Hester Lacey hears candidate John Aspinall win hearts, if not minds, as the Referendum Party's rabble army prepares to fight them on the beaches
It was standing room only at the Southcliff Hotel, an imposing cream-and-white structure on the seafront at Folkestone, last Friday night. Around 200 patriots had gathered to hear John Aspinall announce his candidature for the Referendum Party, which seeks to implement national consultation on the vexed question of Britain's participation in the European Union (aka the scary European superstate). The atmosphere was fervently enthusiastic; Eurosceptics were snapping up badges, pens, rosettes, videos and big puce posters, and signing up to help fill the three coaches from the area heading to the Referendum rally at Alexandra Palace in north London today.

Mr Aspinall, 70, is best known as the eccentric zoo proprietor who mixes with tigers; but his address touched on wider issues. He made a triumphant entrance to the strains of the Referendum Party anthem, a rousing little country rock number by the Rabble Army, with the refrain: "Let the people decide!" (available in all good record shops from tomorrow).

The Rabble Army is the term that founder Sir James Goldsmith has used to describe the members of the Referendum Party, but the faithful of Folkestone and Hythe were far from a rabble. They were well turned out, polite, and the majority were well over 40, but certainly not lacking in spirit. By 9pm, when the meeting broke up, if Mr Aspinall had suggested heading off to storm the Houses of Parliament, a good number would probably have leapt into their Volvos and headed off up the M20 towards Westminster, at a decisive but law-abiding 70mph.

Mr Aspinall pulled no punches. He likened the current situation to the peril faced on the south coast in 1803 when Napoleon's forces were massing in France, poised to invade. The people of Kent turned out armed with hoes, scythes, bill hooks and axes, ready to repel Johnny Foreigner. Time to recapture that feisty spirit, said Mr Aspinall. "We are a peaceful people. But the English are renowned for the capacity to return to their warrior origins if sufficiently challenged!" There was an approving flurry of warm clapping, even a cry of "hooray!" This time, however, he pointed out that the foreign threat is not coming over the Channel, armed with swords. "The danger is more insidious, and it is being led by our own elected leaders. Heath, Hurd, Howe, Heseltine and Clarke will have much to answer for, when our children ask us who led our nation to become craven subjects of Europe." Tumultuous applause.

The south-east coast, which considers itself the front line when Europe starts getting insidious, is one of the areas of Britain where the Referendum Party is finding its greatest support. Folkestone and Hythe, the Isle of Wight, Canterbury, Worthing, Chichester, Bexhill, Dover; in all these constituencies the party believes it can count on far more support than the 3 per cent it is predicted to gain nationally. In the last election, Michael Howard, the present Home Secretary, gained a majority of nearly 9,000, with the Liberal Democrats in second place and Labour a poor third. The Liberal candidate is David Laws, a former banker and the party's full-time economic advisor. The Lib Dems are throwing themselves doughtily into campaigning, plastering the constituency with leaflets, hoping that the Referendum Party will take a large enough slice of the Tory vote to make a difference.

At the Southcliff Hotel on Friday, three generations of the Burgess family were out in force. Habitual Conservative voters, they were planning to support Mr Aspinall. "Part of the problem is that we've got a baby now," said Patricia Burgess, 36. "We want him to have Britain when he grows up, not Europe." James, three months old, set up a wail at the very thought.

"Can you imagine us being one nation with Germany and France?" asked her father-in-law, Robert Burgess, 67. "What hope is there of that? We want the right to decide."

"If there is a referendum and the rest of the country wants to go in, then that's different, but we should be asked," added his wife Ann, 64.

"We are meant to be in Europe just for the market," complained Diane Baker, 54. "I didn't like the way things were going anyway, then I heard about this party and thought: 'That's for me'. I don't want to be ruled by someone else."

Mr Aspinall's flowery speech was not to everyone's taste. "He's a good man but he goes too far, he gets absorbed in his own rhetoric," said Doug Wakefield, 65. "I shall be voting Liberal Democrat next time round," he added.

Most, however, had lapped it up. "I loved it," said Sammy Thomas. "I shall be down there on Monday morning buying the song and I shall play it loudly in my garden on polling day."

"We're supporters," said Mrs Cook, 58. "We're concerned for our country, the transfer of our power to Brussels, the loss of sovereignty. Both parties are split on the issue. How can we give either of them our trust? We don't need that many votes in this constituency to really rock the boat," she added enthusiastically.

In Folkestone town centre earlier that afternoon, however, not everyone had succumbed to Referendum fever. "We shall certainly be voting Conservative," said Mr Benson, 74, outside Debenhams with his wife in tow. "I don't think ignoring Europe is an option, and if you can't beat them you have to join them. I'm a veteran myself and I don't care for it, but I don't believe there's enough in the Referendum Party to make a difference."

"It's an old person's party, a way of carrying on old arguments about who won the war," said Jon Pyke, a student, on his way to McDonald's.

And outside Bonkers pub (Bonkers?) further down the seafront, by the nearly deserted fun-fair, the Referendum Party got short shrift from a couple of young mothers with pushchairs. "Sorry, never heard of it."