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.

Eating ice cream in an old harbour

CHARLESTOWN IN CORNWALL should not be confused with the dance named after Charleston in South Carolina, as it is just south of the Cornish town of St Austell. The latter, named after a sixth century Cornish saint, St Austol, was first associated with the tin trade and then with the China clay industry, which burgeoned after the material was discovered in the area by William Cookworthy (1705-1780) in the 18th century.

In 1790, only nine families lived in the tiny seashore settlement of West Polmear, a fishing village just south of St Austell. A year later, much was to change in this little place. For, in 1791, Charles Rashleigh, a local landowner, began building a dock at West Polmear, using designs prepared by the engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792), who is regarded by many as ‘the father of civil engineering’. By 1799, a deep-water harbour with dock gates had been constructed. The water level in this dock was maintained by water that travelled in a ‘leat’ (artificial channel) from the Luxulyan Valley, some miles inland. The harbour was fortified against the French with gun batteries.

Named after nearby Mount Charles, the Charlestown harbour was used first for loading boats with copper for export, and then later with China clay, also for exportation. Charlestown prospered during the rapid expansion of the Chana clay industry that lasted until the start of WW1. By 1911, the former fishing village, by then Charlestown, had a population of almost 3200. Between the end of WW1 and the 1990s, Charlestown continued to be a port for exporting clay, but rival ports and the use of ships too large to be accommodated, led to its gradual decline. Now, the lovely, well-preserved 18th century harbour has become a tourist attraction and a home for a few picturesque tall ships. It is also used occasionally as a film set.

We visited Charlestown on a warm, sunny, late June afternoon. After exploring for a while, we homed in on an ice cream stall, a small hut with a pitched roof tiled with slates, located above the northern end of the dock. After queuing for what turned out to be first class ice cream, we sat at a table near the stall to enjoy what we had ordered. It was then that I noticed that some of the tables and chairs were standing on a vast cast-iron plate, which was covered with geometric patterns and some words, which I examined. My suspicion that this plate had once been part of a weighbridge was confirmed when I noticed the words: “20 tons.  Charles Ross Ltd. Makers. Sheffield”. I checked this with the ice cream seller in his stall. He told me that his stall had been the office of the officials who used the weighbridge and pointed out that there was another weighbridge nearby. I found this easily. Its metal plate bore the words: “Avery. Birmingham-England”, Avery being a well-known manufacturer of weighing machines. And the hut that used to be used by the officials now sells a range of snacks.

After eating our ice creams and examining the former weighbridge plates, a trivial thought flashed through my mind: by consuming ice cream at this stall, we were putting on weight at the weighbridge.

Overlooking the harbour that was attacked by the Spanish

THE CHURCH OF St Mary’s in Cornwall’s western town of Penzance overlooks the harbour and much of the town. Its site has been a place of worship since at least 1321, when there was a chapel on the spot. Between the 2nd and 4th of August 1595, Penzance, along with Newlyn, Mousehole, and Paul, was sacked by Spanish forces under the command of Carlos de Amésquita. After causing much damage, Carlos celebrated mass in the chapel of St Mary at Penzance, an edifice he had spared from destruction.

The chapel was enlarged in 1662-1672 and then again in 1782. Until 1871, when a new parish was created, the enlarged chapel had been a ‘chapel of ease’ for the parish of nearby Madron. Reverend Thomas Vyvyan began replacing the old chapel with a new church in 1832. Its architect was Charles Hutchens (c1781-1834), of Torpoint near Plymouth. In August 1832, the old chapel was demolished, and worshippers used a temporary wooden building whilst the new church was being constructed (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1220507). The new church, gothic revival in style, was ready for use in November 1835.

The church’s interior was damaged by fire caused by an arsonist in 1985 but was restored the following year.  Being built of granite, the church looks older than it is at first sight. However, the design of its windows is typical of gothic revival. Inside the church, there are features that exemplify the very best of the gothic revival style, which reminded me of that masterpiece of the style, Strawberry Hill at Twickenham (near London). Having been restored after the fire, they are looking in superb condition.

I am glad that I climbed the several staircases that ascend the steep slope from the seashore near Penzance’s art-deco Jubilee Bathing Pool to the church. For those who prefer not to climb, the church can also be accessed by walking down Chapel Street from the central shopping area of Penzance. However, after seeing the church you will have to climb back up to where you started, but on the way, you might pause to look at the Chapel Street Methodist Church, with its odd but harmonious mixture of architectural styles, built in the mid-19th century. Or, if you have had enough of ecclesiastical architecture, you could drop into The Turks Head Inn for some refreshment spiritual or otherwise. The pub’s name reflects the fact that Cornwall used to be raided by Moorish pirates, who captured some of the locals and made them enter slavery, but do not let that put you off entering the place. Oh, and whilst you are on Chapel Street, do not miss seeing the unusual Egyptian House near the top of the thoroughfare.