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 Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY WILL HAWKES

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).

ERNIE JOR­DAN /ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

In the dis­tance, the Big Wheel of Dream­land peaks above resur­gent Mar­gate’s re­fur­bished build­ings and its har­bor.

PHO­TOS BY WILL HAWKES

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.

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