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Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Inside Out - South East: Monday January 31, 2005


Gurkhas in their distinctive green uniforms

Think of Folkestone and most people imagine beaches, the Edwardian seafront and the picturesque fishing harbour. So it comes as a surprise to find that the town is home to Britain's most fearsome fighting force.

The Royal Gurkha Rifles are based in Folkestone, and they have transplanted a little bit of Nepal into the heart of Kent.

The Gurkhas' mission - "To serve as an integral part of the British Army whilst retaining its Nepalese identity and culture, and adhering to the terms and conditions of Gurkha service".

The Gurkhas are one of the most respected regiments of soldiers in the British Army, but most of us wouldn't expect to find them on parade in the coastal town of Folkestone.

Two hundred Gurkha families have made their home in the area, 4,500 miles away from their native land in the Himalayas,

Inside Out South East visits the Gurkha community, and investigates how they're finding life in Kent.

Gurkhas in Kent

The Gurkhas have been employed as an integral part of the British Army since the early 19th Century.

"They are fantastic soldiers, very disciplined and good at learning - some of the finest soldiers in the British army."
Captain Marianne Basham, Royal Gurkha Rifles

Today's Gurkhas play an important role in British Army commitments, serving in the Gulf, the Falklands, and Afghanistan.

So how did a Gurkha regiment find themselves deep in the heart of Kent, a world away from the foothills of the Himalayas?

Before 1997 the Gurkhas' main base was the Far East, but following the closure of Hong Kong, their main focus became the UK.

The Gurkhas now have a network of bases across the country, with one of the biggest in Kent.

In 2001 the Royal Gurkha Rifles moved to the army barracks in Folkestone, and since then they've built up a thriving community in the town.

Rich culture

The new Gurkha communities are spreading fast in and around Folkestone. Some Gurkha families are even moving as far as Dover to get away from the confines of the military base.

The Gurkhas

The word Gurkha derives from the valley of Gurkha in West Nepal.

The term Gurkha is used as a generic term for the indigenous population of the middle hills of East and West Nepal.

The Gurkhas have provided a military service to the British crown since 1815.

After the partition of India in 1948, four Gurkha regiments moved across to the British Army whilst the rest continued to serve the Indian Army.

There are over 3,000 Gurkhas in the British Army today.

Major Gurkha bases in the UK include Folkestone, Catterick, Edinburgh and Brecon.

Most Gurkha serve for a minimum 15 years, but can continue on to a maximum 30 years service.

Gurkhas serve in a variety of roles, mainly in the infantry. Many are engineers. logistics and signals specialists.

They are integrating well into local communities.

One in every six pupils at Cheriton Primary School is Nepalese.

The school's Headteacher believes that the Nepalese children have helped to enrich the experience of local pupils.

"It's a very rich experience. I think the whole community has gained so much.

"We have a better understanding of their culture, and they take part in our culture too. It's worthwhile for all of us."

In other areas of life, Folkestone has also been enjoying the Nepalese presence.

Local businesses in the town have benefited, especially specialist food shops and greengrocers.

The Gurkhas are keen on cooking, and Nepalese cuisine is heavily influenced by Indian cuisine.

Many curry and vegetable dishes feature on the family menu.

Nepalese curries are a lot milder than the average Indian vindaloo, and they emphasize fresh ingredients.

And the cuisine is starting to catch on in Kent with the opening of several Nepalese restaurants and takeaways including one run by a former Gurkha in Tunbridge Wells.

Home and abroad

Life in Kent couldn't be more different from life back home in Nepal. The Nepalese are a mountain people with a rich culture and century-old traditions.

Guide to Nepal

Population - 27 million.

Location - borders China and India in southern Asia.

Capital - Kathmandu.

Climate - cool summers and sever winters in north, sub tropical summers and mild winters in south.

Geography - landlocked country. River Ganges plain to south, Himalayas to the north.
Highest point is Mount Everest.

Religion - Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam.

Language - Nepali.

Economy - one of the poorest countries in the world. 47% unemployment. Agriculture is a major employer.

The weather in Nepal can be bitterly cold, and the women wear lots of layers.

As a result, the average Nepalese woman takes 30 minutes to get into her traditional sari.

Nepal is also one of the poorest countries in the world, and is currently suffering from political unrest.

For the last three years insurgents have been trying to take over the country, and are targeting retired Gurkhas and their families.

There has been extortion, and even the kidnapping of family members.

As a result some Nepalese may be looking for a permanent move to Britain.

British law is also being relaxed to allow Gurkha families to come over to Britain.

There's a feeling amongst Gurkhas that Kent is something of a safe haven.

For those who settle in the area the Army run a welfare centre to help introduce newcomers to life in Kent.

This year the centre is being improved and redeveloped, thanks to a £1/4 million Lottery grant.

Fighting force

The original meaning of the word Gurkha is "defender of cows", but today's men are defenders of people.

Their historic links with the British Army derive from a long battle with the British East India Company in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Ready for action - the Gurkhas are a fearsome force

Impressed by the men's formidable fighting powers, the company began recruiting Gurkhas into their own service.

They were later to be called into service in World War I and II.

They were also involved in more recent military action in Bosnia, the Falklands War, Sierra Leone and Kosovo.

The Gurkhas have won 13 Victoria Crosses, and are one of the most decorated regiments in the British Army.

The regiment's motto is, "It is better to die than be a coward", and hundreds of Gurkhas are testament to that statement, having given their lives over the course of the regiment's 190 year history.

Tenacious fighters

The Gurkhas are renowned for their bravery and tenacity, and have a tradition of being fearsome warriors.

These soldiers have played a key role in many skirmishes and continue to serve around the world's hotspots.

Beside their modern weapons, the Gurkhas still carry their traditional tool into battle - a 16 inch curved knife known as a Khukuri or Kukri.

Presenter in Army gear
Inside Out's Kaddy tries her hand at Gurkha training

This formidable weapon started life as a farming implement and is also used in sacrificial ceremonies. It can rip open an opponent in a single blow.

In World Wars I and II it became as important as conventional weapons such as guns and grenades.

Today's soldiering is as much about trying to keep the peace as launching a combat offensive.

The Gurkhas have developed a new skill, keeping a cool head in the face of a crisis and provocation.

Today much of their training involves exercises in riot situations and crowd control.

Life in Kent

It's clear that many Gurkhas enjoy the experience of living in Kent and combining their army careers with sampling the British way of life.

So the next time you drive through the quiet seaside town of Folkestone, keep an eye out for the Gurkhas.

Far from the mountains of Nepal, the Weald of Kent is now their home, and their rich culture and traditions are bringing greater diversity to the Folkestone area.

See also ...

Inside Out: South East
Asylum seekers

On the rest of Inside Out
War poetry


On the rest of the web
Nepalese Khukuri
British Army
Ministry of Defence
CIA World Fact Book
Himalayan Imports
Gurkha Museum
Food Nepal

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