Margate’s rich heritage as a family seaside getaway spans many generations and whether you see it as kitsch or cultured – the Kent town is on the rise again. Way back in 1736, Margate launched itself as Britain’s first coastal resort. Donkeys carried their riders across the golden sands in the 1780s and the pioneering deckchair arrived in 1898.
“Margate for health, sunshine and pleasure” chanted the 1930s posters. “Wish you were here,” proclaimed the postcards. But by the 1970s British holiday makers were booked on continental package holidays. Margate’s Georgian and Victorian architecture wore a neglected look of faded grandeur.
“Build it and they will come,” said Ray Kinsella’s character in the Field of Dreams movie. Margate adopted his philosophy.
In 2011, the Turner Contemporary gallery opened and the people have come. Over 3.3 million of them, taking advantage of free admission. Some using the 90-minute fast train from London.
Until 20th February 2022, The Open exhibition, celebrating the Turner’s 10th anniversary, displays around 450 works selected by four Thanet-based community groups and collectives: Age UK Thanet, Canvas 4 Equality, Margate Pride and the Turner Contemporary Access Group. It’s a fascinating and diverse insight that would never come from a gallery with permanent exhibitions.
Meanwhile, out at sea Anthony Gormley’s statue of a solitary man, submerged at high tide but approachable at low tide, keeps a lonely vigil.
The gallery takes its name from JMW Turner, Britain’s favourite painter and probably, with over 30,000 completed works, it’s most prolific too. In the cockney accent that he never lost, Turner declared Margate’s sunsets to be the best in the world.
Other artists have been drawn to Margate. Tracey Emin, a Turner prize winner, has returned to her roots opening a studio in her hometown. Take a walk-through Margate’s old town to come across several artists’ galleries.
For a quiet coastal town, Margate has a remarkable artistic history. In October and November 1921, the poet TS Eliot wrote fragments of his modernist poem The Waste Land at the Nayland Rock shelter, famously writing “On Margate Sands / I can connect / Nothing with Nothing.”
Today, the artistic tradition continues. Over a three-year renovation, indie band The Libertines has transformed a run-down seafront B&B into Margate’s coolest place to stay. How many hotels list a recording studio as one of their facilities? Though some hotel guest may prefer the less vibrant colour palettes of The Sands Hotel.
The influx of new visitors has transformed the Margate food scene. At the Turner Contemporary the coffee shop / restaurant is run by local restaurant Barletta. A large glass wall giving extensive views across the harbour and beach. In years gone by, seafood at Margate would have been a tub of cockles, jellied eels or whelks. Nowadays it is more likely to be a bouillabaisse, monkfish curry, oysters or squid tempura.
There’s a buzz and a creativity to the new Margate. The old post office has become a trendy bar and restaurant. What was once Woolworths is now an education centre. A plethora of shops in the old town recycle yesteryear’s cast-offs as stylish vintage fashion.
Opposite the Lido, Haeckels create fragrances, “From the ocean for the ocean based on seaweed, herbs and grasses” and offer the unique Sea Bathing Machine Sauna.
Of course, much of old Margate remains. Since 1838, visitors have been pondering over the origins of the 4.6m shells in the subterranean Shell Grotto. Is it a Roman relic, Georgian folly or a religious cult’s shrine? Despite scientific investigation, the jury’s still out and the debate continues.
Recently refurbished, the neon signs of Dreamland lure thousands to its mix of candy floss, fairground stalls, ghost train and rollercoasters.
With its creative mix of old and new, respect for the retro and a quirky desire to experiment with the new, it’s no surprise that Margate is called Shoreditch-on-sea by some.
Fact file – More about Margate’s rich heritage
If you enjoyed Margate’s rich heritage evolves into cultural renaissance, you’ll find many more UK travel reviews on our Travel channel.Tags: Kent, Margate, Michael Edwards, Thanet, UK Last modified: January 6, 2022