I had been warned by friends, but the arrival into Margate via the train station was still shocking. First came the ugly Arlington House tower block. Then a blustery walk along the grim seafront: boarded-up shops, empty amusement arcades, bored-looking teenagers, immigrant families weighed down with bulging bags.
It was a far cry from the Margate I have memories of from childhood visits in the 1980s, when the annual trip to Dreamland (it was Bembom Brothers in those days) was a highlight of the year for Kent children. Now, the seafront façade of the amusement park – which opened in the 1920s, but was closed in 2005 – is a symbol of decline, its ‘Have a nice day’ message an ironic commentary on decay. Me and my friend hurried on, anxious to reach our destination.
The Reading Rooms B&B is located in Hawley Square – the town’s most salubrious address – and the Georgian house provided instant respite. After explaining about the bags piled up in the hallway (the place had just been used as the backdrop for a trendy magazine photoshoot), Liam and Louise, the amiable owners, who relocated from Hackney to transform the building, showed us around. The project has been a labour of love as well as a canny business venture: books on design and Margate’s heritage fill the shabby-chic space, while the interiors will satisfy even the most style-savvy Londoners.
Old Town, new Turner gallery
The next morning we went to the Old Town to have a look at how much progress had been made on the new Turner gallery. It’s still in its construction phase after a series of controversial delays, though it’s hoped the gallery will eventually open in spring 2011 and bring in new residents, investments and employment opportunities. Signs of hope are visible, with independent galleries, smart cafés and vintage accessories shops (still free of London magpies) opening in the last few years.
There’s no doubt Margate has the right ingredients: its Georgian buildings and well-documented role in the south-east’s social history lend it a unique heritage. Add a fantastic sandy beach, incredible sunsets – famously captured by JMW Turner – and a new high-speed train link (which has reduced the trip from London to an hour and a half), and the promise of a revival doesn’t seem like mere developers’ hyperbole.
But there is also something refreshing about the town even as it currently stands, and it’s not just the sea air; its seedy honesty and desolate beauty are a welcome change from over-exposed Whitstable and precious Broadstairs along the coast.
From amusement park to heritage site
Funding for a new Dreamland – secured late last year – has boosted the consensus that regeneration won’t only be in the arts. ‘The Turner Gallery was viewed as a silver bullet that would save Margate,’ says Sarah Vickery, one of the directors of the Dreamland Trust, the organisation behind the reopening of Dreamland as a heritage amusement park. ‘But while all the focus was on the Turner plan, other stuff was allowed to die.’ Vickery believes Margate’s heritage as a seaside resort will draw families and ordinary holidaymakers.
The ‘heritage’ tag is not about fossilising anything but, rather, about Margate as a place for fun and frolics – with a retro twist. With the wooden, Grade II-listed scenic railway at its heart, and a plan to rescue vintage rides from defunct theme parks around the country, the new Dreamland, due to open in a year or so, will be the first amusement park of its kind.
The town has a long way to go before it regains its status as a holiday destination, but it’s not impossible to imagine a renaissance. In the meantime, the Reading Rooms provide the perfect excuse to spend an indulgent winter’s weekend indoors, looking out on the moody weather and a melancholy town.
Where to eat
This gourmet Indian restaurant is hailed as one of the best in Kent. The freshest ingredients – including Kentish game and locally caught fish – are used in dishes such as Gressingham duck pan-grilled with spices in orange, fennel and cinnamon sauce. Prices aren’t low, but flavours are sensational, and the homemade breads (naan and porotta) are among the most authentic we’ve tasted.
Distressed, slate-blue walls, huge La Maison beds and antique chandeliers feature in all three rooms of this fabulous B&B. Massive bathrooms, with roll-top Aston Matthews baths, walk-in showers, Ren toiletries and marble floors, are spaces in which to wind-down. A breakfast of freshly squeezed apple juice, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and own-made muesli is brought to your room in the morning at a time of your choosing.
These Grade I-listed underground tunnels decorated with 4.6 million shells were discovered in 1835. Who was responsible, when they were built and why remains a mystery. One theory is that it was a pagan temple, but carbon deposits in the shells have rendered radiocarbon dating useless, so the truth may never be known.
Grotto Hill, Margate, Kent CT9 2BU (01843 220008, www.shellgrotto.co.uk). £3 adults; £2.50 concs; £1.50 children; £8 family ticket.