Folkestone Museum: Tiny Charm

Seen here mid-refurbishment, the museum was moved to the site of the old Town Hall an opened there in 2017. on Guildhall Street at the bottom of the town centre’s main shopping area of Sandgate Road, I think it is an excellent spot to ensure people don’t miss it. There is also the small, and charming, Silver Screen Cinema in the same building. (Credit: Chris Allen CC-BY-SA 2.0)

I will open by saying Folkestone is not a place you’ll come to visit for its museum alone! A small affair across two floors, the top floor (which I had a browse but didn’t particularly take lots of photos of or invest heavily in) deals with the wartime and maritime past of Folkestone.

Folkestone, for example, was one of, if not the main port for soldiers travelling off to World War I battlefields over in France and Belgium, for example. Only a short walk away from the museum is the Folkestone Harbour Station, recently done up – not as a functioning station as would have been sensible – but as a pedestrianised thoroughfare leading to the ‘Harbour Arm’, the old dock of many of the larger ships that would have carried so many off to their doom.

You’ll have to forgive my cynicism with regards to World War I. I have massive grief, overwhelming grief, for all who died in that war because it was, in essence, a war to see who gets to keep what part of the world under the yoke of which empire. For all the talk of ‘remembering them’ and their sacrifice our current government acts as if it would wish to go back to those days and I have my strong disagreements.

Thousands of troops would have been sent off from Folkestone Harbour, on ships such as these (I believe this is the Victoria but don’t quote me…) to go off and see the horrors of World War I for themselves. Knowing Folkestone was the last time many of them would see Britain, see home, before they died ingloriously in the mud and hellfire. (Credit: Stepshort, Used without permission, presumed public domain)

In World War II, Folkestone was part of the frontline defences. The Battle of Britain Museum (Details in link) in nearby Hawkinge, and the Battle of Britain Memorial and Museum (Details in link) at nearby Capel give you a clue as to what was happening around Folkestone at the time. As well as having the skies that would have been the first line of defence for British fighter pilots, we in the Southeast were also a bomb-dump. Any German bombers with stock remaining before heading back to the continent would deposit them on the South Coast towns, like Folkestone, and be on their way. Unexploded World War II bombs are a common find during building works around here.

You’ll get less cynicism from me about World War II. For all that our reasons for entering the war were about Imperial protectionism it was against some decidedly, obviously bad guys. But never forget those bad guys had their sympathisers over here at the time. The narrative is that all of Britain was opposed to Nazis but from the commoner, through the press owners and all the way up to members of the Royal Family there were Nazi sympathisers in Britain. Never forget that.

Many of Folkestone’s fishermen (and it was basically all men at the time) also took their boats over for the evacuation of Dunkirk. I haven’t been but there is the Folkestone Fishing History and Heritage Museum (details in the link) down the harbour, tucked away in what used to be a metalworker’s studio. I’m sure they’ll have some details and stories as well as information about Folkestone’s main purpose throughout history – as a small fishing town.

Soldiers lined up on the beaches of Dunkirk awaiting evacuation. The propaganda machine of Great Britain managed to turn one of history’s greatest retreats into a victory – a ‘living to fight another day’ story. Many of the fishermen from Folkestone would involve themselves, either taking troops directly or using their boats as tenders to carry troops from the beach to larger ships offshore. (Credit: Public Domain)

I wasn’t here to see any of that!  That is all their upstairs business, and to be fair it’s a fine display. I had a browse I’m just not…excited by that. I’m not horny for war history. I am a bit horny for maritime history but there’s only so many displays on Morse code and big wheels you can get horny for.

Samianware – though! Now that’ another matter! I never fail to get a lob-on for Samianware.

Up on the East Cliff of Folkestone, between Martello Towers (round defensive towers built during the Napoleonic Era) 1 and 3 is a stretch of clifftop. In the middle of this is a patch left to overgrow slightly and beneath this overgrown meadow of wonders (good bug spotting there) are the remains of a Roman villa!

Straight ahead, in the distance, is Martello Tower 1 (now converted into a house), underneath all this vegetation (and just a bit ahead of it) are the remains of Folkestone’s Roman Villa. (Credit: Me)

This gets regularly excavated, usually with the help of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, and I suspect to ensure we’ve seen and plotted everything before its inevitable slide into the sea. The cliff edge is a fair way back from where it used to be!

Either way a few of these Romano-British finds have made their way to Folkestone Museum’s ‘Red Zone’ – the downstairs bit that really tickled my pickles.

A beautiful samian bowl with the inscription “ALPINIANI” implying it belonged to one Alpinianus. Sadly the maker’s mark on the bottom ‘IVNIANVS’ or Junianus, is not visible at the moment. Junianus was a pottery maker in Gaul active between around 100-150 CE. Yes, Samianware was so beloved it was imported. Factories would often turn up in many of Rome’s provinces, it became so popular.

The ‘ALPINIANI’ bowl and other Samianware. Oof I love a bit of orange Roman pottery. (Credit: Me)

There were some fragments of painted plaster  – always an excellent find and a reminder of just how colourful the lives of Romans would have been. For a more detailed example of painted plaster you could always visit the Roman Painted House (details in the link) in nearby Dover. Excellent preserved, this painted Roman building dates to the 3rd century CE but was overbuilt by a later fort. There is a fee for entry, and I think they’re currently closed, though due to reopen in July 2021.

Painted plaster, I believe from the Villa in Folkestone. (Credit: Me)

As small patch of mosaic has found its way to the museum and as I understand it we do not know if it is from the Folkestone villa or perhaps from a site at Gesoriacum – Roman Boulogne, one of their main ports heading out of Gaul.

A patch of mosaic. As I understand it the provenance of this is disputed and we don’t know if it’s from the villa on East Cliff in Folkestone or whether it is possibly from Boulogne. (Credit: Me)

There was also a display of various pieces of broken glass. Glassware from Germany was another popular item in the Roman world. The region around the Rhineland and Colonia Claudia Ara Argippinensium – modern Cologne – was famous for its glassware that was so highly prized it got exported around the empire. They would have also used glass for windows, as we evidence when I visited Fishbourne Roman Palace and saw their droplets of melted window-glass from where there was a major fire.

Some nice Roman glass fragments. The Warren Beach is often rich in eroded, rounded beach-glass. I wonder how much of it may have made its way via landslides from remains of the Roman Villa? (Credit: Me)

Glass, at least until the 1st century CE would have been a very luxury product as its manufacture and the materials required etc. were very expensive. However later methods would come along to make it a more accessible, though still luxury good.

The thing that I loved seeing, especially after my Portus Lemanis article the other week, was the tiles stamped ‘CLBR’ or ‘Classis Britannica’, the Romano-British Navy – taken from the nearby villa on East Cliff in Folkestone.

CLBR in a rounded monogram. Standing for Classis Britannica. These were the Roman Naval forces that patrolled the Channel to protect Roman interests from invasions by various tribes such as Jutes and Saxons. They were active under this identity from around 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. (Credit: Me)

The villa, as I understand it, dates back to not long after the Claudian invasion, somewhere around 70 CE – but as with many places it would have changed hands several times and needed touching up. Whether surplus tiles made by the Classis Britannica were used in a refurb or whether, at one point, the villa became the home of someone important in the Classis Britannica is unknown.

This is the usual CLBR monogram I am used to seeing. Stamped left-to-right with these decorative wings to the side. These tiles are from the Roman Villa on East Cliff and it implies that the Classis may have had something to do with the rebuilding of the villa around the 2nd century. Possibly one of their high-ranking officers was stationed there, or perhaps the villa was converted into a watch-house? We just don’t know! (Credit: Me)

There were also prerequisite lengths of Roman plumbing pipe and tiles with pawprints in them.

Some tiles with imprints. Including the little pawprints in the ones on the left. There are so many examples of this I am starting to wonder if Roman terracotta workers didn’t through their pets on their work as a maker’s mark! (Credit: Me)

One of the other main displays in the museum is Ӕfre (I assume it is supposed to use the Ӕ?), meaning ‘Forever’ she is an Early English or Anglo-Saxon skeleton dug up on the Dover Hill in Folkestone when they were doing major roadworks. A huge Early English burial site was found there with this poor lady being the only body to be exhibited.

Aefre on display. It is a beautiful new display-grave she is in. The old one was a bit rubbish! With various weapon finds (a sword and several spear heads) that were found in graves near to her – they’re not necessarily hers. Interesting fact about her, though. She’s actually two skeletons. If you think she looks a bit bandy-legged it’s because she has two identical-sided femurs, as well as similar bones in her hands and feet. I’d assume this is an archaeological error and that she wasn’t grafted with other people’s limbs before death. She was found in a burial site so some of the bones probably got mixed up. (Credit: Me)

Estimated to have been around late-thirties to early-40s when she died (likely 39-41) one interesting thing to note is evidence seems to suggest she ate quite a meat-dense, rather than fish-dense diet! You’d expect living around a natural harbour, a fishing town since time-immemorial like Folkestone fish would have been a major staple but, we must also consider the beautiful North Downs and what great pasture they were.

A selection of bead jewellery found at the burial site, made with a variety of very ornate stones. (Credit: Me)

You’re basically spoiled for choice for food around Folkestone with excellent crop growing, livestock grazing and fishing territories!

The GORGEOUS Anglo-Saxon style brooch found at the grave site. I told my niece about how, even when the Romans arrived in Britain, before Anglo-Saxons were even a pipe-dream of Germanic migrants, the fine metalwork and jewellery of the people of Britain was prized and Romans would have brought pieces home to their wives and daughters in Rome. Jewellery making seems to have always been popular in Britain and this brooch from around the mid 6th century confirms that! (Credit: Me)

Anyway, this gravesite was in use by the mid-6th century and has led to many great finds including beautiful brooches and buckles.

Decorative buckles and fittings from the Anglo-Saxon burial site. (Credit: Me)

Then there were some fancy decorated eggs. Don’t ask, I don’t care, they just fancy.

Fancy eggs. I don’t know. I don’t wanna know. The one on the left is an Ostrich egg and by the looks of it it was turned into some kind of fancy container. The one on the right has a face on it. Again, I don’t know…I genuinely don’t want to know. I want these decorative eggshells to forever remain a mystery to me. (Credit: Me)

The main reason I went to this museum was to see what comes next. From the ‘Folkestone Formation’ rocks and seen very recently in the news – Dinosaur footprints.

It’s easy to think of the prehistoric dinosaur past and imagine it happening in far-off lands. Tropical islands and verdant rainforests across the equator brimming with titanic lizards all eating trees, each other and presumably having very clumsy sex.

The truth is from Folkestone to Antarctica dinosaurs walked this earth! We’re talking millions and millions of years ago. Shit was different then. The world, make up of continents, climates etc. it was all different.

The 2017 find of a theropod, a three-toed predatory dinosaur group to which the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex belonged. Of course the size of this footprint would indicate a theropod of significantly smaller size but no less hunger! (Credit: Me)

In 2017 Philip Hadland, a curator at Hasting Museum, noticed an unusual structure in some rocks around Folkestone and A few years later, sure enough it turns out these were late Cretaceous (around 100-120 million years ago) dinosaur prints. Multiple footprints of multiple species were found but the one on display in the museum was the theropod footprint (likely a predator).

A very large Ammanoid fossil. These are commonly found around the gault clay and chalf formations of Folkestone’s cliffs, which are great fossil hunting for the kids. Small, incredibly well preserved examples (complete with the shimmering mother-of-pearl sometimes!) can be found on the shore on the Warren beach near Copt Point. (Credit: Me)

The cliffs, rocks and formations around Folkestone are rich in fossils and evidence of prehistoric life. I myself have a collection from the area (although as I had to say to my niece, if you find anything too big or too good you have to report it and likely donate it to a museum!) including a piece of petrified wood which was my favourite find.

The best hunting is done around Copt Point, between the Sunny Sands beach and The Warren Beach – do be very careful of tides as you can get trapped and I’m fairly certain coastguards and the RNLI are sick to death of rescuing idiots from there. But at a sufficiently low-tide there is plenty of time to take a slow, fossil hunting walk and scramble across the rocks and find some fossils. A lot of very beautiful specimens turn up pre-washed in rock pools at the surface.

As well as your standard marine fossils they also had femurs from rhinos, a mammoth tooth etc. on display. It’s, honestly, a small display compared to the remarkable richness of the specimens found in Folkestone but I suspect a lot of those get gobbled up by much larger museums!

Various bones. I believe on the left is a femur of a rhino. The top-right is definitely a mammoth tooth, they had some antlers on display. As mentioned it is a surprisingly small display for the rich fossil beds of Folkestone but a lot of the best examples are in bigger museums and collections. (Credit: Me)

I haven’t been to Folkestone museum since it moved from upstairs of the Library on Grace Hill to its new premises in the ground floor of the old town hall. This wonderful neo-classical building gives a sense of grandeur to what is, actually, a very humble museum.

Again, there’s a lot to do and enjoy in Folkestone, I would not visit just for the one museum. If, however, you are in the town with an hour or two to spare it is definitely worth not skipping. Entry is free, although they may sometimes have paid for exhibits and workshops and, for a tiny town where nothing ever happens – quite a lot has happened!

Pay them a visit if you’re in the area and – do be responsible with your parking! There is a lot of permit-only parking in Folkestone. They are introducing a Park and Ride that will hopefully help you out if you do choose to visit.

For more details on the museum, its activities and exhibits visit Folkestone Museum’s website.

Want to learn more of my South Coast adventures?

Learn about the Victorian seaside resort of Eastbourne and the Beachy Head Woman

Read about Noviomagus Reginorum, Roman Chichester, and The Novium Museum

Or check out how AMAZING Fishbourne Roman Palace, near Chichester, is!

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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