In the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi

RECENTLY, I WALKED in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps, neither in India nor in South Africa nor in London, but in southeast England.

I am sure that many years ago, at least once, I travelled by ferry across the English Channel from Folkestone in Kent to a port in France. Whether I was travelling by car or by train I cannot recall. Had I been travelling by rail I feel sure that I would have remembered the pier at Folkestone, but I cannot now recall it. If I reached the ferry by train, it would have had to have been before 2001, when the last ferry sailed from Folkestone.

The first ferry service from Folkestone to Boulogne began in 1843 (https://folkestoneharbourarm.co.uk/history/the-harbour-in-the-19th-century/). Passengers reached the boat from the mainline railway station by local transport. In 1847, a long viaduct was constructed to take a steeply inclined mile long branch line from the main line, which was 111 feet above sea level, to the shoreline. This track crossed the viaduct and a swing bridge, which still exist and separate the Inner harbour from the Outer Harbour. At the seashore, the track ran onto a newly constructed pier, The Harbour Arm, from which passengers and freight could be embarked and disembarked. The pier, which was only fully completed in 1904, had a station, a customs house, and warehousing facilities.

During WW1, the Harbour Arm played an important role in the conveyance of military personnel and materials between war-torn Europe and the UK. In December 1915, the famous spy Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (‘Mata Hari’; 1876-1917) was prevented from boarding a vessel at Folestone bound for France by Captain S Dillon of the Secret Intelligence Service. Another famous person, of far greater historical significance than Mata Hari, stepped of a vessel, the SS Biarritz, onto the Harbour Arm on the 12th of September 1931. This passenger was a Gujarati, the only member of the Indian National Congress, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), going to London to attend the Round Table Conference. A picture taken at the time (www.alamy.com/mahatma-gandhi-alighting-at-folkestone-kent-england-united-kingdom-uk-12-september-1931-old-vintage-1900s-picture-image346793736.html) shows him, dressed in white robes and a dhoti, stepping along a gangplank. The curved platform of the station on the pier, which still exists, is clearly visible in the picture. He is shown walking towards a group of policemen and reporters, some of whom are holding unfurled umbrellas. His arrival at Folkestone on a rainy day is also recorded in a short but amusingly commentated newsreel film (https://youtu.be/P6njRwz_dMw), which also illustrates the rapturous reception he received in the streets of London.

Far more recently, another arrival at Folkestone has hit the headlines. On the 19th of October 2021, a large puppet called Little Amal (‘amal’ meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic), over ten feet in height, first made its appearance in the UK in Folkestone. Little Amal has been carried on foot all the way across Europe from Turkey (www.creativefolkestone.org.uk/whats-on/the-walk-one-little-girl-one-big-hope/) as part of an exercise to raise the public awareness of the plights of refugee children fleeing their native lands. On British soil, she plans to tour the country for a while. Little Amal did not arrive, as Gandhi did, on a cross-channel ferry bound for Folkestone, but she did make her first an appearance on the Harbour Arm (www.kentonline.co.uk/folkestone/news/little-amal-coming-to-town-255932/). She was greeted by the actor Jude Law.

Folkestone harbour was heavily bombed during WW2 and then the pier was repaired after the war ended. Passenger services to France resumed in 1946, but limitations of the harbour’s depth, which prevented the docking of larger ferries, and the development of roll, on roll-off ports elsewhere, led to Folkestone’s gradual decline as a port. These factors and the completion of the nearby Channel Tunnel resulted in the ending of Folkestone’s life as a passenger port by 2000. After this date, the Harbour Arm and its buildings fell into decline and became dilapidated.

In 2014, the Department of Transport closed the railway line ad the facilities on the Harbour Arm. The following year, it was acquired by the Folkestone Harbour & Seafront Development Company (www.folkestoneseafront.com/). This organisation has tastefully restored the Harbour Arm and its buildings as well as the viaduct leading to it across the water. The rails on the viaduct have been preserved but submerged in the walkway in such a way that their top surfaces can be seen. The sinuous platforms and their canopies have been repaired, as have the signal box (now a café) and the old Customs House. Beyond the station, the pier runs out to sea towards a lighthouse. All along the pier, there are several eateries. Also, there is an artwork by Antony Gormley.  What was once a busy transport hub has now become a delightful leisure facility, which along with Folkestone’s transformation as an artistic ‘creative hub’ has turned the town into a place well worth visiting, a far cry from what it was when Gandhi set foot on its pier. My wife and I wondered whether Little Amal, who is quite tall, will have as much influence on the future of the world as did the short man from India, who arrived in his dhoti at Folkestone in 1931.

I am pleased to have walked where Gandhi once stepped in Folkestone because I have also followed in his footsteps in various places in India including his birthplace Porbandar in Gujarat, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Bombay, Madras, and Bangalore. In London, I have often walked by Friends House on Euston Road, passing the very door through which he left the building to greet his admirers back in 1931. In all these places, there are ample monuments and other reminders of the Great Soul (the Mahatma), but, as far as I know, Folkestone is yet to materially commemorate his brief presence there.

A bridge across the River Thames and a personal loss

JUST UNDER A YEAR AGO, we visited Cookham in Berkshire, a small town on the River Thames, with our friend ‘H’. I first met H and her widowed mother in about 1975 at the home of some dear friends, my PhD supervisor and his wife. My wife and I used to see H about once a year until about 1999 at the home of our mutual friends. Then, we lost touch. A few years ago, H and I reconnected via social media and we kept promising that we should meet up again. It was only in about July 2020 during a relaxation of the covid19 regulations that we finally met face to face. Our meeting was in Cookham, where we enjoyed an exhibition at the small Stanley Spencer Art Gallery. After having coffee together – it was the first time that H had been to drink coffee outside her home since mid-March, we walked through the rain to Cookham Bridge and crossed it, admiring the lovely views of the Thames.

Cookham Bridge

The roadway on Cookham Bridge is so narrow that traffic must be regulated by signals at both ends of the crossing. These signals allow traffic to flow in single file in one direction for a few minutes, and then in the other. While we walked across the bridge, I noted its lovely decorative iron railings, which can be seen in a painting, “Swan Upping at Cookham” (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/spencer-swan-upping-at-cookham-t00525), painted in 1915-19 by Cookham’s famous artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).

It was not until April 2021 that we revisited Cookham with some friends and walked along the Thames Path, which passes under Cookham Bridge. It was then that I noticed what we had not seen with H: the interesting Victorian ironwork structure supporting the crossing. A sign screwed onto one of the pontic’s metal panels reads: “Pease, Hutchinson, & Co. 1867. Engineers & iron Manufacturers. Skerne Iron Works. Darlington”. The Skerne Iron Works were:

“…run by a Quaker partnership trading as Pease, Hutchinson and Ledward. The Skerne company built its reputation upon plates for ships, boilers, and particularly bridge building, and at its peak employed 1,000 workers.” (www.gracesguide.co.uk/Pease,_Hutchinson_and_Co)

The iron bridge, supported by pairs of slender iron beams (filled with concrete) with cross-bracing rods, was opened in 1867 to replace an earlier wooden bridge that was opened in 1840. The existing bridge was when it was constructed the cheapest bridge across the Thames for its size (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cookham_Bridge). Until 1947, it was a privately owned bridge for which users needed to pay a toll. It was owned by the Cookham Bridge Company. In 1947, Berkshire County Council bought the bridge, and the toll was abolished. An octagonal house still stands next to the bridge across the river from Cookham. It is the early 19th century toll house built in 1839 by a Mr Freebody (https://heritageportal.buckinghamshire.gov.uk/Monument/MBC19500).

At the Cookham side of the bridge stands The Ferry pub, close to where there used to be a ferry across the river. This old, half-timbered inn, now a mid-priced eatery, has a lovely terrace by the river, from which the bridge can be viewed as well as the waterways leading downstream to Cookham weir and the lock that bypasses it.

Recently, a close relative of H contacted me. He had found my details in the address book in H’s computer. It came as a shock to learn from him that H had passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. When we had last seen her late last year, she was looking hale and hearty. Apparently, one Saturday, she began feeling extremely unwell and on the following day she expired. We were terribly upset because we got on so well with her and were planning outings with her once the covid19 socialising restrictions were eased. They were relaxed but not in time for us to be able to see H again. As we drove through Cookham on our most recent visit, we kept seeing places that reminded us of our meeting with her last summer.

Our friend with whom we crossed Cookham Bridge last year has crossed from this world into another, where I hope that she will be reunited with her parents, our mutual friends, who introduced her to me and then later to my wife, as well as Sir Geoffrey Howe and Elspeth, his wife, with whom she worked happily for many years. H will be sorely missed.