"All the lights were on and the world felt like magic. Margate looked like Las Vegas."
I mentioned in my last post that I was hoping to spend Friday by the seaside. In what's become an annual traditional, my friend and I took the day off work to have an out-of-season day by the sea. We've been to Whitstable, Brighton and this year our travels took us to ... Margate.
Having grown-up in Cleethorpes, I have a fascination with past-their-best seaside resorts. Of our three visits, it's definitely Margate that most resembles the seaside that I best know, with all its attractions and problems on a much larger scale. Margate is often covered in the press because of its high poverty levels - it was highlighted earlier in the month for being the area in the country with the highest percentage of shut-up shops. It's also in the news a lot at the moment for the Turner Contemporary Gallery that's being opened in a couple of months - something that the council hope will regenerate the town. Margate's most famous living artist is Tracey Emin and she captures her life growing up there beautifully, tenderly and painfully in her book Strangeland. It's her quotes that I've used throughout this post.
Margate carries scars from throughout its history, from its maritime history and from its long-running tradition of a holiday resort is architecturally fascinating. The list of people and events connected to the place is long and weighty: T.S. Eliot wrote part of The Waste Land in a Margate shelter; Arthur Conan Doyle was obsessed with the town's mysterious Shell Grotto. Against such a backdrop, it's easy to forget how beautiful the sea actually is, and the appeal of its miles of sandy beach.
"The Margate of my mind has the most beautiful sunsets that stretch across the entire horizon. Sharp white cliffs dived a charcoal blue sea from the hard reality of the land."
Emin's name for her book must have come from Dreamland, built in the 1920s as an American style theme park. In 1977 she worked in Dreamland: "Dreamland - a wild Victorian fun-fair where the Catch-a duck and Shoot-a-coconut mixed with the sounds of the Wurtlitzer and Eddie Cochran."
The park's wooden roller coaster still stands, now at the bottom of the large concrete Dreamland car park and opposite a Dreamland bed shop.
Though it's currently boarded up, millions of pounds are being injected into the site to have it open as a historic themepark, with the centrepiece being the 1921 wooden rollercoaster.
Through the scaffolding and with a bit of imagination, you can catch a glimpse of the shining modern style that must have made Dreamland look very impressive in its day.
Couple that with the Lido, further along the sea front, and some of the attractions of Margate for a day-tripper in its heyday become clear. Lest you get carried away with this vision of the 'good-old days', however, Emin adds:
"Margate's never been easy, always hard. 'If you want a dirty weekend, go to Margate', I always say. You can be as dirty as you like. Van Gogh and Turner, Ronnie Biggs and the Krays all went there. Romans, Vikings, Hell's Angels, teds, mods, rockers and punks, they all fought there"
It's now the town's too evident poverty that makes the place appear hard - there were very few daytrippers on the cold February day we picked for a visit. However, there are some more cheering signs of regeneration, mostly visible in the Old Town, which is filled with retro shops, galleries and places to eat. Pineapple House, pictured above, hosts the Cupcake Cafe, which was as pink and sweet as you'd expect it to be. I tried in vain to find something that suited me in the fab selection of clothing available from Madame Popoff Vintage and will continue to follow her on ASOS marketplace. I also highly recommend Scott's Furniture Mart, a bit further away from the centre and packed to the brim with furniture, ceramics, magazines, door-handles ... everything under the sun and more.
I know London is rich in history but there was so much to see in Margate, everywhere you looked, evidence of its rich and long history.
I admired the spirit of the people of Margate who are trying to fight back against the poverty of the town and to restore the town to its proud former state. I dearly hope they succeed because where it is working, it is a great antidote to the blandness of the British High Street. However, in the current economic situation, it's hard to see how they will succeed on a big enough scale to create the jobs and the economy that will attract people back to the town. I hope for Margate - and for all run-down seaside resorts including places like Cleethorpes - that I'm wrong.