MUST DO: Folkestone Triennial 2017

It has to be the best day out this autumn within an hour of St Pancras. Right?

Bob and Roberta Smith’s ‘Folkestone is an art school’ banners are strewn across the town. Photo: Stephen Emms
If you didn’t realise art can stimulate you physically as well as mentally, think again. Every three years, since its inception in 2008, this well-curated seaside exhibition installs a couple of dozen artworks around the Kent town, treasure-hunt style.

But make sure you wear comfy trainers as, map in hand, these gems, by a diverse mix of international and local artists, are placed geographically far apart: you’ll rack up the miles in no time.

It all starts this year at the train station, home to the first of Patrick Brill aka Bob and Roberta Smith’s ubiquitous Folkestone Is An Art School banners (see pic, above), hanging everywhere from the old town to the harbour and even a Martello tower on the East Cliff.

Folkestone Lightbulb by Michael Craig Martin. Photo: Thierry Bal
At the start of the Creative Quarter, whose steep, boutique-lined Old High street is itself worth an afternoon’s exploration, the artworks come thick and fast: glimpsing the quirky mushroom-fuelled Power Plant by Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas in the marketplace, and then Sinta Tantra’s candy-painted Cube building on Tontine Street, it’s worth a gawp at Michael Craig-Martin’s prominent Folkestone Lightbulb (above), at the bottom of the hill.

One of two Gormley sculptures, on the Harbour Arm. Photo: Thierry Bal
Antony Gormley fans must make the hike up the picturesque Stade to the furthest tip of Sunny Sands. After a peek en route into Gary Woodley’s black-and-white Tetrahedron (disclaimer: it’s tricky to find) a familiar cast iron figure lurks in the moss-ridden arches of Coronation Parade. Meanwhile, a second man (above) is easier to find on the Harbour Arm, just beneath seafood and craft beer joint Cockles & Co.

One of six of Richard Woods’ Holiday Homes scattered around town. Photo: Stephen Emms
Back south towards the former Rotunda site on the beach, once filled with traditional amusement arcades and lido, is a trio of imposing new works. At the furthest point is the most effective of Richard Woods’ six Holiday Homes (above), a wry comment on Londoners’ second homes – the others are floating in the harbour, or perched on the tip of the car park by the Harbour Arm.

A few minutes’ along the shingle is the ceramic Jelly Mould Pavilion, Lubaina Himid’s statement (it says here, anyway) on sugar and the slave trade which, as could be attested to on our visit by the jubilant children clambering inside, can be appreciated with or without ‘insider’ knowledge.

Water’s edge: Sol Calero’s Casa Anacaona. Photo: Thierry Bal
And that’s the essence of many of the works on display, from Marc Schmitz and Dolgor Ser-Od’s giant horn on the East Cliff to David Shrigley’s souped-up lamp post. Venezualan artist Sol Calero’s exotic waterside ‘social space’ Casa Anacaona (above) aims to inspire visitors to have a ‘cross cultural’ experience, but is both colourful and functional enough to be a landmark in its own right. And why not?

While seeking out the bigger installations, don’t miss the smaller pieces, from Jonathan Wright’s lofty Fleet on Foot 3D printed gilded ship replicas to Amalia Pica’s hidden bronze sea shells. All are listed on what is an essential map, available from the Quarterhouse (Tontine Street), which doubles up as festival visitor centre – and handily hosts another appealing work, The Clearing, by Studio Ben Allen.

Legs weary, feet sore, it’s more than obvious that what makes the Triennial so compelling – and I’ve been every year since its inception – is simply its unique emphasis on site-specific art, which in turn reveals more and more of the underrated beauty of the town itself.

Many pieces over the years, including those by Tracey Emin, Richward Wentworth and Yoko Ono, have become part of the 28 permanent Folkestone Artworks. Some you’ll encounter along the way, like Cornelia Parker’s iconic sea-facing Folkestone Mermaid. But a return visit is the best option to avoid a heady dose of too-much-of-a-good-thing gallery fatigue.

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Utopia to Heterotopia by Sam Nightingale, part of Places & Spaces.
And don’t forget the Folkestone Fringe, which runs alongside the main event for the duration. Highlights include street event Poet’s Corner (14th Oct), Fragile Solace (24th-30th Oct), Deal-based artist Edward Bridges at the Cyma gallery (Old High Street, till 1st Nov), and Places & Spaces (28th/29th Oct), curated by artist Julia Riddiough and architect David Kitt, which celebrates Folkestone’s “thriving arts ecology and architecture” (tickets are free, more info).

Triennial runs until 5th November, more info here. Folkestone is 55 mins from St Pancras on Southeastern trains. For accommodation try The Relish, Rocksalt, or the new log cabin with private terrace at the Space Bar & Gallery (call 07977 446 086, from £100 a double with en suite).

An edited version of this article appears in our September issue of Gasholder, available free across central London from these outlets.