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Kent: Touch down on planet Thanet

The Turner Contemporary gallery may have just landed in Margate, but this fragment of Kent has plenty more to offer visitors, says Simon Calder

Until now, the sentence "Margate is only the beginning" lacked conviction. But the opening today of the dazzlingly angular Turner Contemporary gallery on the seafront of the Kent resort also seals the appeal of Thanet. Whatever you want from the planet, from spirituality to a history lesson in transportation, you can find it in this north-eastern fragment of Kent – a lozenge of land about eight miles from east to west, and five miles north to south.

The Isle of Thanet earns its insular name thanks to the Wantsum Channel, but in reality it is well adhered to the rest of the nation. On a small-scale map, the location looks unenticing: if you regard England as having the shape of a boot, with Cornwall as the toe, Thanet is something unpleasant stuck to the upper part of the heel. Yet this slab of land contains a world's worth of wonders (indeed, there is even a hamlet called World's Wonder, though when I inspected it I wondered why).

Away from the coastal towns – Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate – the landscapes of far east Kent are purely English: a slightly threadbare patchwork of meadows edged with hedgerows, speckled with woodland and punctuated by church steeples and adjoining pubs promising that contemporary form of worship, karaoke. Yet at Quex Park, amid elegant gardens, you also find many of the planet's most impressive creatures.

Quex Park is a country estate on the edge of Birchington, centred on a handsome Regency mansion, Quex House. Into this has been installed the life's work of Major PHG Powell-Cotton. "Big Game Hunter" barely serves as a job description for this Victorian adventurer, who made a remarkable series of journeys across Africa and Asia. He was a colourful character: he proposed by telegram to his secretary, who proceeded out to Nairobi to marry him. On journeys such as those chronicled in A Sporting Trip Through Abyssinia, he acted as a renegade Noah, bringing back giraffes two by two to be stuffed and stood up in Thanet. His victims now populate the nine galleries of the Powell-Cotton Museum.

In these enlightened days, it is shocking to see a diorama of several dozen primates, and a staged tableaux of the lion that, in 1906, almost took Nature's revenge on the Major (he was saved by a rolled-up copy of Punch magazine; The Independent Traveller may provide the same level of protection, though we make no guarantees). Yet the museum's Kevin Dunmall sees parallels with the Turner Contemporary, just down the road in Margate. "We have a contemporary collection – contemporary to the collector – and the finest examples of Victorian-Edwardian taxidermy." Even in the 21st century, he says, science is benefiting from the work of Powell-Cotton: "We have one of the top three primate collections in the world."

The major did much more than pick off mammals: he picked up such anthropological swag as surgical instruments from Somalia, and a dazzling triptych artwork from an early Christian church in today's Ethiopia. Quex House, which blends with the museum, mirrors the globe-gathering Major with a collection of antiques and curios: oriental screens, Chinese vases, oh, and look, on the floor there's a tiger re-versioned as a rug.

Besides offering a theoretical match-winning score at Scrabble, Quex also has a farm shop: Quex Barn serves up wholesome local produce and breakfasts to feed a pride of the biggest cats.

Diagonally across the Isle of Thanet lies arguably one of Britain's most significant international gateways. Pegwell Bay was where the Saxon princes Hengist and Horsa first came ashore midway through the 5th century. Then in 1949, 14 centuries on, a replica of their ship was planted at the cliff top, uncomfortably close to today's A256. At the end of the sixth century, this was also where "after many dangers and difficulties by land and by sea, Augustine landed at last". The man who "planted the Christian faith" is celebrated by St Augustine's cross in the pretty village of Cliffsend.

Head from here to the shore, and you find a broad bay rich in birdlife, and blending mud, sand – and concrete. For 14 years from 1969, this was the fast route from Britain. The Hoverlloyd hovercraft sped from here across the Channel to Calais. When Pegwell Bay International Hoverport opened 42 years ago this month, to protests from conservationists, it was supposed to be a brave new temple to transportation. Today, you find approach roads, the landing pad and an air of abandonment – plus seabirds who seem to have suffered no lasting damage. Nature prevails.

From here you could head around the shore on the Thanet Coastal Path, which carries you past the coastguard cottages to a lighthouse – which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a folly topping the Pegwell Bay Hotel. But glance to the north-west and you are likely to do a double-take. In the middle of placid Planet Thanet stands... a Boeing 747.

Get closer, and it gets better. The glory days of what was RAF Manston seem long gone, and are now commemorated in the Spitfire and Hurricane Museum detailing the airfield's importance in the Battle of Britain. A brief attempt to establish a no-frills airline, EUjet failed, and today the only scheduled flights are to and from Edinburgh. Purgatory for plane-spotters, you might imagine.

But that is until you discover, alongside the B2050, Britain's answer to America's desert repositories for unwanted large aircraft. Almost close enough to touch are a brace of Boeing 747s, a 707 and a Douglas DC10. They stand forlorn and inert, several missing engines and bits of airframe, frustrated by the fact that they could otherwise reach the Continent faster than a speeding hovercraft. Whatever exhibits fill the Turner Contemporary cannot match the scale and dynamics of this larger-than-life installation.

Echoes of abandonment still haunt Margate, where the old fun park of Dreamland is dominated by a rusting rollercoaster (soon to be resurrected, according to the action plan that accompanies the Turner Contemporary). The new museum provides a startling new dimension to a tired town and, thanks to high-speed trains, Margate is accessible from London as quickly as more celebrated cultural spots such as Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon.

Back at Quex House (the major's place – you remember, the armed Attenborough), Thanet man Kevin Dunmall says: "It feels like our time again. Margate has re-awoken."

Travel essentials: Thanet

Getting there

* By rail, Thanet is well connected, with Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate served from London St Pancras on the high-speed line, and other stations at Minster and Birchington with links from London Victoria.

* The only flights to Kent International Airport at Manston are on Flybe from Edinburgh, although a new service from Belfast City is scheduled to start on 26 May.

Seeing there

* Quex Park, Birchington: the Powell-Cotton Museum (01843 842 168; quexmuseum.org) and the gardens are open 11am-5pm daily except Monday; the house is open from 2pm. Admission £7. The farm shop and restaurant, Quex Barn, is open 9am-5pm daily (10am-4pm on Sundays).

* Turner Contemporary, Margate (01843 233 000; turnercontemporary.org). Open 10am-7pm daily (except Mondays) and to 10pm, Fridays.

More information

* The Ordnance Survey Explorer (1:25,000) map, Canterbury and the Isle of Thanet.

* Visitor information: 01843 577 577; www.visitthanet.co.uk