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Sir Ian McKellen lends a touch of magic to Folkestone's Leas Pavilion campaign

By Matt Leclere

Campaigners are making great strides in their efforts to save Folkestone’s Leas Pavilion, enlisting the help of a host of acting stars.

Among them is Oscar-nominated Sir Ian McKellen – best known for his role as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings – who has given his support to the fight to protect the former Edwardian theatre on The Leas.

Others backing the fight, led by the Friends of the Leas Pavilion (FLP) group, are comedian Julian Clary, Waterloo Road and Strictly Come Dancing star Mark Benton, Holby City actor George Irving and Ken Colley, from Hythe, best known as Admiral Piett in the original Star Wars trilogy.

Sir Ian McKellen
Sir Ian McKellen

In a letter to the group Mr McKellen said: “I support the Friends of Leas Pavilion in their admirable efforts to preserve this essential asset at the centre of Folkestone’s life. Its history is remarkable and I hope its future is secured.”

Members of the FLP met last Wednesday in Sandgate to hear what has been happening since the group launched back in May to protect the Grade-II listed building and see it brought back to its former glory.

Chairman, Liz Mulqueen, said it was great for them the campaign was becoming more high profile and that Mr McKellen and other familiar faces had lent their support.

She said progress was being made on a number of fronts, such as encouraging new members and discussions with the developers Churchgate.

Leas Pavilion The Leas, Folkestone Picture: Gary Brown
Leas Pavilion The Leas, Folkestone Picture: Gary Brown

On Friday last week members from the FLP group met with the developers for the first time.

Ms Mulqueen said: “The meeting went very, very well and they listened to what we had to put to them and about what grants we could put in for.

“It’s very early days but they’ve asked us for another meeting in a month or so’s time.”

A survey looking into the condition of the building is set to be carried out within the next couple of weeks allowing the group to establish how much the renovation is likely to cost.

Ms Mulqueen added this meant they would then be able to look into the grant and funding options available to them.

“It’s moved on a hell of a lot,” she said. “We felt it wasn’t going anywhere. Then all of a sudden they’re all talking to us and it’s like they’re taking us seriously.”

Postcard from 1905 showing what the pavilion looked like inside when it was a tearoom and restaurant. Picture: Folkestone and District Local History Society
Postcard from 1905 showing what the pavilion looked like inside when it was a tearoom and restaurant. Picture: Folkestone and District Local History Society

One idea for the pavilion’s future is creating a film studio and place for film-makers to work, while also being used as a celebration of British film.

It is hoped this would then turn Folkestone into a regional centre for film makers around the UK.

Ms Mulqueen said: “We put to them [Churchgate] the outline proposal about the film-maker and they loved that idea. Certainly the film side of it they were more excited if it could get off the ground.”

She added these ideas were still in very early stages.

“We don’t want to get the people of Folkestone’s hopes up that it’s going to happen in the next 12 months.” Ms Mulqueen said. “It’s going to be a long road. But we do seem to be moving in the right direction.”

Shepway District Council says it remains in contact with the developers over the condition of the building and is continuing to monitor its condition and potential enforcement action in the future.

An application by the group to make the Leas Pavilion listed as an asset of community value has been submitted to SDC. This gives community groups a six-month window to raise funds should owners decide to sell on the asset.

Julian Clary has Tweeted about the parades.
Julian Clary has Tweeted about the parades.

The council has also imposed an order on Churchgate to carry out renovation work at 4 Longford Gardens and restore the building. Planning permission has been approved for 68 flats built over the pavilion and five affordable homes in Longford Gardens.

"Shepway council s very keen to see this site developed. The Leas Pavilion is a listed building, it is in a very prominent position in Folkestone and the development would provide much needed private and affordable homes" - council spokesman

A Shepway council spokesman said: “SDC is very keen to see this site developed. The Leas Pavilion is a listed building, it is in a very prominent position in Folkestone and the development would provide much needed private and affordable homes.

“We have made our position clear and continue to do all we can to encourage them to start work on the site. Buildings that are not in use are always at risk of deterioration.

“In the case of Leas Pavilion, we will continue to monitor its condition and consider whether it is appropriate and reasonable to pursue future enforcement action.”

The Leas Pavilion is one of Folkestone’s most historic venues having first opened in 1902 and later becoming the town’s very first cinema in 1911.

A history of the building published in 1950 by the then chairman of the Leas Pavilion company – a Mr F. Ralph – stated how it opened first as a restaurant run by a Swiss manager.

It served its own Vienna rolls and fancy cakes before concert parties were introduced in 1906.

Postcards from the mid 1900s show how the Pavilion first looked – on the inside and outside – when it opened.

But this latest campaign is not the first time the historic building has been involved in a fight for its survival.

Exactly 30 years ago another ‘Save the Leas Pavilion’ fight was raging. This time campaigners feared the old venue was “in danger of being converted into a wild west theme eating and drinking house for heavy spending 18 to 30-year-olds”.

The Leas Pavilion shown here in 1904 - just two years after it opened. Picture: Folkestone and District Local History Society
The Leas Pavilion shown here in 1904 - just two years after it opened. Picture: Folkestone and District Local History Society

A flyer sent around town said it was “a vital amenity for residents and visitors of all ages in a town where amenities are all too few”.

Supporters were asked to write to then chief executive of Shepway council and joining the similarly named Leas Pavilion Action Group.

Anyone interested in joining is asked to contact membership secretary Julia Blewett on 01303 488319.

New members are asked to give a one-off donation at their discretion. Cheques should be made payable to Friends of the Leas Pavilion along with your name, postal and email address, and your phone number and sent to 22 Seabrook Court, Hythe, Kent, CT21 5RY.

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