Walk along the Kent coast where Thames estuary turns into North Sea, wind farms and shipping rising out of the dark blue expanse: you come across the ghosts of Victorian holidays. Abandoned coastal cafes and crumbling concrete lidos built into the sea where once thousands flocked to bathe.
And as you walk along the clifftops from Broadstairs, Stone Bay, Joss Bay, Palm Bay, Walpole Bay to Margate, cheeky haven of half-remembered childhood holidays, you find a resort frozen in time at the exact moment cheap flights to Europe meant Brits could swap their rain-swept resorts for exotic foreign climes.
But not any more.
There’s an unmistakable buzz about Margate. Recently added to the Rough Guide’s top places to visit in the world, even The New York Times wrote: ‘This coastal stretch on the North Sea has become a redoubt for tuned-in Londoners — London’s answer to New York City’s artsy satellites of Hudson and Beacon, N.Y. — aided by a new high-speed rail link and an expressway linking the British capital with Kent.’
And now with Margate’s iconic amusement park Dreamland reopening, or as The Guardian wrote ‘walking a tightrope between work of art and funfair’ (ie: don’t expect Alton Towers) we thought we’d visit the cheeky tip of the Isle of Thanet – where refugees, exiles, eccentrics, writers and artists have all washed up among holidaymakers, ever since holidays were first invented.
Margate Main Sands is still one of my favourite sandy beaches, with its 1937 tidal seawater pool, natural rock pools, and harbour for artisan beers and crabbing. To arrive at the amusement arcades and seaside shops selling buckets and spades and souvenir rock in all flavours from Rhubarb and Custard to Chicken Tikka, you have to wind past pop up boutiques, arty bars and unique vintage fashion shops. Some of the many reasons why Margate rocks.
Here’s a few more:
To explore Margate’s rich history, there’s nowhere better to stay than one of Britain’s most unique hotels – the charming, family-run Walpole Bay Hotel.
Margate’s historic Walpole Bay Hotel has been restored to look much like it would have when built in 1914. Looking out on Walpole Bay, with its 1900 tidal seawater pool, the imposing cliff-top hotel is a museum too, full of old artefacts from bygone eras.
Owner Jane Bishop and her family not only restored this abandoned hotel to its glory, including magnificently clunky original trellis-gated lift, but turned it into a museum. It’s full of fascinating historical items donated by guests from all over the country – from a cleaner’s cupboard that has become a history of hoovers to a wind-up gramophone in the bar.
One of Margate’s most famous exports, artist Tracey Emin dubbed the Walpole the most romantic place in the world to take your lover for the weekend. And her art adorns a couple of the hotel napkins that hang in an eccentric gallery of hundreds of napkins daubed and embroidered by artistic guests.
The hotel has been used for film sets, fashion shoots and ghost hunts countless times. And you can see what the magic is about from £75 for a double room.
Dreamland Margate reopened this year on a site first used for fair rides in 1880. The funfair fell into ruin around 2003, and following a local ‘Save Dreamland’ campaign, designer Wayne Hemingway helped reimagine the theme park, with classic amusements and vintage rides rebuilt and donated from around the country.
Its iconic 1920 wooden Scenic Railway rollercoaster, destroyed by arson is being restored and will soon join the dodgems, seriously windswept big wheel, vintage pinball machines and other amusements. Weekends draw all kinds of performances from circuses and high divers to club nights and bands like the Foals. Lots of scary Halloween fun and games are promised for October half term from dragged up club night Sink The Pink to a Victorian Monster Menagerie and other ‘immersive scare attractions.’
Margate’s Shell Grotto is a fascinating real life mystery. Digging a duck pond in their garden, James Newline and his son Joshua found the bizarre underground complex by accident in 1835. Or so the story goes.
Coming across a creepy, seemingly bottomless round hole in the ground, James is said to have done the obvious thing. He tied a rope around his young son who apparently would fit into it a lot easier, and lowered him in with a candle. Inside James discovered over 70 feet of winding underground passages, walls and ceilings clad in a swirling mosaic of 4.6 million seashells. The underground grotto adorned with patterns of phalluses, trees, ram’s horns, moons and serpents ends in a large chamber with what appears to be an ancient altar.
Recent attempts to carbon-date the cockles, whelks, oysters, limpets stuck to the walls failed. No one knows when Margate’s Shell Grotto was built or for what purpose. Theories include an ancient pagan temple, a secret cult, ancient Cretans, Oriental Kabalists, a medieval temple for the Knights Templar or secret venue for Masonic rituals. And every since its discovery, hundreds of years of embellishments and exaggeration have been added to the tales about Margate’s ‘Shell-Henge.’ As you’re bound to discover, they do like to spin a good yarn in Margate.
And for a good yarn, head for Margate Museum. In the heart of Margate’s charming Old Town with its pretty cafes and cool boutiques, Margate Museum is everything a local museum should be.
The Museum is packed with fascinating details telling Margate’s rich history from Iron Age burial pit to resort for royalty, then popular Victorian resort. With cameos from maritime figures and Roman invaders.
The museum is Margate’s second oldest building, and served as town hall, police station and magistrates’ court. Unsurprisingly, the 16th Century building is said to have more than its fair share of ghostly activity. I was shown a Roman vase and statuette of Diana and which apparently recently turned themselves round inside a locked glass cabinet!
Well worth a visit too is another of Margate’s oldest buildings, the Tudor House, built around 1525. The two storey ‘transitional house’ (bridging the gap between the medieval open-hall and early-modern houses) has been lovingly restored and looked after by volunteers who will tell you lots of spooky ghost stories too if you ask!
Margate’s most modern building has been a great catalyst for reinvigorating Margate. – Despite many locals likening the gallery’s great big white box architecture to a retail park Argos.
The glassy haven for modern art looks out to sea, on the site of a boarding house where the great sea painter Turner himself used to stay to paint his stormy landscapes. Since its opening in 2011, the Turner Gallery has contained all kinds of curiosities from saucy self portraits by Tracey Emin who spent her teens in Margate, to Grayson Perry’s current captivating Provincial Punk collection.
Battered by a perfect storm of budget airlines and an actual storm in 1978 that dashed pier, beach huts and seaside cafes into the cliffs they nestled under, previous attempts to resurrect Margate to its former glory have failed.
Even telly high street makeover queen Mary Portas famously failed to turn Margate into Kent’s capital of cool – Tracey Emin’s slogan: ‘for a dirty weekend, come to Margate’ went down like Margate’s famous World War I Zeppelin crash (fragments of which you can see in the museum).
But walk round Margate’s unique boutiques, magnificent Turner Gallery, dip your toes in the waves that ripple into its sandy beach, or talk to anybody but the most cynical locals, and you’ll get the exciting feeling that we’re all about to fall in love with Margate again!
For a Dream trip to Margate:
Dreamland: 01843 295887 dreamland.co.uk
Walpole Bay Hotel: 01843 221703 walpolebayhotel.co.uk
Margate Museum & Tudor House: 01843 231 213 margatemuseum.wordpress.com
Shell Grotto: 01843 220008 shellgrotto.co.uk
Turner Contemporary: 01843 233 000 turnercontemporary.org
Margate Visitor Information Centre: 01843 577577 visitthanet.co.uk