In pictures: A seaside town reborn

Published on: Monday, June 22, 2015
In pictures: A seaside town reborn - feature


After years of neglect Britain's seaside towns are enjoying a renaissance and Margate is blazing the trail. Gavin Haines finds out more from the bohemian coastal town.

A quintessential Victorian resort

“On Margate Sands, I can connect nothing with nothing,” wrote T.S. Eliot in his seminal poem, The Waste Land. The bothered bard came to Kent in 1921 to recuperate from a nervous breakdown, and found literary inspiration on Margate seafront where brooding skies and moody seas provoked his poetry.

Back in Eliot’s day, Margate was a thriving coastal resort, a summer playground for the elite and hoi polloi alike. One of the original Victorian seaside towns, it burst into life during the holidays with concerts, theatre performances and the sound of pleasure-seekers enjoying rides at the UK’s first theme park, Dreamland.

The mods and rockers come to town

Margate retained its appeal but by the early 1960s the town – along with other seaside resorts such as Brighton, Bournemouth and Clacton – had become a battleground between the mods and rockers, two rival subcultures that dominated the headlines during that era.

The brawling gangs fled in the late 1970s, and tourists soon followed thanks to the arrival of low-cost airlines. “People turn their backs on places like this because they think they can get on a plane and go somewhere better abroad,” says Dom Bridges, who quit his job as an advertising executive in London and moved to Margate, where he makes soap out of seaweed. “But the English coast is as great as anywhere.”

The Turner Contemporary is a game changer 

Although the opening of the Turner Contemporary in 2011 was widely criticised (building an art gallery in a down-at-heel seaside town didn’t make much sense to detractors), it has helped put Margate back on the map.

“When this place opened it really kick started the regeneration of the town,” says Meg, the eponymous and anonymous author of Meg of Margate, a blog dedicated to the town. “When I finished sixth form I was desperate to leave, but over the last few years it’s really changed.”

The arts scene takes off

The Turner Contemporary and Tracy Emin, who was raised in Margate, have blazed an arty trail for others to follow. Located in the Old Town, the Vortigern gallery is one of the newer additions to the local creative scene. Run by Jamie Beeden, a former NME and Sunday Times snapper, the space is dedicated to photography and old books.

Amongst the glut of galleries in town, other notables include Outside the SquareLombard Street Gallery, Viking Gallery and The Harbour Arm, a stone pier that offers art studios, a pub and the Be Beached café.

The East End moves in

Margate’s cheap rent, flourishing arts scene and coastal location has made it an attractive proposition for creative people who are feeling the squeeze in money-obsessed London.

“It’s basically the East End of London moving here,” says Jerome Hillion, a French stylist, who has relocated his salon from Spitalfields in East London to Margate. "There are lots of interesting businesses opening up."

The beaches win awards

Margate’s sandy beaches add to the town’s appeal. In fact the Thanet district of Kent, of which Margate is a part of, has more Blue Flag beaches than anywhere else in England.

“Every day I walk my dog on the beach and think how amazing it is to live here,” says Tracy Kendall, an award-winning wallpaper designer who also quit London to live in Margate. “People say it’s like Hoxton-on-Sea.” 

Farage makes waves, then ripples

Except Hoxton didn’t have Nigel Farage running as an MP in the last election. Although he was unsuccessful, his controversial UK Independence Party (UKIP) has strong support in Margate, which jars somewhat with its arty image.

But with the election becoming a distant (and bad) memory, the headlines have turned to the cheerier subject of Dreamland, which reopened last weekend.

The fun of the fair returns

Officially the oldest pleasure park in the UK, Dreamland opened in 1920 and once played host to the Rolling Stones. It lays claim to a Grade II-listed scenic railway (which is not white-knuckle enough to be called a rollercoaster), plus all the usual fun of the fair: teacups, big wheel, helter skelter, kiss me quick, etc. Salty portions of fish and chips and 99 Flakes abound.

“It’s great for the town,” says Jane Bishop, the garrulous owner of the Walpole Bay Hotel, a Margate institution. “Hopefully with the joint offering of the Turner Contemporary and Dreamland, we will get a lot more visitors.”

People power prevails

Dreamland slipped into decline during the 1990s and closed in 2003. The sorry site became a playground for arsonists and was due to be turned into flats, but after a successful campaign by locals to save it, the park was bought by the council and renovated.

It reopened last Friday and there’s a tangible sense of optimism in the town. “It’s going to bring the whole town to life again,” says cabbie, Richard Bruman. “But I think the problem is going to be the cost to get in.” Adult prices start at £14.95.

A seaside town is reborn 

Though boarded up pubs abound in Margate, the shutters are slowly coming up. The nightlife is improving thanks largely to Morgans, Rickus and Glass Jar, which offer everything from cocktails to live music. Underground nightclub is also new on the scene, playing everything from garage and grunge to hip-hop and disco.

And from July, revelers will be able to sweat out their hangover in Haeckels’ mobile sauna. Inspired by the old Victorian bathing machines, it will be located on the beach throughout the year. "I want the beach to become a year round destination," says local entrepreneur, Dom Bridges, who crowdfunded the project. "People wanted it, so now it exists."   


Getting there
High-speed trains to Margate depart from London St Pancras twice an hour. Return tickets start from £22.40.

Where to stay
Doubling up as a museum, the Walpole Bay Hotel is an establishment of exceptional character. “We’re a Marmite hotel – you either love us or hate us,” says the owner, Jane Bishop. It’s definitely love for us. Doubles from £85 (including breakfast).

More information

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