When I grew up in 1970s England, almost everyone vacationed at the seaside in bustling resort towns such as Blackpool, Torquay, Southend and Weston-super-Mare. The B&Bs were full, the arcades were clanging and the beaches were jampacked with sunburned families scarfing ice cream and fish and chips.
But the rise of cheap overseas vacations changed all that. Many old-school British resorts faded into paint-peeled obsolescence as boarded-up shops slowly discolored seafront main streets like nicotine-stained teeth.
Recent years have seen towns such as Hastings and St. Ives seek reinvention with new festivals, cultural attractions and slick waterfront makeovers. Most, though, gloss over the kitsch seaside traditions that put them on the map in the first place.
But one east coast resort keen on revival is throwing its dice in both directions. In 2011 Margate opened one of England’s biggest new public art galleries outside London. And this summer, it has added a sparklingly resurrected amusement park that celebrates Britain’s seaside joie de vivre.
When I arrived in Margate this spring — for the first time in 30 years — I found a worn-out town more than ready to rediscover its holiday season heyday. Dreamland amusement park, which opened June 19, is ready to hook a new round of visitors; the resort’s other attractions are in the spotlight again as well.
My first stop was the beach. Often the least enticing aspect of British seasides — ask anyone who’s been to Brighton — Margate’s is splendid. Its wide golden sands, fringing a gently curving seafront promenade of old arcades and dog-eared buildings, were almost empty on my sun-kissed visit.
I started at one end, sitting in what resembled a large, wood-framed bus stop — it turned out to be the English Heritage-listed Nayland Rock Shelter where T.S. Eliot worked on “The Waste Land.” I eventually hit the sand, skirting the ocean alongside beady-eyed turnstones.
With the town on my right, I aimed for the Turner Contemporary art gallery, squatting at the other end of the beach like a slant-topped Modernist bookend. Named for Romanticist J.M.W. Turner — the pioneering artist painted many local scenes — this top-drawer attraction would easily be at home in London, about 75 miles west of here.
Stepping inside — free entry makes art lovers of most Margate visitors — I found an airy, two-floored space with windows that framed the ocean and an exhibition comparing Dutch master Anthony van Dyck’s portraits with today’s ubiquitous selfies.
Next, I hit the nearby Old Town area, a tangle of brick buildings repurposed with boutiques, galleries and watering holes. Street art adorned the walls here, including foxes, rabbits and a smiling Tracey Emin: The Margate-raised artist’s portrait beams beatifically from on high. She looks hopeful.
6 arty, vintage, eccentric, savory, sweet spots in Old Town
The narrow, shaded streets of Margate’s Old Town — a labyrinth of dozens of small buildings, each as many as five centuries old — is worth a languid hour or two of any visitor’s time, refreshment stops included. With galleries, indie boutiques and street art to peruse, consider the following hot spots.
Lombard Street Gallery: This friendly, brightly painted charmer offers shows by different artists as well as a tempting array of prints and alternative souvenirs: Go for the retro-look graphic art T-shirts depicting local landmarks. Info: https://www.lombardstreetgallery.co.uk
King’s Emporium: This is one of several browse-worthy Old Town vintage stores, with a junk shop vibe, eclectic stock and enticing prices. Take your time perusing the nostalgic trinkets, such as 1970s tea services and books you had when you were a kid. Need more? Check out nearby Margate Retro as well. Info: 6 King St.
Madame Popoff Vintage: With its flapper frock and prom dresses, this eccentric vintage clothing emporium is hard to resist. Need the perfect 1950s polka-dot party dress for a time travel day at Dreamland? This is where you’ll find it. Info: 4 King St., https://www.madampopoff.com
Kate and George: Lined with artsy knickknacks guaranteed to strain your airline baggage limit, this is the place to find that French lantern, gilt-framed mirror or ornamental perfume bottle you’ve always wanted. Or decamp to one of the nearby bars and lament the purchases that might have been. Info: 2 Market St., https://www.beauxinterieurs.co.uk
The Greedy Cow: Snag the bench outside and tuck into Margate’s best hangover cure: a bulging handmade burger that includes a thick slice of black pudding (a traditional British blood sausage). There are more than cakes on offer at the adjoining Cupcake Café, a chatty coffee-sippers hangout with alfresco tables. Info: 3 Market Place, https://www.thegreedycow.com
The Lifeboat: The Lifeboat, a small, wood-lined pub specializing in Kent craft ales and ciders, is a local favorite. On chilly days, dive into a board game by the fire or snag a lamb and mint pie from the menu of hearty pub grub. If the sun’s out, perch at a barrel table outside to watch the world go by. Info: 1 Market St., https://www.thelifeboat-margate.com
A restored retro roller coaster, candy floss — you’ve entered Dreamland
As a 16-year-old on a 1985 school trip, I visited Margate’s Bembom Brothers Theme Park, trying (and failing) to look cool as the lurching fairground rides challenged my elaborately over-gelled hair. This summer — minus the hair gel — I can do it all again.
Dreamland — the Bembom moniker was preceded for 60 years by the name most locals still use for the 16-acre landmark site — reopened June 19. Its resurrection followed a painful 2005 closure and prolonged dereliction that ripped the heart from a resort where there had been a seaside pleasure park since the late 1800s.
This history is the foundation for Dreamland’s phoenix-like return. Although the closure saw rides sold off and the site boarded up, campaigners talked up the park’s unique history — including its 1920s wood-built Scenic Railway, Britain’s oldest roller coaster and the only one listed by English Heritage.
The restored coaster is the star of the reinvented park, which was rebuilt with $27.5 million in public funding after being purchased by the local district council. But it’s not the only reason to roll up this summer. The park’s 17 new and restored rides aim to celebrate distinct fairground eras. Retro-loving visitors can hop a 1930s caterpillar ride, 1940s pedal-car roadway, 1960s teacup ride and a 1980s disco-themed Ferris wheel. But there’s also a hair-raising latter-day drop tower to show just how far fairgrounds have evolved.
Alongside the rides — included in the entry fee of about $23 for adults — the site’s grassy Pleasure Gardens evoke gentler Victorian and Edwardian seaside pursuits such as croquet, bandstand concerts and Punch and Judy shows. There’s also room for stands hawking seaside staples such as fish and chips and cotton candy, which the Brits know as candy floss.
Nostalgic slot machines — plus yesteryear midway games — are part of the fun. And it’s worth spending time to admire Dreamland’s restored older structures as well, including a ballroom where the Rolling Stones played and a row of Victorian menagerie cages that once displayed lions and tigers to wide-eyed seaside pleasure-seekers. Info: https://www.dreamland.co.uk
Lip-smacking good beer and a sea breeze at a micropub
The county of Kent now participates in a latter-day booze movement only the locals seem to know about. Micropubs — independent, pocket-sized neighborhood bars — have been springing up around Britain since a 2005 liquor law change.
Many of these one-room watering holes, often in converted shops or houses, have emerged on the east coast of England. And on my visit to Margate, following a tip on Twitter, I found one right on the breeze-licked waterfront.
The Harbour Arms (www.theharbourarms.com), opened in 2013, is a friendly micropub with a tiny bar, several seats (more outside) and an ever-changing chalkboard of British beers and ciders.
I dived into a lip-smacking Brentwood Brewing Red Riot ale while eyeing the quirky decor of nautical memorabilia, stuffed birds and a large jar of pickled eggs — although it would take more than beer to make me try one of those.
On my departure an hour later, I took in the shimmering ocean vistas and “Mrs. Booth.” The 12-feet-high bronze shell lady is named for the Margate landlady with whom artist J.M.W. Turner had a close relationship.
I wove back along the Stone Pier, trying hard not to fall into the sea, and soon reached the Turner Contemporary. It occupies the site where Mrs. Booth’s ever-hospitable guesthouse once stood.
The best way to go to Margate
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO MARGATE, ENGLAND
From LAX, nonstop service to London is offered on British, Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, American, United and Delta, and connecting service is offered on KLM, Virgin Atlantic, Delta, United and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,038, including all taxes and fees.
There are direct train services from London Victoria and St. Pancras International stations to Margate. Trains run several times a day from either station and take from 90 minutes to two hours to reach Margate. Tickets begin at $65. If you rent a car, it’s about a two-hour drive from central London to Margate, mostly on the A2 and M2.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (country code for England, 1843 (the area code for Margate) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY
Sands Hotel, 16 Marine Drive, Margate; 228228, https://www.sandshotelmargate.co.uk. Margate’s chicest boutique sleepover, with sea view and town-side contemporary rooms plus a good on-site restaurant. Doubles from $191, breakfast included.
Walpole Bay Hotel, Fifth Avenue, Margate; 221703, https://www.walpolebayhotel.co.uk. This property, in Margate’s slightly posher Cliftonville area, recalls the grand seaside hotels of the past. Doubles from $135, breakfast included.
Premier Inn Margate, Station Green, Marine Terrace, Margate; 871-5278762, https://www.premierinn.com. Located near the railway station, with rooms that are clean, functional and good value. They’re also quieter in the back building. Doubles from $85.
WHERE TO EAT
Bay Restaurant, Sands Hotel, 42 High St., Margate; 228228, https://www.sandshotelmargate.co.uk. Book ahead for a sunset-hugging window seat and a dinner menu of seasonal dishes that often including local game and regional fish. Don’t miss the selection of Kent cheeses. Entrees $24-$48.
Mullins Brasserie, 6 Market Place, Margate; 295603, https://www.mullinsbrasserie.co.uk. This friendly Old Town favorite fuses contemporary dishes with Caribbean influences, which means a menu combining goat curries and pan-seared tuna steaks. Entrees $17-$29.
Peters Fish Factory, 12 The Parade, Margate; 292485. The perfect spot for takeout fish and chips —especially if you want to eat on the beach across the street (watch out for greedy gulls). Meals typically $6-$10.
TO LEARN MORE
For information on accommodation and upcoming local events in Margate, go to https://www.visitthanet.co.uk/margate