Crest of a wave

The traditional seaside towns of Kent are becoming fashionable weekend resorts for trendy urbanites, says Gerard Gilbert

On a beam in a pub I frequented as a young man of Kent is stencilled a quotation from Dickens'
The Pickwick Papers: "Kent, sir. Everybody knows Kent - apples, cherries, hops, and women."

On a beam in a pub I frequented as a young man of Kent is stencilled a quotation from Dickens' The Pickwick Papers: "Kent, sir. Everybody knows Kent - apples, cherries, hops, and women."

This bucolic image of the "Garden of England" certainly held true until the 1950s, when HE Bates was writing about the Larkin family in The Darling Buds of May and its sequels, and even into the 1960s of my boyhood. And while I can vouch for the continuing quality of Kentish women (I married one, after all), by the 1970s the cherry and apple orchards were being grubbed up, the hop gardens were being replanted with spring onions and the oast houses turned into bijou barn conversions. From then on, Kent was less the Garden of England and more a suburban driveway beside a patch of sterile lawn.

At the same time asKent's fruit and hop farms were being uprooted, a transport revolution was taking place that saw (or rather, heard) three new motorways - the M2, the M20 and a long segment of the M25 - saturate swathes of the county in the perpetual hum of traffic. Modern-day pilgrims don't head for Canterbury, but to the booze cruise gateways of Dover and Folkestone.

And now the Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link has cut through the chalk escarpments of the North Downs and slashed open the Weald. Actually - despite the worst fears of environmentalists - the building of the rail link has been relatively discreet; cynics say this is because of the high concentration of marginal constituencies in Kent. But if it hasn't been an environmental disaster, it could be argued that that's because there is precious little left to despoil.

There has, however, been one unforeseen bonus from turning Kent into the marshalling yard of England: the new transport links have boosted the rediscovery of the county's long-neglected seaside resorts. While Whitstable - the most obviously charming of Kent's coastal towns - has already been dubbed "Islington-on-Sea" for its regular influx of weekending metropolitans and media folk, towns with images as tatty as Margate and Ramsgate are in severe danger of becoming hot and happening. Yes, Margate. Anybody who has visited the town's sprawling amusement park Dreamland, which boasts the oldest rollercoaster in the country, will be snorting in derision.

In part, this is an offshoot of the wholesale rediscovery of Britain's costas - a revolution that, of course, began with the gay colonisation of Brighton in the 1980s. With Hastings recently recognised as the latest hot-spot in this rolling gentrification, it was only a matter of time (and transport links) before the trend jumped the border from Sussex into Kent.

So let us make our way anti-clockwise around the Kent coast, alighting first at Dungeness, where a desolate landscape of huts and shingle beach is all that separates Romney Marsh from the sea. It was here, beneath the shadow of that steaming megalith of yesterday's technology, the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station, that the film-maker Derek Jarman created, ironically, perhaps his most lasting monument (well, it wasn't going to be a love story in Latin) - a light and uplifting shingle garden beside his fisherman's shack.

An artistic colony has grown up here, and it's easy to see why. The light is as distinctive in its way as that of the Normandy littoral that inspired Monet and the Impressionists. Now, the wooden huts earn top whack from weekending Londoners, and Dungeness is testament to the extraordinary ability of one creative act - whether it be the planting of a gorgeous garden or the opening of a restaurant - to attract people of a similar sensibility.

Dover - the Calais of England - has traditionally had shocking rail transport links for such a major entry point into Britain, as any foot-passenger who has arrived from France on a Sunday evening can bitterly attest. If the town wishes to join the coastal gentrification gravy train, it is going to have to sort that one out.

And so up the coast, turning left at Ramsgate (which is not without its own charms) to Margate. This neglected seaside town, where time, until recently, seemed to have stopped in about 1975 (one could imagine Carry on Abroad still showing at the local cinema), is about to benefit from its association with the 19th-century artist JMW Turner, who repeatedly drew and painted the town and coast.

Its creators hope that the £11m avant-garde Turner Centre will have a similar effect on Margate as the Tate St Ives had on the Cornish resort, although Margate has a terrible image problem compared with its Cornish counterpart. Yet the Turner Centre arguably earns even more cachet than the Tate from the support of, and association with, a rather more fashionable child of Margate - the Brit Art enfant terrible Tracey Emin.

So far, however, Emin's most notable artistic tribute to the Kent coast has been her recreation of a Whitstable beach hut for Charles Saatchi's Ant Noises 2 exhibition (Saatchi subsequently bought it for £75,000). Whitstable's real beach huts would set you back a similar amount. Its clapboard houses and cute Georgian cottages cost a good deal more, and have been steadily colonised by Londoners ever since the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company turned the old oyster warehouse into a fashionable fish restaurant 10 years ago. The company also transformed fishermen's huts into stylish holiday lets, and at times it's easy to feel that they virtually run Whitstable.

Jarvis Cocker, Suggs and Janet Street-Porter are some of the more famous examples of what locals call DFLs - as in "Down from London". But then, visitors started coming down from London long before Street-Porter, and there is an element of nostalgia for these long-departed, wealthy cockneys and mockneys about Kent's neglected shores. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Kent coast was the great holiday destination for much of London's East End.

Continuing along the coast towards London there is one more stop before Kent surrenders to the Medway Towns conurbation and the nascent megapolis that is going to stretch all the way from Canary Wharf to Dartford - the so-called Thames Corridor. It is unlikely that most of us would have heard of the north Kent marshes if it hadn't been for the proposed new airport at Cliffe.

The wetlands here - or more precisely the birds that flock to them - were one reason the idea of Cliffe International Airport had to be abandoned. No pilot is going to welcome a flock of lapwings in the engines of his or her 747, after all. Now the villages of Cliffe, Cooling and Hoo can rest easily in their strange, otherworldly charm - there is a tranquility about them that belies their proximity to London and the Medway Towns. You could be in the Fens here.

My mother spent her girlhood in a house within the ruins of Cooling Castle, the same house, I discovered while researching this article, that is now owned by Jools Holland. With the "groovy fella" ensconced near Cliffe, surely others will follow. It'll just take one good restaurant to tip the balance.

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