Leas Lift Renovation – Set to open in 2025

Folkestone is home to one of three surviving Victorian, funicular, water lifts in the UK.  The Leas Lift is of national and local importance, and aims to be open in 2025.  In 2017 it was closed due to safety reasons.  Since then a team of volunteers has worked tirelessly to raise much needed funds to get it up and running again.  The team have been successful in gaining a £4.8m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.  This means they can employ their first members of staff.  The process begins of showing the public just how important this piece of engineering is.

These aren’t the only funds needed though, and more has been raised since 2016 to carry out the work that’s been ongoing since then.  Cathy Beare, Chair of the Folkestone Leas Lift Company Charity spoke to Folkelife about the continuous task of renovation and fundraising that the team needs to do.

“It’s wonderful to have been recognised by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.  But it’s also a lot of money.  So we have a huge task of working with the community to show why the Leas Lift is important to our heritage.  We have appointed our first two members of staff recently which is very exciting.  There’s a team of paid consultants as well as a wide range of volunteers that also work on the Lift.  Our board of trustees are also volunteers. It’s quite humbling to realise that so many people want to see the Lift working again, and will give so much to see that happen. 

“Our first members of staff are our Community Engagement officers.  We have an 86 page document outlining our community commitment.  There are education trips, workshops, information boards, you name it, we’ve got it planned.  It’s pretty comprehensive.”

visitors from far and wide

This Lift has a far-reaching band of followers.  I was there one day recently when a couple from Australia were walking past.  They’d come to the UK and made a special trip to Folkestone to see the Leas Lift.  It’s not only loved by those of us in the town, its pull is much greater than that. 

“I can remember my first visit to the Lift. My husband was so excited to take me on it – he’s an engineer – and we got on at the top of the Leas and then arrived at the bottom.  And that was it.  I have to admit that I was disappointed!  I thought we were going somewhere, when in reality it stopped at the bottom to nothing!  There was a huge, horrible concrete standing and not much else! 

“We are the team that are working hard on the renovations of the Lift itself, but there is also work going on for what’s called Leas Lift Square.  This is part of the Seafront Development and will be a destination space for visitors of the Lift.” 

Leas Lift Cathy Beare and James Walker-Osborn
Leas Lift Historic Photo
Leas Lift Square

section 106

The Lift has been included in a legal agreement called a Section 106 as part of the seafront development.  This is a commitment by Folkestone Harbour and Seafront Development Company (FHSDC) specifying how much money they will provide to improve local infrastructure.  As well as contributing just under £1 million to the renovation of the Leas Lift, FHSDC has also contributed to GP facilities, schools, recreation, roads and other important community assets in the town.

The CGIs included here are produced by FHSDC and are indicative of the planned vision for the square around the Leas Lift.

Victorian engineering

The Victorians engineered the funicular water lift to connect the upper promenade area of the Leas to the lower seafront, step-free access.  There were originally 3 lifts along the cliffs; the existing one, one in front of The Metropole Hotel, and a further lift in Sandgate.  The surviving lift is fondly remembered by residents and many would love to see it in use again.

Eilish McGuinness, Chief Executive of The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “We are delighted to support the restoration of this rare surviving water lift, returning this beautiful and remarkable example of Victorian engineering to its original use connecting seafront and town.  It will also create an anchor and sense of place and connection for the local Folkestone community and visitors.  This community-led scheme absolutely delivers our vision for heritage to be valued, cared for and sustained for everyone, now and in the future.” 

Folkelife met Engineering Director, Edwin Wealend, to find out what work needs to be done in order to get the lift operating again.

World’s slowest white-knuckle ride

“The Leas Lift has a rather complex, but fascinating braking system.  There are four different fail-safes; in case the cable should snap, there’s an ingenious clamping system, and there’s another device for over-speed and so on.  It’s a joke, but people used to call the Leas Lift the world’s slowest white-knuckle ride!  Anyone who’s been on the lift will know just how steep it is, and how important it is that these brakes work.  The Lift closed in early 2017 when the Health and Safety Executive deemed these brakes unsafe.  The amount of money initially thought needed to fix them was too much for the previous group of volunteers to raise.  They did a fantastic job in keeping the lift open and repairing what they could, but this was the last straw.  

“There is a new group of trustees in place who hold a wealth of expertise in engineering, heritage and renovation.  One of the things we will have to do is replace the braking system.  We need to preserve what’s there and also install the most discrete brakes making the Lift comply with current regulations.  ACME; architects for the seafront development are working on plans to expand the footprint of the Lift site. This will aid sustainability and support us through the planning stages.”  

funding the leas lift renovation

“We need to strip down many parts of the lift to find out their current state, in order to find out what needs repairing. To do this, we will have removed the carriages from the tracks so we can inspect them in detail.  We need to work on the braking system, the tracks and also the wheel that controls the carriages.  We can only inspect them properly by removing them from the site.”

Leas Lift with Shoreline
Leas Lift in context
Leas Lift Wheel
Lift Carriages Credit Phil Blades
The Leas Lift in Folkestone
Leas Lift Vintage Holiday
Leas Lift Square

carbon neutral transport

There is plenty of nostalgia around the Leas Lift and holiday memories of years gone by.  Local fundraising has also helped generate funds needed for the renovation of the Lift.  Cathy Beare continues:

“It’s an overwhelmingly positive response we get to the Lift when you talk to local people.  This is clearly a national treasure because of its rarity, but it’s a very important local treasure.  In recent history people would travel on it for the cost of £1 or something like that.  Now, in order for us to make this a sustainable project we need people to ride on it when it’s open.  And keep on riding on it!  We’ve had such a good response from people wanting to see it open again, now we need them to keep visiting and using this link from the top of the Leas to the seafront.”

“This was cutting edge technology back in 1885 when it was built.  And actually, it’s cutting edge today.  It’s so simple: there are water tanks which fill up and translate the weight of the passengers so that the lift goes down hill.  You can see where the tanks are if you’re on the top of the Leas in the summer.  They’re just underground, so if it’s a dry year, the grass gets browner here first. 

“The lift survived for so long because of the will of the volunteers who ran it.  We will be making it accessible for wheelchair users.  We also need to work out a way that makes it accessible for all members of our community regardless of wealth.  But we aim to see this as a community asset for years to come.”

financial support

James Walker-Osborn of the Folkestone Leas Lift Company Charity said: “We are incredibly humbled by the support of the Folkestone community and businesses.  They have believed in us and supported us since 2017, when we first came together with a crazy idea that we could take this on. 

“The local support, as well as this huge boost from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and other key funders, takes us one giant step forward in the history of the Leas Lift.  Once opened, we know it will have a positive impact on the community.”

The Leas Lift has received a £320,000 development grant from both the Heritage Fund and Architectural Fund in 2021.  This was used to develop the plans for renovation and community engagement.

Overall, £6.6 million has been raised which includes the £4.8 million from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.  As well as the £1 million received in Section 106 funding from Folkestone Harbour & Seafront Development Company, £660,000 came from Trusts and Foundations and a further £136,000 from the community, individuals and companies.

Construction is due to start in 2024 with the aim of reopening in 2025.

The CGIs produced by Folkestone Harbour & Seafront Development Company are indicative only.

Discover more about Folkestone below

News from Folkestone Harbour and Seafront Development Company
Adventure Golf Beside The Sea
Renovating Folkestone Harbour – A Labour of Love
Shoreline – The Place To Live

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