Discovering England’s quintessential seaside town, where Victorian grandeur smacks into socio-economic neglect.
✍️ Rosie Pentreath, July 2021.
“Dreams don’t have time. Neither does sleep, nor death. That’s why it is sometimes good to wear a watch.” – Tracey Emin
Margate in Kent is England’s definitive seaside town.
A large beach swoops from West to East on Kent’s Western-most tip, providing a striking blanket around a seafront town that tells you it was once very grand in Victorian times, as quickly as it shows you just what rapid, unchecked economic decline looks like.
The skies are huge here. Moody, rain-laden clouds threaten the beach as often as sun-pierced cerulean encourages glints and glitterplay from the sea.
Its location places it in old port history books, and its proximity to London, the Thames and later the growth of railways in Britain, meant it pretty much invented staycationing in the 18th century.
Margate is also well-known and celebrated for the genius artists associated with it – both William Turner and Tracey Emin are associated with the beautiful Kent town, Turner a visitor and Emin a 1960s child of its post-boom grot and gloom.
For in the second half of the 20th century, Brits decided they liked flaunting it abroad in cheap resorts and popular tourist spots in Spain, France, Italy and beyond. Margate and many other seaside resort towns like it spiralled pretty quickly into decline.
Since then, though, work is going on to revive special spots like this place.
In the past few years, the town is scrubbing up to a bit of a ‘hipster’ reputation. It’s a place with guaranteed fine dining – think plates adorned with heavily salted, locally-churned butter on top of freshly baked crusty sourdough; local Whitstable Oysters served with handmade mignonette and a glass of crisp English wine – and vegan cafés, oat flat whites, street art-adorned outdoor eateries, and independent bookshops.
Victorian buildings and their signage, hanging on against the gales and decades of neglect, have been restored to their former glory for change of use.
Fittingly, we visit Margate during a staycation at a time staycations were in vogue due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. After three national lockdowns, we take a quiet train from London to Margate, and check into the cheap station-side Premiere Inn.
Dreamland is eerie and shut, while cafés are dimly lit, cosy, welcoming and open. We swim in spite of scrawly rain, and enjoy fresh seafood in fine restaurants. The wine is always delicious. The Turner Contemporary reintroduces us to marvellous and modern masters one afternoon.
Before taking the short train ride back to London, we visit the almost frustratingly fascinating Margate Shell Grotto – an unexplained series of passageways covered in 4.6 million beautifully placed shells, leading to a dark, rectangular crypt-like room. It was discovered in 1835, but its age and purpose remain unknown.
We left still not knowing.
Read with: ‘bellyache’ by Billie Eilish