The Old High Street in Folkestone is alive with the drone of power tools, as shabby shopfronts are ripped away and replaced by smart candy-coloured façades ready to house a young generation of artists and designers.
Closer to the sea is the town's silted-up harbour, which has been dying on its feet since the Channel Tunnel opened and travellers decided a train trip to the Continent was swifter than a ferry crossing. But even this sad part of town is in for a big shot in the arm: the harbour is preparing for the opening of a high-end restaurant by a celebrity chef this summer.
Perhaps it's just the intoxicating effects of the early spring and coastal sunshine, but claims that this nearly town — less than an hour from central London and yet off the radar of most commuters — could become north Kent's answer to Padstow are beginning to seem rather believable.
The evidence in its favour is compelling, and most of it is down to the work of billionaire Roger De Haan, son of the founder of the Saga holiday empire.
In 2004 the younger De Haan sold Saga for a reported £1.35 billion and has since devoted himself to pumping a considerable chunk of that fortune into the revival of Folkestone. He set up an organisation called the Creative Foundation, which has been busily buying up and renovating shops in the Old High Street and adjacent roads, which link the main town to the harbour.
They are being let to scores of young up-and-coming artists and designers at subsidised rates. De Haan has also bought the harbour site, for £11 million, and later this year a planning application for a dramatic regeneration will be lodged.
'Folkestone could be Kent's version of Padstow, with the advantage of being 55 minutes to St Pancras International'
The proposals have been drawn up by leading architectural practice Terry Farrell and Partners, and involve regenerating the harbour with a new public square full of restaurants and shops, a new boardwalk along the seafront, a linear park beside the sea and 1,000 new homes.
John Letherland, a partner at the firm, says the proposals would take 15 to 20 years and transform the heart of the town. "It is desperately in need of some care and attention. Everything is closed and the masterplan is about reinventing a purpose for it."
Peter Bettley, a spokesman for Folkestone Seafront, says that work has just begun on an interactive water feature to open in June and enliven the harbour, just as local lad Mark Sargeant — former Michelin-starred head chef at Claridge's — opens a new formal seafood restaurant, with plans for a high-end fish and chip shop, and a fish and meat smokery.
He is convinced that Folkestone could be Kent's version of Padstow, with the advantage of being 55 minutes to St Pancras International thanks to the High Speed 1 rail link. An annual season ticket costs from £3,352.
Another huge advantage is that Folkestone is perfectly placed for trips to the Continent; Ashford International is 15 minutes by train. You can be in Calais in 90 minutes, Lille from two hours, and Paris from two hours 48 minutes (fares from £69 return).
The town also has Kent's grammar school system, but before parents get too excited, The Folkestone School for Girls is rated "good" by Ofsted, while the Harvey Grammar School (boys) can only manage "satisfactory".
The big plus for commuters is Folkestone's property stock: leafy streets of low-priced period homes close to the capital. Savills research shows that an average home currently costs £188,000, with the average detached house at £308,000. And prices have grown an impressive 137 per cent over the past decade.
Local agent Kim Clinch says you can buy a two-bedroom Victorian terrace from about £110,000, and a three-bedroom version from about £125,000. There are plenty of 20th-century houses, too, and a three-bedroom Thirties semi would cost about £180,000 to £200,000.
The best side of town is the West End, close to the grammar schools, and even here you will find four-bedroom detached houses from between £350,000 and £400,000.
Clinch says that the current market is sticky, which is good news for bargain-hunters. "We all thought Londoners would arrive with the high-speed trains but the recession arrived instead, wages stayed low and the buyers stayed put."
But now, with work in progress, maybe it's time to take the gamble. Folkestone, with its wide sweep of beach, on the southern edge of the North Downs, is well-placed for the great outdoors, encircled by the Folkestone Downs, Cheriton Down and the East Cliff and Warren Country Park.
At present the main high street — as opposed to the Old High Street — is a boring shopping centre dotted with empty premises and downmarket discount retailers.
Will the Creative Quarter experiment work? Curious, and some sceptical, locals are monitoring progress and wondering what will happen to all these young painters, mosaic artists, cool cafés and fancy dining establishments if London commuters and holidaymakers don't fall in love with Folkestone.
* For more information on the regeneration of Folkestone, visit folkestoneseafront.com and creativequarterfolkestone.com