The seaside town has reinvented itself with an irresistible blend of the ultra modern and super kitsch, writes Sam Ballard.
Sitting on Kent’s pretty coast, and known colloquially as Shoreditch-on-Sea, Margate is arguably one of the best examples of a British seaside town reinventing itself. From kitsch Dreamland to the ultra-modern Turner Contemporary art gallery, Margate has an abundance of culture, not to mention some great pubs and restaurants, while retaining many of the eccentricities that made it popular in the first place. There’s little wonder more and more Londoners are calling it home.
Enjoy breakfast at the Turner Contemporary (or Fort’s Café, if you fancy a trendy greasy spoon) where you can sit in the huge café overlooking Margate Sands through its gigantic picture windows, or on the terrace if it’s warm. The food is sourced locally so you can enjoy the spoils of the local Windmill Community Gardens and sourdough bread from the Modernprovider bakery. After breakfast, wander at leisure through whatever exhibition is currently showing. Margate has a fine art tradition – JMW Turner came here to paint some of his most majestic pieces and Tracey Emin grew up in the town. There is also an Antony Gormley statue just off the coast.
After getting your fix of high culture, take a walk into Margate’s Old Town where you can pop in and out of the independent shops (there is a main high street a little further away) and feel the full grandeur of the place. Stop off at the Old Town T Stall, which has been around for more than 100 years, if you fancy something hot and wet or, if it’s a little later in the day, for a swift one in The Bulls Head – where a blue plaque tells passersby that Eric Morecambe held his wedding reception here in 1952. A number of businesses have set up home in Margate – including Haeckels, a skincare brand which makes its environmentally friendly products out of seaweed that washes up on Margate’s beach.
For the afternoon head over to Dreamland, the vintage theme park, which was first opened in 1880. The park ran into serious decline towards the end of the 20th century and was shuttered in 2005. A campaign group was launched – Save Dreamland Campaign – to turn it into a heritage amusement park, full of vintage rides. Wayne Hemingway, founder of Red or Dead, led the design work and it was reopened in 2015 packed full of helter skelters, roller coasters and dodgems. You can now even get married there – with the reception held in the roller disco and guests given wristbands to get on as many rides as they want.
Margate’s resurgence has meant that there is no shortage of restaurants – many taking advantage of the traditional seaside offering. Hantverk & Found is one of the best examples of this, with everything from oysters to bream on the menu. The Post Office restaurant – just off Hawley Square with its the handsome town houses – offers more gastropub fare, including burgers and fish pie (although there are more gourmet options, too).
Margate’s tourist offering is pretty limited in terms of geography. Visitors tend to stick to the narrow, charming streets of the Old Town and coastal areas around the Turner Contemporary gallery.
Those staying for a few days are equally as likely to jump in a car and head over to neighbouring Broadstairs, Margate’s more upmarket cousin. However, if you like your seaside towns full of kitsch – a mixture of cool east London and vintage fun – then head down to Margate. You won’t regret it.