junction station with a school special.

As a child my mother was taken down to the harbour by her father, who would talk about boats such as the Invicta. A few years later, in the 1950s, her older sister would get involved in helping pilgrims going to Lourdes get on board the ships at Folkestone Harbour.

Like many other locals, my mother made use of the cross-channel ferry service on occasion (recalling two school trips and a trip to Switzerland around 1963-64 that began with a crossing from Folkestone). In particular my mother remembers travelling on the SNCF ship Cote d’Azur at least once, if not twice. It was the one ship everyone wanted to travel on at the time – as the newest ship making the crossing.

At the weekends my mother would sometimes go down to the harbour and watch the ships come and go (vessels such as Canterbury, Isle of Thanet and Maid of Orleans). It was a fascinating operation – watching the customs officers go aboard and, inevitably, come off taking stuff away. On top of this there was the whole operation of swinging the cargo on/off by crane (even cars were put onto the ships in this way – tied down with chains on palletts). As for the trains, my mother remembers the sight of empty pullman dining cars at the harbour station – a world apart from the trains that you would see anywhere else.

The ferries at Folkestone were a memorable presence during my childhood, whether seen from the sunny sands or whilst walking along the East cliff. Indeed, one memorable school trip to Boulogne in 1984 involved a channel crossing from Folkestone which delighted me. I forget which ship I travelled on, though as it was the era that Hengist and Horsa dominated it was most most likely one of those (or just possibly the route’s sometime third ship, Vortigern).

The days of cross channel ferries and boat trains may now be over but I hope that, in some shape or other, the story of this remarkable line and harbour has another chapter, ready for new family connections to be forged.

26th February 2013

In November 2013 the Department for Transport launched a public consultation on Network Rail’s proposal to close the Folkestone Harbour branch line and Folkestone Harbour station. After considering the responses Ministers agreed to allow the proposals to proceed, subject to ratification by the Office for Rail Regulation.

The Office of Rail Regulation formally ratified the proposal to close Folkestone Harbour branch line and station on 31st July 2014. The official closure will not take effect until 4 weeks after the date of ratification.

Further reading

Folkestone-Boulogne 1843-1991 by John Henry (Ferry Publications)
Folkestone Harbour
Folkestone Seafront: The Masterplan
Folkestone’s Railways by Brian Hart (Wild Swan Publications Ltd, 30 Nov 2002)
The Hengist Story: The King of Folkestone 1972-1992
The Remembrance Line
South Coast Railways: Ashford to Dover by Vic Mitchell & Keith Smith (Middleton Press, 1988)
Step Short


1 My great-great uncle Ted Phillips travelled with his battalion by train from Tidworth, Wiltshire to Folkestone in November 1915 and made a moonlight crossing from Folkestone Harbour by ferry with destroyers on either side. He was one of the lucky ones to come back.

2. Some Belgian refugees ended up in my great-great-grandmother’s house though the details have long since faded into history, apart from one anecdote of how she walked in one time to find her guests putting hot saucepans on a piano!

2 Responses

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  1. Iain Pate said, on November 22, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    I would like to ask your permission to use some of your photo’s in a presentation about Mainline Railtours I am preparing to give to local rail & transport groups. I will, of course, give full acknowledgement to you as the source, I will not be making a charge or seeking to profit in any way from the talks and I will not be reproducing the ‘photo’s . The photos I would like to use are included in this Folkestone Harbour section. I look forward to hearing from you.

    • folkestonejack said, on November 22, 2015 at 6:27 pm

      Hi Iain. Thanks for asking – yes please feel free to go ahead and use whatever you need. All the best, Jack.

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