OH, we do like to be beside the seaside. We do like to be beside the sea. And, as the old music hall song suggests, nothing beats a trip to the British seaside for raising the spirits without raising the overdraft.
Whether it’s half-term holidays, away-days or weekends the south coast resort of Margate ticks the boxes.
This once popular, then jaded and faded seaside town, is enjoying a renaissance thanks to the Turner Contemporary gallery (above) which jump-started the revival.
With bracing Kent air, honest food, family fun there’s hope for a sunny future thanks to the news that the Dreamland amusement park has finally been given the green light after years of neglect.
Margate, home to two of Britain’s most famous artists – Turner and Tracey Emin – can also add to its list of attractions: the best Indian cuisine outside Mumbai; cream teas to rival the Ritz; fabulous fish and chips plus eccentricity, nostalgia, quirky shops, arts, crafts and culture by the bucket and spade load. Then there’s the draw of sandy beaches and coastal walks, including a challenging 27-mile Viking Coastal Trail, that charm in any weather.
So what’s not to like?
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), was drawn to this quintessentially English resort by the light, the sea and shimmering sunsets, extolling the skies as “the loveliest in all Europe”.
He was also very partial to the attractions of his landlady and mistress, Mrs Booth, who is embodied by the Shell Lady, a 9ft. bronze that stands like a siren at the end of the harbour wall, looking in vain over the waves. Behind her are newly developed craft workshops, all part of the scheme to regenerate the resort.
Siren of the arts Tracey Emin, who grew up in the town, drew the crowds during the Cultural Olympics with her exhibition of erotic art at Turner Contemporary.
Tracey Emin art at the WalpoleShe can also be seen at the Walpole Bay Hotel, where she has used 20 embroidered sheets for her works, and written a few bon mots in the Visitors’ Book, attacking some very rude guests who took exception to being refused a drink well after hours.
We had a much warmer welcome in this delightfully eccentric hotel where you wake in a time warp, in a living museum where the ghosts of Edwardian and Victorian gentility haunt the corridors and landings.
“They only come to life when the lights are out,” says the barman, nodding to the life-size mannequins and dead-eyed dolls. Just what two excitable girls aged 13 and 11 needed to hear before going to bed.
Hotelier Jane Bishop, a feisty character who held her own against Channel 5’s The Hotel Inspector when re-visited this summer, remains unrepentant after the two clashed over whether her collection of ancient vacuum cleaners, dismembered dolls and battered leather suitcases were trash or treasures.
Says Jane: “Tracey opened our museum in 2001. Our association began in 1995 when she brought her mum for a cream tea on our veranda and fell in love with us.
“Tracey’s first write-up was to tell readers that the Walpole was the most romantic place in the world to take your lover for the weekend.”
Anybody who eats a calorific Walpole cream tea among the hanging baskets is likely to fall in love, too.
As befits an original British seaside town that has welcomed visitors from Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian times, for health, leisure and fun, an historic amusement park called Dreamland will be redeveloped as an ‘amusement park of thrilling historic rides’, with the first stage ready to open at Easter 2014.
The project will see the return of an Art Deco cinema and the Scenic Railway, the UK’s oldest roller coaster which opened to the public in 1920 carrying half a million passengers in just 13 weeks.
The ride, which was destroyed by fire, was described by its patent: “Each car will travel along the straight portions of the track and acquire a quick centrifugal motion in passing around the curves, turns or corners, the suddenness of which causes agitation or commotion of the occupants, and hence much merriment and amusement!”
Margate Old Town has also had a face-lift, thanks to its healthy mix of traders. It’s a welcome change from the corporate shop fronts to see that almost 80 per cent are independent retailers.
As well as the traditional whelk and cockle stalls and excellent fish bars The Ambrette Indian restaurant is a surprising jewel in the culinary crown of Margate. Here executive chef Dev Biswal weaves his magic and produces award-winning fine dining with gourmet dishes that excite the senses. Don’t be put off by its converted pub exterior in King Street. Inside is a treat.
Tracey Emin’s erotic exhibition vied with Rodin’s The Kiss. Now it’s the turn of a colourful and exuberant installation called Tempo para Respirar (Breathing Time) by Brazilian artist Nepomuceno, who has fashioned a fantastical landscape from ceramics, ropes and straw in the Sunley Gallery overlooking the seafront. It runs until March 17 2013.
Also showcased is the bold work of influential New Yorker Alex Katz. His first solo exhibition in a UK public gallery, entitled Give Me Tomorrow, runs until January 13 2013.
And there’s always one Turner on show to celebrate the artist who first came to Margate when he was 11.
Artistry of a different kind is displayed in the Shell Grotto. The story goes that in 1835 Mr James Newlove lowered his young son Joshua into a hole in the ground that had appeared during the digging of a duck pond.
Joshua emerged with an incredible description of tunnels covered with shells, walls decorated with strange symbols in a mosaic of millions of shells. Theories abound – ancient pagan temple, a meeting place for some secret cult – but the mystery remains. I reckon it was someone with too much time and no daytime TV.
Turner Contemporary www.turnercontemporary.org
Walpole Bay Hotel and Museum www.walpolebayhotel.co.uk
The Ambrette restaurant www.theambrette.co.uk
The Dreamland Trust www.dreamlandmargate.com
Shell Grotto www.shellgrotto.co.uk
Margate’s Old Town. An eclectic mix of artists' studios, galleries, shops, bars and restaurants, it's bohemian, offbeat, energetic and full of surprises www.margateoldtown.co.uk
For Kent tourism information visit www.visitkent.co.uk
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