Margate’s tipping point has been talked about for years. For some, albeit a dwindling number, it remains a dreary seaside resort, past its best. But Margate loyalists old and new doggedly hail its 21st century revival, pointing out the stunning seafront, roaring food, drink and art scenes, and enviable vintage shopping.
In recent years the Kent town has been flooded by London emigrés, but there’s much more to it than the ‘Shoreditch-on-Sea’ nickname suggests. Yes, it often makes headlines thanks to famous offspring Tracey Emin, and the opening of Turner Contemporary in 2011 marked it out as a contender in England’s coastal art scene. Sure, it may be easy to lampoon, with its kitsch Carry On-style fish ‘n’ chips ‘n’ cockles associations, but it has matured elegantly and creatively, and caters as much for families as weekenders from the city.
And to add to its considerable charms, at 5pm on Friday 26 May Dreamland, the town’s legendary amusement park, throws open its doors for a lavish opening weekend – for the second time in as many years. The park’s operator promises it has done away with the thrill rides of the Eighties and Nineties and returned Dreamland to the heights of its historic glory.
The wait for this new Dreamland has already been delayed by a month. This comes after 2015’s short-lived relaunch, an embarrassing episode in which operator Sands Heritage admitted to huge debts before closing the park in 2016. So far, so Carry On. But this year, promises CEO Steven Mitchell, we can expect a unique seaside experience in keeping with Margate’s Victorian heyday. Dreamland will emphasize its heritage qualities, insists Mitchell, doing away with anything tacky or tatty.
This means you’ll find a slew of vintage fairground rides: dodgems, swing boats, a helter skelter, Wedgwood teacups, a waltzer and a mirror maze. Entry to the park is free and you can pay as you go, or buy a for unlimited rides wristband (£11.50 child/£16 adult).
“The last thing we want to do is open half-baked,” admits Mitchell. “We want people to have a fantastic time whether they’re coming for the rides or the events – the Gorillaz are performing in June, and Maximo Park are launching our indoor venue, where The Rolling Stones and The Who played back in the Sixties.”
As one of Britain’s oldest seaside resorts, Margate had already enjoyed two centuries in the spotlight before it fell from grace in the second half of the 20th century. It has been welcoming day trippers and holidaymakers since the early 1700s, the era when leisure itself became a thing. Dreamland, synonymous with the sights, sounds and fortunes of the town, has been the calling card of Margate Sands since the 1870s, and known as Dreamland since 1920, the year its grade II-listed wooden rollercoaster opened.
“The Scenic Railway is our showpiece ride,” says Mitchell. “Another well-known one is the Waltzer. It had a lot of fibreglass and flashing lights, so we took it back to its original look and feel.”
The park’s success may be intertwined with the health of the town, but Margate is too savvy to bet its future on Dreamland alone. It’s been more than a decade since the Save Dreamland Campaign began its long struggle to rescue and reopen the attraction, and the rest of the town has been busy. Finally, it seems deserving of its place on many ‘must-visit’ lists.
Louise Oldfield owns The Reading Rooms, a beautifully-restored Georgian townhouse B&B in one of Margate’s smartest squares. “Dreamland is vital to Margate, but it was never supposed to be Thorpe Park or Alton Towers,” she says. “It’s unique. It’s not about the number of death-defying rides. It’s about the charm of it, and Margate as a historic seaside town.”
Will Dreamland assure Margate’s success for decades to come? “We had these same conversations when the Turner was opening,” remembers Oldfield. “The idea of a seaside holiday was invented here. We live in a town with this amazing coastline and a beautiful bay, and there’s been a lot of forward planning and investment to make the most of what’s already here.”
Families can sit and picnic on the restored harbour steps, enjoying the same view and magical light that inspired Turner. The immense Walpole Bay Tidal Pool, four acres of salty swimming space in Cliftonville, was listed in 2014. Margate Caves, a series of chalk caverns, have been saved from development by a community group as Dreamland was, and will be brought back to life as a tourist attraction in line with the infamous Shell Grotto.
The exodus of young creatives from London did not ‘discover’ Margate, but they are working hard to make it relevant to younger generations. This doesn’t mean overpriced frippery, but it does now cater brilliantly for picky urban visitors who want all the fun of the fairground but none of the crappy food and drink that too often accompany dodgems and candyfloss.
Tiny fish joint and micro gallery Hantverk & Found is worth a trip in itself; its menu garnishes local seafood with international flavours such as yuzu, coconut milk, Thai spices and miso. Cheesy Tiger matches cheesy feasts with wine and sunset views. Get a decent coffee at the Swedish Mala Kaffe, line your stomach at the GB Pizza Company, and stock up on interesting tipples and nibbles at Urchin Wines, also a gallery – refreshments are often served with sides of culture here. Rumour has it a Dalston Vietnamese and a fish taco joint are on their way, and there are hopes Xiringuito, a seasonal seafood pop-up, might return for the summer.
There will always be high season and low season in holiday spots like Margate. Dreamland hopes to be a sustainable year-round venture. If it takes its lead from the rest of the town, it could hit the jackpot this time around.
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