Locals may not like Margate’s nickname – Shoreditch-on-sea – but Michael Edwards finds there’s more than a grain of truth in the comparison.
Like London’s Shoreditch, Margate’s on the up. Arty. Creative. Gritty. Quirky. Retro. Like Shoreditch, it’s a phoenix rising from amongst some shabby looking properties: surprisingly bohemian and edging towards cosmopolitan.
Margate’s always been innovative. Becoming Britain’s first seaside resort in 1736. Introducing donkeys in the 1780s. Modelling the revolutionary first deckchair on its golden sands in 1898.
Multi-tasking Cliffs, on Northdown Road, sums up Margate’s resurrection. It’s a cafe, record shop, yoga studio, hair salon and coffee roastery. Emerge from a morning there as a better coiffured, more flexible and happier soul. Even the old Woolworths has become a multi-purpose educational space and the Old Post Office is now a restaurant. With cocktails.
But unlike Shoreditch, salty Margate has the beach, the sea and – according to painter JMW Turner – some of the world’s most beautiful sunsets. More than a century on, pale pink light suffusing over the deepening indigo blue of the sea still lures painters and photographers. Amateurs and professionals alike.
Turner, who despite his rise to Royal Academy fame never lost his cockney accent, loved to escape London for a weekend in Margate. There are many Margate scenes amongst his prolific 30,000 completed works.
Nowadays, this Kent seaside town is getting national recognition and not just from the DFLs – the Down From London crowd – looking for a trendy escape that’s only an hour and a half train ride from St Pancras.
Take a look at the Turner £20 banknote. Through a large see-through window, there are images of Margate lighthouse and the Turner Contemporary.
Although Turner died in 1851, the legacy of Britain’s favourite artist, contributed to Margate’s revival. When £17m was invested in creating the Turner Contemporary gallery in 2011, it gave Margate’s fading Georgian and Victorian grandeur a shot in the arm.
Tracey Emin, a Turner prize winner back in 1999, has also raised the seaside town’s artistic profile. She has moved her studio back to Margate and notes, “More and more artists are moving to Margate and young trendy people are giving up their urban Hackney for Margate’s wonderful sunsets.”
Symbolically, Dreamland, Margate’s neon flare of rollercoasters, big dippers, candy floss and fairground stalls has benefitted from a multi-million-pound makeover. It has contributed to the trickle-down effect.
Maybe if T.S. Eliot visited Margate a century on from the publication of his despairing The Waste Land poem, written in 1921, his tone might be a little more positive. Although his doctor had told the mentally exhausted poet not to write, Eliot sat in the shelter and wrote the morose lines which have become the epithet for his best-known poem: “On Margate sands/ I can connect / Nothing with nothing.”
Like Turner, Eliot has left a hefty cultural legacy. At the Albion Rooms, seven rooms flamboyantly styled by the indie Libertines band, the restaurant is named The Waste Land. Which is fair enough. Eliot stayed two doors down when he penned his allusive, fragmented epic.
The Libertines have given a run-down seafront boarding house a rampant romanticism make-over. Generous red paintwork echoes those famous Libertine tunics and “Death on the stairs” is a goth reference to their lyrics. Immediately, after the entrance, a poster tells you, “I’m an artist. Normal rules don’t apply.”
Faux snakeskin wallpapers and gaudy chandeliers make Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen look small c conservative. No surprise then that their first hotel review ever was called “Sex, drugs and B & B.”
An unusual feature is a recording studio. One aim of the Albion Rooms is a base for the band to reunite from wherever they have travelled. Once upon a time bands trashed hotels, now The Libertines fixate on hotel interior design: velvety cushions, maritime-themed toiletries, and pop art.
Margate is in transition but the old survives. Since 1838 the 4.6 million shells of the subterranean Shell Grotto have been intriguing visitors. There is speculation that the 200 square feet of shells is a Roman ruin, a religious shrine, or a Georgian folly. But as the Shell Grotto approaches its third century there are still no definitive answers.
Margate has many a mile to travel before it can match Brighton, but it is undoubtedly on the up. Tracey Emin’s recent announcement that, on the sight of a former mortuary, so typically Margate, she will set up studios for 30 aspiring artists will further ignite the artistic scene.
Tell Me More About Margate
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Images (C) of Thanet District Council
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