Not all that long ago Margate was a forlorn seaside town rejected by even the bucket-and-spade brigade. In a sad story echoed across England, the already struggling high street was devastated by the opening of an out-of-town shopping centre; pubs and restaurants were closing, and the future of this once thriving seaside resort looked grim.
Fast forward ten years to the latest edition of the Rough Guide to England and this North Kent town is lauded for its “irresistible energy” and its “vintage shopping and fabulous art gallery”.
So how exactly did this revival happen? And why has Margate’s regeneration been covered everywhere from the BBC to the New York Times?
Walking from the rail station past the iconic (or unsightly, depending on your point of view) granite high-rise block and shabby amusement arcades, it’s clear who has just stepped off the one-hour-twenty-minute high speed train from St Pancras. Moustachio’d hipsters cross over to the beach side of the busy seafront road, taking great gulps of sea air and gravitating to the pretty harbour arm in the distance.
Margate’s sea and sandy beach first attracted flannel-bathing-suited pleasure seekers in the Victorian times, and most of what today’s day-trippers are after, from fish and chips to art and antiques, can be found close to the harbour in the tiny Old Town.
A short stroll reveals narrow lanes bursting with independent little galleries, cafes and vintage clothing shops, plus an old fashioned sweet shop and the ridiculously atmospheric Lifeboat Ale and Cider House.
You can’t talk about art in Margate without more than a nod to landscape painter JMW Turner, who, after attending school in the Old Town, became a regular visitor to Margate – and Mrs Booth, his landlady – and said that the skies here “were the loveliest in all Europe”.
The Turner Contemporary opened in a big glass box on the seafront in 2011 and hosts all sorts of exciting historic and contemporary exhibitions, not least by local girl Tracy Emin, who was also commissioned to create the artwork over the visitor centre entrance, where her declaration to the town “I Never Stopped Loving You” blazes in neon green.
Riding in the slipstream of the Turner Contemporary’s national profile, an entire “Creative Quarter” has emerged, with collaborative artist-led spaces like Crate and Resort supporting local artists, and lots of the town’s independent shops have an artistic bent.
Small businesses like souvenir shop Crafted Naturally have studio space; owner Wendy runs hands-on workshops where you can create your own gorgeous batik print – drawing and brushing with hot wax over cloth.
One of the town’s most intriguing works of art can only be seen by leaving the other day-trippers behind and making for the underground Shell Grotto. Twisting passageways and damp chambers covered in the swirls and patterns of more than four million shells were discovered in 1835; you’re invited to make up your own mind whether it’s an eccentric Victorian folly, an ancient pagan temple, or simply the town’s first, best, PR stunt.
Back on the seafront there’s something proudly working class about Margate. It’s got character – and characters. Mannings Seafood Stall still serves up jellied eel and oysters, families line the steps down to the sands eating chips from Peter’s Fish Factory and kiosks do a roaring trade in Mr Whippy’s.
After years as a bingo hall and then snooker club, the 1911 Parade Cinema has reemerged as the Old Kent Market, complete with food stalls and double decker bus serving coffee and cocktails.
The nostalgic theme has been turned up a notch with the recent grand reopening of the sixteen-acre amusement park Dreamland, with the UK’s oldest wooden roller-coaster, dodgems, vintage arcade games and a roller room for skating like it’s 1979.
Playing up to the associations with the mods and rockers who gathered here in the sixties, vintage furniture and clothing stores have sprung up across the Old Town and, for those who have been put off by Margate’s rocketing rental rates, up Fort Hill to neighbouring Cliftonville.
Hunkydory 24, Junk Deluxe, Paraphernalia and Breuer & Dawson are some of the best, and the Aladdin’s cave that is Scott’s Furniture Mart shouldn’t be missed. Luckily, they deliver. The Art Deco desk you’ve got your eye on would be tricky to haul to St Pancras.
Rachel stayed at the Sands Hotel. More information about Margate can be found in the Rough Guide to Kent, Sussex and Surrey and via Visit Kent.
Top image © Jacqui Martin/Shutterstock