This potted history is based upon a talk given by Bayle resident and former BRA Chair Ian Gordon for the Folkestone History Society in early 2018. Updated slightly in 2020, it still makes for a good read!
I am sure that many of you will have taken the opportunity to walk the newly-opened Harbour Arm. Apart from the fascination of its architecture and construction, the views it affords of the town are in themselves equally fascinating if not more so.
The Foord Valley can be clearly seen, spanned by the impressive railway viaduct and stretching northwards to the chalk downs where we know there were fortifications of great antiquity. The valley divides the East Cliff where St Peter’s church and St Andrew’s flats now dominate the skyline from the west where steeper cliffs rise, crowned by ‘Shangri-La’ with its impressive tower and observation room. Looking further to the west you will just be able to see The Battery approximately 110 – 120 feet above sea level. This is at the eastern end of The Bayle, where our interest lies for this talk.
There is geology behind this. The Bayle is built on a lower greensand ridge which underlies much of the town running northwards to the chalk scarp of the North Downs. Although greensand does not supply the most stable of foundations, the occupation of the headland as a vantage point across the channel was exploited for the settlement of the area which we now call The Bayle.
From the 2006-07 archaeological excavations carried out on the site of the former bakery (fondly remembered from my school days at St Eanswythe’s Primary) which was succeeded by the decorative metal works behind the Dance Easy Studio, we know that the area was occupied in the late Iron Age. Pits were excavated there and Late Neolithic pottery fragments were discovered dating to 2500-2100 BCE as well as Neolithic flint flakes and tools including scrapers.
It is fair to assume that the area would have been occupied during the Late Iron Age and Roman periods. However, little can be deduced as to exactly what type of settlement there was here. Examples of Late Iron Age and Belgic pottery have been recovered from that favourite resource of archaeologists – refuse pits. Later historians such as William Camden (c 1550) and William Stukeley (1722) noted that Roman coins had been found in areas which would suggest the Headland.
In 1722, William Stukeley saw ‘two pieces of old wall’, on the edge of the cliff, ‘seemingly of Roman work’. Much later, in about 1790, Edward Hasted observed ‘a small part of the foundations, with an arch in the wall of it, about three feet from the ground, which is turned with Roman or British bricks (of which there are several among the ruined foundations)’.
Apart from the East Cliff Villa, Roman finds were fairly common in the town including the 1918 discovery of three 1st century burial urns (one of which contained a brooch) a flagon and a Samian cup close by Radnor Park.
Wherever digs have taken place in The Bayle, the recovered remains indicate some sort of permanent settlement spanning most of the Roman period.
The Romans departed these shores in the mid-fifth century taking their organisation and the state Christian religion with them. The Folkestone area has given up little archaeological evidence covering the post-Roman period of the fifth and sixth centuries. However a late fifth-century cremation burial was discovered probably in 1850 or so on a building site in The Bayle. The fragments consisted of a burial urn, burnt bone and a large iron spearhead (or sword) fragment.
Much of the country reverted to paganism and it was not until the late 6th century – 597 to be precise, that any attempt was made to re-Christianise England. Augustine and a party of monks despatched by Pope Gregory to England, met Ethelbert, the pagan King of Kent and his Christian wife Bertha at Ebbsfleet.
Ethelbert, son of Hermenric, succeeded to the entire possession Kent on his father’s death, and became one of the most celebrated monarchs, not only of Kent, but of the whole Anglo-Saxon heptarchy. Such was Augustine’s sincerity and strength of faith and purpose that Ethelbert converted and granted him land in Canterbury which eventually became the Cathedral and Abbey.
The significance for Folkestone and The Bayle in particular is well enough known. Ethelbert died in 616 and was succeeded by his son Eadbald, a man quite unlike his father. He married Emma, daughter of the King of France and sired two sons and a daughter, Eanswythe, who was to play such an important part in the history of Folkestone and The Bayle.
Eanswythe, an intelligent, self-assured and determined young woman, educated in France, refused all offers of marriage from fellow Anglo-Saxon princes. She was determined to devote her life to the service of God. Her father eventually gave her a piece of land within the fortified area of The Bayle (Bailey) where she proceeded to build a small nunnery and dedicate herself and several other women to a life of devotion to prayer and the service of the poor. This was one of the first religious houses for women established in England.
We have no idea exactly where this nunnery was, how large it was and for how long the original building existed. What we do know is that over the following centuries, the Christian presence remained with the building of at least three further churches as the originals succumbed to the erosion of the cliffs or collapsed.
Eanswythe died c 640 and her tomb became a focus of prayer and pilgrimage. She was made a saint almost immediately and over time her relics were sought after and venerated by pilgrims as well as local residents. Sometime after Eanswythe’s death, the nuns had to move into a new building dedicated to SS Peter & Paul as the Eanswythe’s original tiny church was in danger of falling over the cliff.
The importance of the minster and the succeeding medieval monastery for The Bayle and thus Folkestone cannot be overemphasised. A Charter of 700 AD confirms the existence of the monastery setting out the privileges of Kentish churches and monasteries against which appears the signature of the current Abbess of Folkestone.
Such records as exist lead us to believe that the church was attacked and looted by the Danes in 927 following which King Athelstan restored the building, giving the land to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury.
In 1052 it seems that Earl Godwin destroyed the church and its attached buildings in an attack inspired by his opposition to growing Norman influence in England and King Edward the Confessor in particular.
There is no mention of the Bayle or the harbour in the Domesday Book as it is believed that the minster and its estate were by then controlled by Christ Church Canterbury.
In 1095, Nigel de Muneville founded and endowed a new Benedictine Priory, a foreign cell of the Abbey at Loulay in France. A new church was built in 1138, for which a new charter was given and it was to this building that St Eanswythe’s relics were transferred on 12 September that year. The present church has grown around this 12th century original. Little more is known about Eanswythe.
In 1989 a team led by Peter Keller of the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit conducted an excavation of Medieval and other features in The Bayle. The principal interest was the site of a fine medieval house built around 1400 situated opposite the present site of The Guildhall. The house had been demolished in 1916 becoming the site of The Bayle Printing works, later F. J. Parsons, printers of the local newspapers. These buildings were in turn demolished in 1988 in preparation for the construction of Glendale sheltered housing. The Unit was granted access to the site in May 1989 for a period of 12 days and for successive periods up to 1991. The most famous discovery was the partial skeleton of a hippopotamus dating from 70,000 to 130,000 years ago.
Extensive building activities over the 100 years had removed much of the archaeological evidence from this sit with the least disturbed area being on the east. A total of 22 pits were dug across the site, three of which contained human skeletal remains including an almost complete skull. the remains of 37 separate pottery vessels were unearthed and any number of clay pipes, the majority of which carry initials on the bowl identifying them as being manufactured by a certain James Oldfield whose burial in 1757 is recorded in SS Mary & Eanswythe’s Parish Register with the implication that he was probably an established pipe-maker resident in the parish. It is interesting that W.H. Elgar makes reference to a pipe-maker living at 31-34 The Bayle during the late 17th century.
For those interested in finding out more about particular aspects of local history, there is a series of pages, listed below, which you can link to from here or you can visit our local history section, where you can view the same material.