Down by the seaside, a venerable resort town is renewed
In Southeast England, Margate and its vintage amusement park are ready for new memories
The young man checking tickets looks at me with a quizzical tilt of the head: “Just you is it, mate?”
Apart from me, the queue for the Scenic Railway roller coaster in Margate is composed of teens and young families. I don’t like his intonation but I can see his point. As a 37-year-old man, I stick out like a sore thumb.
What that insouciant youngster doesn’t know, though, is that I have a very good reason for being here. I’m on what others might describe as a sentimental journey; my brother and I spent many days amid the faded neon and sticky concrete of Dreamland, the amusement park where you’ll find the Scenic Railway, during our preteen glory days in the early 1990s. We’d get the train from Ashford, our home town, and walk the 500 yards from Margate Station to Dreamland (or Benbom Brothers, as it was briefly known at the time).
I’m back because Dreamland reopened in May after a $30 million refurbishment, with the Scenic Railway as its centerpiece. Will it live up to my memories? Initial impressions are good. It is much like it was, and also very different. The 1920s Scenic Railway, the oldest coaster in Britain, still has a brakeman perched between the fifth and sixth cars, it still creaks and rattles around the (completely new) wooden track and the descents are as thrilling as they ever were, but it seems to be better run and, well, safer now.
That’s true of the whole park. There are things here that would have appeared suspiciously foreign in 1991: plenty of grass to complement the concrete, for example, and decent food. There are eight street-food stalls around a circular green, while by the entrance there’s a branch of Morelli’s, an iconic Kentish ice
cream company founded in nearby Broadstairs in 1932. (Most of its branches are, nonetheless, now to be found in the Middle East.)
Dreamland’s desire to please is probably best exemplified by the beaming, ’50s-styled teens who scoot around the park offering help, and the information boards by each ride, which contain a solid chunk of well-chosen history. Metaphorically speaking, a broad smile has replaced a disinterested shrug.
The same might be said of Margate. This has long been one of the most down-at-heel towns in Southeast England, but in the past few years it has undergone a significant resurgence (even if there’s still much to do). A victim of the 1970s boom in overseas travel — the British swapped Margate for Mallorca — it has endured a period of sullen decay, its plight only heightened by the disheveled grandeur of its Edwardian inheritance.
On a warm day, though, Margate’s problems can be easily forgotten. Leaving Dreamland, I walk east across the crescentshaped sandy beach toward another sign of the town’s renaissance, the Turner Contemporary art gallery. It’s late afternoon and the town is relaxed. A few people are splashing in the water as seagulls swoop and caw overhead; groups of day-trippers eat ice cream on some modern steps by the beach. Container ships, visible far out in the North Sea, inch slowly along the horizon.
In the Old Town, close to the Turner, all is pastel-colored contentment. It’s a contrast with the shops along the front toward Dreamland, where Beacon Bingo sits next to the tinny din and flashing lights of the Fabulous Showboat arcade.
Margate’s greatest delight is saved for the evening. The reason England’s finest painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), adored this place was the quality of light: “The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe,” he apparently claimed, and on a clear evening it’s hard to disagree. Fish and chips perched on my knee, I sit and watch as the sky goes from gray to pale blue to golden and then, finally, blood red as the sun hits the horizon.
The next morning, I set off for a walk down the coast. I head east, away from Dreamland, on the wide, sea-level promenade that separates Margate’s easterly beaches from white cliffs. It’s a warm morning, but I have it almost to myself except for a few boys with fishing nets and a woman surrounded by a variety of dogs: “Come on Ollie! Come on Rupert!” she insists, and they eventually follow.
There are some amazing sights. The huge Cliftonville Lido, an open-air swimming pool, sits semi-derelict, as does an art-deco lift that once transported fashionable holidaymakers down to the beach. Local kids clearly spend a lot of their time here: There’s graffiti that veers from the abusive to the amusing. (Sydney picks her nose, apparently.)
Despite this, though, it’s a wonderful hour’s walk. It’s low tide and there are acres of exposed sand, rock pools and seaweed. Vibrant pink flowers cover the grassy clifftops, and the air is full of that hard-to-explain aroma that defines the English seaside: part seaweed, part salt, part something else entirely. By the time I reach my destination, Botany Bay — famous for its freestanding chalk stacks — I’m in a bit of a reverie.
I head back along Northdown Road, Cliftonville’s main thoroughfare. It’s an interesting mix of old and new, with chip shops galore. (My favorite, Godwin Fish and Chip restaurant, with its simple decor and dated shop-sign font, looks like it hasn’t changed since the mid-’60s.) There are also some fashionable newcomers, such as Urchin, a wine shop, and Cliffs, which promises “Coffee Records Yoga.”
I’m aiming for the Turner, but I’m not in the market for art. There’s a stall nearby, Mannings Seafood (founded in 1962), that is another reminder of my youth. It boasts a fantastic array of cooked, cold seafood: prawns, crabs, lobster tails, oysters, whelks, mussels and crayfish tails, to name a few — and my favorite, cockles. Doused with salt and vinegar, they’re ugly but delicious.
Back at Dreamland, meanwhile, it’s all go. While I’m tempted by my old favorite, the Waltzer — a ride in which you sit, pinned to the high-backed seat of a car as it spins rapidly along an undulating, circular track — I decide that discretion is the best part of valor and retreat instead to Cinque Ports, a recently refurbished pub by the entrance.
With a glass of local ale — the golden, bitter, very delicious She Sells Seashells by Gadds’ — in front of me, I resolve not to let another 25 years pass before I return. Next time, though, I’ll bring my kids.
This has long been one of the most down-at-heel towns in Southeast England, but in the past few years it has undergone a significant resurgence (even if there’s still much to do).
In the distance, the Big Wheel of Dreamland peaks above resurgent Margate’s refurbished buildings and its harbor.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Dreamland’s Big Wheel rises more than 100 feet above nearby snackers; cockles at nearby Mannings Seafood are ugly but delicious; the free-standing chalk stacks at Botany Bay; the Sands Hotel overlooks Margate Sands, the British city’s primary beach.