The Kent coast is moving closer to London. As high-speed trains slice a staggering two hours off the return journey time to Folkestone and Dover, an ambitious regeneration programme is rolling out waves of optimism for the future of these historic harbour towns.
Towns that were for so long merely departure and arrival points for tens of thousands of Channel-hopping holiday-makers are being revitalised to attract London commuters and weekenders looking for that elusive combination of an accessible seaside location and value-for-money property.
While other parts of Kent's coast (notably Margate and Whitstable) have been on the London radar for a decade and more, run-down Dover and Folkestone were passed over, unable to reverse the decline that set in during the Seventies. The new high-speed rail link has been the game changer, attracting investment and kick-starting the masterplan for change.
In their heyday these were both elegant Victorian seaside resorts. Extensive bomb damage during the Blitz eroded their appeal but some prized architecture and an array of period properties remain. The restoration programme includes showpiece cultural and leisure venues, new marinas and a makeover of the promenades. Smart apartments with spectacular sea views are coming soon.
Sea change in Dover
Famous for its white cliffs, Dover has been Britain's gateway for centuries, with armies of invaders, migrants and returning soldiers landing on its shores. In searching for a solution to reunite the seafront and the town, which had become a mere adjunct to Europe's largest roll-on, roll-off ferry terminal, planners studied Barcelona, which was so successfully regenerated prior to the 1992 Olympic Games.
An initiative was born called Sea Change, which aims to connect the famous hilltop castle with the refurbished esplanade and provide Continental-style pavement cafés via a "land bridge" along the way. A castle-to-coast cable car is also planned.
"About 14 million people a year pass through the bottom of the town, which is cut off by a trunk road and the large volume of trucks," says Tim Ingelton, head of regeneration at Dover District Council. "The land bridge will make Dover a walkable, connected town."
More than 6,000 new homes are in the planning pipeline. The two key sites are the 25-acre Western Heights, an elevated strip of land with some of Britain's most impressive coastal fortifications, and the 275-acre Farthingloe Village, a new settlement that will include a country park.
"Our target market is people who currently live and work in London," says Kevin Dougall of developer Priory Land. "Dover Priory train station is a 10-minute walk and the views across the Channel are breathtaking."
The first phase of 400 new homes is due next year. Prices will start from £225,000 for a two-bedroom apartment and £325,000 for a four-bedroom house. Farthingloe Village sits at the end of a heritage trail being created by the local council. The housing will be grouped around a village green and neighbourhood shops. Prices will range from £175,000 to £400,000. For more information, call 01344 741055.
Former Westmount School, 250 yards from Dover Priory station, is being redeveloped by Churchgate Group into 97 homes, with a mixture of flats and houses, new and refurbished. Prices range from £110,000 to £200,000. Call 01702 232863.
Folkestone's aim is to recapture the glamour of yesteryear, when it was a holiday destination for high society. Here the plan is to entice young fashionistas from London. Creative Foundation, set up by entrepreneur Roger De Haan, has spawned a number of projects, including Folkestone Triennial, which has brought public art works by Tracey Emin, Mark Wallinger and Richard Wentworth to the town.
Armed with a £1.4 billion fortune from the sale of Saga group, De Haan has acquired 80 decaying buildings in the Old Town. The refurbished spaces are being let as studios and apartments to arts and media companies, helping to form a creative hub around the new £4.4 million Quarterhouse performing arts centre. To apply for space, visit creativefoundation.org.uk.
De Haan also owns the 35-acre harbour site and the adjacent former amusement park for which architect Sir Terry Farrell is producing a "residential-led" masterplan.
The once-thriving port is a shadow of its former self. Ferry services ended in 2000, largely because of freight and cross-Channel services switching to the Channel Tunnel, which opened in 1994. But this has created a once-in-a lifetime regeneration opportunity. A new marina, designed as a "green wave", will link the seafront and its long esplanade to countryside east and west of the town.
Coming soon is The Leas, an Art Deco-style apartment complex in a clifftop conservation area of splendid houses with large gardens built in the Twenties.
It is a considerable step up in quality: sleek and crisp with a marine-green and white exterior and rounded lines. As well as 68 apartments, including penthouses with their own lift access, there will be a gym in the listed basement and a ground-floor arcade with commercial units. There will be underground parking, too. To register, call Churchgate Group on 01702 232863.
With a passionate local pride, Strutt & Parker's local agent, Simon Backhouse, says: "Folkestone is a sleeping beauty. It's suffered from a lack of investment but that is changing. With these new rail services it could become as fashionable as Brighton."