Margate, 64 miles from London, feels a lifetime away from the capital. With its empty shop fronts, bad coffee, chunks of town that desperately need a hug and a strong sense of decline, there is little to tempt your standard superior, culture-obsessed, party-going London idiot. Disclaimer! A day in Margate completely made me realise that I am very much part of the Metropolitan Elite and I’ve no reason to apologise for it, because I get to live in East London and it’s awesome. I love multicultural London, great coffee and my local French-Algerian bakery.
For all the gloom, there are things that could turn the tide of this seaside resort – upon exiting the station there is an almost endless amount of sand and almost bluish sea. The Turner Contemporary arrived on the scene in 2011, a 2012 Rough Guide list put Margate in the top 10 places to visit in the world, 2015 sees the re-opening of Dreamland and Kent was recently honoured by being voted the top place for family holidays in Europe. With this optimism, you’d think people would look a little less put-upon, but no.
In Cliftonville, a fruitless walk for fish and chips gave us a chance to see a parade of depressed looking locals, some of who – there’s no way to say this that isn’t mean – could have done with a cleansing dip in the Lido. If it were open, maybe they’d be beaming with health and happiness. We also came across a perplexing wall about some murders – from this wall of surrealism I gathered some locals died, the police never solved it (though one of the names was scrubbed out so that person either deserved it or their killer was found) and also Desperate Dan was involved. I exclaimed “Is this real?”, a local said it was and I asked what Desperate Dan was about. His response was “I don’t fucking know” and walked away.
Let’s talk about Dreamland, the once-famous venue that closed in 2003 and was nearly turned into a hotel with a giant Tesco attached, but in a fantastic twist of fate, Tesco pulled out. In steps the Dreamland Trust who raised £18m and set about restoring the grade II listed railway, cinema and menagerie cages. The local council carried out a compulsory purchase of the site – since when does this happen in London? Where I live, new developments in the guise of “regeneration” have seen two local amenties disappear and this is deemed as progress.
In our visit, Dreamland was a bit of a mess. Despite opening in phases, I wasn’t entirely sure how Dreamland was going to explain away the penny arcade with gaping holes in the ceiling, the slot machines that had plugs not in the wall and all sorts of various eccentricities that were charming, if not confusing. The theme park itself will cost £14.95 for an adult to visit but note that the scenic railway isn’t yet open. Whether or not it will help the town move into some sort of better future, albeit one that is reflecting on the more illustrious past, it is worth noting that the way people and organisations have pooled resources and showed great passion suggests this is a town worth saving.
The Guardian shows that Margate’s many vintage and art shop is not neccessarily an accident. There are approximately a million of these shops, many clustering in the old town and they revel in Margate’s iconography, from classic Dreamland designs to colourful prints of the Lido and you can take from these shops either a sense of pride in the town or some heavy-handed attempt to get people to love Margate. The important thing is that the art is of good quality and often really affordable.
Margate’s art trail ultimately leads to the Turner Contemporary, looking something like a modern fish canning factory – if factory owners were keen on letting in natural light. The original design was particularly exciting in that the gallery would become a part of the harbour, at risk of being swept away by an over-excited tide – the original design on the left and the final design on the right. A mere £20m difference in cost between the exciting vision and the fish factory. However, one of Turner’s key influences remains, and that’s the brilliant light coming through the large windows and the excellent views out to sea.
Staff members at the Turner were so helpful – excuse me, I’m from London, would you mind being rude in future please? The star of the exhibition was a major Grayson Perry exhibition including his wonderful Walthamstow tapestry, which I last spotted at the William Morris gallery and his astonishing pots. His Provincial Punk show, on until Sun 13 Sep, is easily one of the most inventive shows I’ve had the pleasure to see, mixing British icons, humour and filth in a collection of deceptively beautiful pieces of art. The quality of the pottery is easily overlooked when you find swastikas, gimps and penises scattered throughout the work, but if you find yourself in Margate before September, I urge you to go, just for that alone.
So, Margate. A strange sort of place, but changes are coming and with time and patience, a lot of good things can happen. What stands out for me is the inability to make a British seaside resort feel modern and relevant – Blackpool has had to induce people with a million lights and Europe’s highest rollercoaster; Margate is recreating a wooden rollercoaster. Brighton has a hugely diverse range of attractions and is 5 times larger than Margate – so the past is where it’s at for Margate and if it works, it might just help give new life to the traditional British holiday. Putting aside my London idiocy, there was something charming about the place, struck through like a Margate rock. You could do worse than go and explore it.
Links onward for Margate’s many attractions!