The restored retro rides of Dreamland and the new art in a gallery named for J.M.W. Turner beckon visitors to the recovering coastal resort town of Margate.
MARGATE, England — When I grew up in 1970s England, almost everyone vacationed at the seaside in bustling resort towns such as Blackpool, Torquay, Southend and Weston-superMare. 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 — Mar- gate’s is splendid. Its wide golden sands, fringing a gently curving seafront promenade of old arcades and dogeared 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 slanttopped Modernist bookend. Named for Romanticist J.M.W. Turner — the pioneering artist painted many local scenes — this topdrawer 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-f loored 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.
MARGATE, England, touts the Turner Contemporary art gallery as it aims to woo back visitors.