Advertisement

The rough, impoverished seaside town that has become a beacon of bohemia

Margate - Alamy
Margate - Alamy

How did Margate happen? How did a rough, impoverished seaside town become a multi-faceted beacon of bohemia – a mix of deco buildings, seaside nostalgia, sporadically beautiful sunsets, Mr Whippy, artists, Brutalist architecture, big houses (and still plenty of poverty) alongside an ever-growing group of fancy boutique hotels?

The choice of Margate as the setting for Sky Atlantic's latest comedy drama, Dreamland, starring Lily Allen and Freema Ageyman, is just the latest release to shine the spotlight on the Kentish coast.

Social media was full of shots of the town's historic theme park, also called Dreamland, earlier this year; not of the big wheel or helter skelter, but instead the derelict bingo hall that filmmaker Sam Mendes reshaped back into a gorgeous deco cinema for his recent film starring Olivia Colman, Empire of Light.

A premiere at the Carlton in Westgate was followed by tours of the set, which had many Margatians fantasising about its temporary guise becoming permanent.

Which isn’t, at this point, unfeasible. Almost every knackered piece of real estate in this seaside town has been transformed over the last 15 years into something chic for east Londoners who have traded two bedrooms in Hackney for vast houses.

lily allen dreamland margate - Natalie Seery/Sky UK
lily allen dreamland margate - Natalie Seery/Sky UK

In 2002 author David Seabrook published All the Devils are Here, which would become a cult book about the weird, often dark side of Kent’s seaside towns. In it, he recalls how, at the end of the 18th century, Margate “shed its genteel image and became the first resort to cater for the working classes. Vast numbers of Cockneys descended on the town by cheap direct sail from London. They came to bathe, to drink, to whoop it up.”

He also records that TS Eliot was in the midst of some kind of nervous breakdown while living here in the 1920s that contributed to The Waste Land.

Then, for the rest of the century, Margate felt like it was sliding into the sea. The Cockneys began holidaying in Spain. There were anomalies: Mick Jagger had his wedding reception with Jerry Hall at the Nayland Rock Hotel in 1990. Jagger may have been ahead of the curve, but then he’s also notoriously careful with his money.

Shops and real ale pubs in Margate Old Town - Monica Wells
Shops and real ale pubs in Margate Old Town - Monica Wells

The hotel itself deteriorated in the noughties, and is currently barely functioning but rumoured, predictably, to be gearing up for a new life. In December, it hosted an event by Queer Tango London and a gold-themed Roman Saturnalia ballroom spectacular to mark the Winter Solstice.

The LGBT+ scene is pretty key to the town’s recurrent mentions in the media. It’s an ever-expanding creative clique. That, and Tracey Emin – raised in Margate – who just opened her new studio complex and galleries. With each new restaurant, bar and gallery opening, more day-trippers, weekenders and of course residents arrive.

It’s easy to satirise, but there’s also a lot to like, including the little disco and back yard for cocktails at the Margate Arts Club (margatearts.club).

A vintage shop in Margate Old Town - Alamy
A vintage shop in Margate Old Town - Alamy

The town is a place of strange social juxtapositions – artisans handmaking marble wallpaper in their cheap-rent studios, and teenage boys with police tags on their ankles drinking cheap beer at the Mechanical Elephant. It’s like a remixed Morrissey song. It’s also a suitable setting for a dystopian near future – as depicted in Rosa Rankin-Gee’s 2021 novel, Dreamland.

While Margate has been on the trendometer for well over a decade now, fuelled by the opening of the Turner Contemporary in 2011, its buzz continues.

The 14-bedroom New Fort Road Hotel (fortroadhotel.com) opened last year. The founders of Frieze bought a building that had been derelict for 30 years, gave it a make-over, filled it with art and installed head chef Daisy Cecil, an alumnus of the River Café. You can’t fault the concept and execution. In June, GuestHouse Hotels will open No.42 (guesthousehotels.co.uk/no-42-margate), a 21-bedroom property with an interior by local designers and artists including the Margate Design Collective and Laura Ann Coates.

The Albion Rooms, the B&B owned by The Libertines - Jason Knott
The Albion Rooms, the B&B owned by The Libertines - Jason Knott

There’s also promise of  Margate House Hotel (margatehouse.co.uk) opening before then, and of course the B&B owned by The Libertines, the Albion Rooms (thealbionrooms.live), has become a blackwashed, neon-emblazoned landmark of sorts. The historic, kitsch-as-hell Walpole Bay Hotel (walpolebayhotel.co.uk) reopens in March.

Shiny new Margate seems to have a new bar or restaurant opening every week. Sargasso (sargasso.bar), on the Harbour Arm, is a sibling to one of London’s best restaurants, Brawn, and sits next to DIVE (divemargate.com), a top spot for margaritas and posh tacos.

Angela’s (angelasofmargate.com) is one of the most joyous seafood restaurants in the country (with bedrooms upstairs), and the unassumingly named Margate Off Licence (instagram.com/margateofflicence), facing the iconic 1930s Lido signage, is one of the most brilliant cocktail bars anywhere. Tell the barman your favoured flavour profile and he’ll mix something just for you.

The sea front and main beach in Margate - Paul Hayward
The sea front and main beach in Margate - Paul Hayward

Close by, Stingray (instagram.com/stingraydrinks) is part wine/craft beer shop, part bar. On a sunny day, drifting between all of these, perhaps ending up for negronis at the poshed-up pub the Rose in June (roseinjune.co.uk), some retro tenpin bowling at Bugsy's (bugsys.co.uk) in Cliftonville, or a dance at old-school gay bar Sundowners (01843 229420), can be an immense pleasure. If you can afford it.

If you can’t, then there’s still the beach. There’s nothing artisanal about it, and it’s free for everyone. If you’ve not been to Margate and its latest turn on both the big and little screen has piqued your interest, you’ll find there’s a lot to love.


Are you a fan of Margate? Tell us in the comments