On May 26th, 1959 the “Empress of England” arrived at the port of Liverpool after travelling across the Atlantic from Montreal. Aboard the ship was my twenty-three year old grandfather James Elliott and his mother Ivy Jordan, travelling to England to visit a family friend living in Folkestone on the south coast for a three and a half week holiday. It was during this trip at a small local pub called the Earl of Clarendon that he would meet his eventual wife and my grandmother, Lois.
The town my grandmother grew up in is a small part of the city of Folkestone known as Sandgate which lies on the south-eastern English coast roughly fifteen miles west of Dover. The year after my grandmother was born, World War II began, which initially resulted in Folkestone being the evacuation destination of thousands of children escaping London, and as the war progressed many of the evacuees and residents were pushed farther west to Wales in an effort to escape the German bombing runs.
My grandmother grew up during the war as a small child, and eventually when the war ended, grew up through the re-build of the town and moved to London. It would be another 20 years following the war before Folkestone would return to the resort town it once was. Examples of the 1950s and 60s era re-build can still be seen along the beach especially towards Sandgate as you walk west. It was during one of her many visits home from the city to see her mother that she would meet my grandfather.
Since I moved to England a year and a half ago, and with my grandmother’s heritage being the reason I was able to live in the UK (I was granted an Ancestry visa given that I have a grandparent born in the United Kingdom), I felt determined to explore the area she was from, where she met my grandfather and where so many important events that eventually led to my existence occurred.
Having decided to make a proper journey of it, my housemate and I set off on a hike along the white cliffs from Dover to Folkestone. After an hour train ride from King’s Cross and a coffee shop barista who looked at us like we were insane when we said what our plan was for the day, we set off.
About half an hour in, we realized that we should have asked the barista why she looked at us why were insane. It turns out that, although possible, when hiking from Dover to Folkestone there isn’t exactly what you would call a defined path. Our initial idea was to follow the coast, however given that the cliffs don’t always include a beach or flat surface at the bottom, that dream was quickly crushed amongst the waves smashing into the cliff faces below. After a brief attempt at following Plan B (also known as foolishly walking along the main road that turned into a major motorway), climbing over what turned out to be not one, but two barbed wire fences and desperately hoping the road we found ourselves on was not some sort of military rifle range, we found what resembled a hiking trail. We got to the top of the hill and was greeted with a spectacular view of the sea, Folkestone in the distance and the cliffs along the way. Screw you Plan A and B, we like Plan C better anyways.
We trekked on, enjoying the view along the water, the railway below and waving to the sheep in the pasture as we passed. Ten kilometres in, we reached the outskirts of Folkestone and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Thoughts of a cold pint, maybe a nice pie and mash carried us the final bit into the city centre where we sat for a quick drink while I looked up the location of the pub.
Now I have greatly underestimated several things before in my life. I foolishly did not listen to people who said just how hard an engineering degree actually would be. I moved to a new country without knowing anyone and somehow was still surprised at the effort required to start a new life. Neither of these come close to comparing to how badly I misjudged just how far it was exactly from the Dover train station to my grandmother’s house in Sandgate. I’ll just Google Maps from Dover to Folkestone I said. It’s England, that’ll be close enough I said. Ryan you are fucking idiot, I said.
I’m pretty sure that the look of horror on my face made my housemate think someone had died. I am normally great at planning things, I know how far I need to go to get from the airport to my hostel, where the main area of the city is and any day trips I’d like to do. Apparently I lose this ability when exploring my own country. I made sure to buy another round of drinks before breaking the news that sadly, we were about halfway there as the pub was located on the far west edge of Sandgate, completely on the opposite end of the city. Ryan, you fucking idiot indeed.
We’d come this far, so there was no turning back. Nicely enough it turns out that the entire waterfront in Folkestone was developed into a lovely garden park that transitioned eventually into the stone beaches of Sandgate I mentioned previously. Ellen DeGeneres’ “just keep swimming”, “just keep swimming” echoed in our heads as we marched on, through the greenery and across the pebbles. After what seemed an eternity later, we reached the corner, then the street and finally the pub. 10 minutes after they finished serving food. Ryan, you fucking idiot.
Hunger aside, it was sobering to be in the place that decades previously so much of my family history began. I owe my entire existence as the person I am to the chance of fate that two people met in that pub all those years ago. As I stood in awe of a seemingly ordinary pub, on an ordinary English street next to an ordinary house that my grandmother lived in as a child whilst German fighter planes flew overhead, even taking shots at her on some occasions, the other pub patrons couldn’t help but ask why the place seemed like a Holy Grail to me. After a brief chat, several of them mentioned that the owner of the pub at the time my grandmother lived there had passed away in 1990, only two months after my parents had visited the pub during their trip to England. After possibly the most glorious pint of our lives, and assuring that although we were likely not the brightest individuals that day we would not be walking all the way back to Dover, we made our way home.
Twenty-two kilometres, a March sunburn and blisters, cuts and bruises all over, somehow it all seemed worth it as we walked the distance back to the Folkestone train station and headed back to London. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to explore a foreign country and find your own history along the way.
As I arrived back at my flat in Brixton in South London, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps someday a distant relative of mine could walk down my very street, to find a seemingly ordinary flat amongst hundreds knowing that part of their history was written there and that they too, owed it all to a chance of fate that two people, decades ago, met in a tiny pub in Folkestone.