Margate’s mojo is back and its golden sands are as appealing as ever, discovers Caroline Wheater, as she explores the many facets, from art to architecture, of this iconic Kent seaside town.
Since the 2011 opening of the Turner Contemporary art gallery, Margate has been revitalised. Within easy reach of London and always a popular sea bathing resort, the Kent town now has enough good restaurants, cafés and bars to draw visitors for that reason alone. In tandem, the cobbled Old Town has filled up with independent shops, retro stores and art hubs. In Union Crescent, next door to Tracey Emin’s painting studio, the Carl Freedman Gallery showcases international artists. The renowned gallerist and Margate-raised artist are old friends and jointly bought the site in 2016. Earlier this year, Emin announced plans to create an archive of her work in Margate and an art school too.
Then, of course, there are the beaches, the reason why Londoners have always flocked here, first by hoy (cargo sailing ships), then by paddle steamer, and then by rail. A few minutes’ walk from the Grade II-listed railway station is Margate’s Main Sands, a sheltered golden horseshoe with Blue Flag status, lapped by the North Sea. A little further west is Walpole Bay, with its tidal bathing pool and rockpools at low tide; the sunsets you will see here were painted by JMW Turner more than two centuries ago. For nature lovers, meanwhile, Thanet chalk reef is a seaweed sanctuary, nurturing around 100 different varieties, including bladderwrack and sea lettuce; look out for occasional guided tours (thanetcoast.org.uk).
12pm SUN & poetry
Edged by a frill of foamy waves, Margate’s Main Sands is never completely covered by the incoming tide, which is why this beach is so popular. We head for the promenade and Grade II-listed Nayland Rock Shelter, where poet TS Eliot wrote his famous work The Waste Land in 1921 while recuperating from a nervous breakdown. We continue walking along the prom towards the Old Town, admiring dolphin-embellished lampposts along the way.
1pm Pottering on the pier
At the far end of the Main Sands is the Harbour Arm, built between 1812 and 1815 by famous engineer John Rennie. A shoal of small boats is anchored up and buffeted by sea breezes, and we walk past the Droit House (where harbour dues were collected, now the Tourist Information Bureau) and bars and eateries, including Sargasso and locals’ favourite, the Lighthouse Bar. Perched at the end is the Shell Lady sculpture by Ann Carrington. The bronze is a scaled-up version of traditional ‘shell lady’ souvenirs and celebrates Mrs Sophia Booth, the mistress of artist JMW Turner, whose lodging house was on the site of Turner Contemporary.
2pm SHELL MYSTERY
At this end of the Old Town we are close to the Grade I-listed Shell Grotto on Grotto Hill, where 4.6 million mussel, cockle, whelk, limpet, scallop and oyster shells decorate the walls of a small subterranean space. Discovered in 1835, theories about its origins abound, including a Phoenician temple and a Georgian folly. Intrigued, we examine the intricate patterns incorporating hearts, flowers, stars, even a serpent and a corn goddess. We are fascinated but none the wiser. (01843 220008, shellgrotto.co.uk).
3pm SHOPS TO EXPLORE
The Old Town calls and we mooch over to King Street first. I love the cornucopia of African and Indian fairtrade arts and crafts at Artisans & Adventurers at 34 King Street (artisans-and-adventurers.com), and fall in love with a soapstone hippo dish. Around the corner at 8 Broad Street is The Light Keeper, focusing on vintage lights and antique door furniture as well as My Doris cushions and Sixton London beanies – if only my rucksack was bigger! (thelightkeeper.co.uk).
Margate is bristling with artists and the Eclectic Art Gallery at 6 Broad Street (instagram.com/eclecticartmargate) displays the work of many of them. I’m drawn to the vibrant abstracts of Deborah Gilbert (£220 a canvas). Still in art mode, we also discover the Anthony Giles Studio & Gallery at 3 Lombard Street and watch the painter work on smudgy seascapes, from £300. (anthonygiles.co.uk).
In Market Square we discover The Margate Bookshop, painted turquoise by founder Francesca Wilkins. There are books galore and a Windsor chair to sit on while you browse, you can even buy coffee there. I purchase a copy of Secret Margate by Andy Bull, along with some mugs of coffee to drink outside in the pleasant old square. (themargatebookshop.com).
5.30pm GEORGIAN SPLENDOUR
As the shops begin to close up, we head off to our B&B, the Reading Rooms on Hawley Square. The tree-lined square is the best-preserved Georgian address in town, built between 1760 and 1780 for grand families, and our attic room doesn’t disappoint, with wonderful views down to the sea.
7pm DINNER DATE
It’s a nice walk from Hawley Square to the Buoy & Oyster on the High Street. Owned by Simon and Nadine Morriss, this buzzy restaurant now has a sister fish and chip takeaway, Beach Buoys, on Marine Drive. But we’re in the mothership, sipping on a glass of crisp Albarino as we browse the menu. We choose a starter of Ramsgate crab and salmon belly fish cake, followed by day boat sea bass and skate wing, served with triple cooked chips. For pudding, it’s baked Alaska. Comfort food at its delicious best (mains from £18-£25, 01843 446631, buoyandoyster.com).
10am ART BY THE SEA
Fortified by a yummy cooked breakfast, we stride over to Turner Contemporary at the Harbour Arm. The gallery has a rolling programme of art exhibitions and my first spot is ‘Sirens’ by Margate artists Sophie von Hellermann and Anne Ryan; the large-scale collaborative commission is a riot
of colour and characters. From the picture window we see the tide creep up Antony Gormley’s Another Time sculpture (01843 233000, turnercontemporary.org). Art appreciation over, we grab a table at the gallery’s independent café/restaurant, Barletta, done up in funky pink, white and yellow décor, and with a culinary mural by Megan Metcalf. At the cake counter we choose thick wedges of custard and treacle tarts and steaming pots of tea (07928 651439, barletta.co.uk).
12.30pm A MUSEUM MOMENT
We’re keen to learn more about the town’s history and head for the Margate Museum in the Old Town. This tiny treasure, run by volunteers, is housed in a former Victorian police station and magistrates’ court and has everything from old photographs and prints to a flea circus and a 1950s Punch & Judy theatre. A lifesize, 1915 Sunbeam Photography donkey catches my eye – it allowed parents to have a child pictured on a ‘donkey’ without having to pay for a real donkey ride. Ingenious! (01843 231213, margatemuseum.org).
3pm FINDING DREAMLAND
The museum has an exhibit on Dreamland and that’s where we head next. The restored vintage theme park has 14 rides, including a Big Wheel, a Wurlitzer and a rare Scenic Railway. The site has been a pleasure gardens since the 1860s, when ‘Lord’ George Sanger set up his Hall by the Sea for circus performances and to show off his menagerie of wild animals (one of the cages remains). We pay for a few rides and leap onto the Galloper for some joyous escapism (free to enter, buy ride tickets inside, dreamland.co.uk).
Afterwards, we opt for an al fresco fish and chip supper and join the queue at Peter’s Fish Factory on The Parade for saithe and chips.
9am CYCLE RIDE
We’ve booked two Volt electric bikes from the Bike Shed at Margate Station (helmets and locks supplied) and whizz west along The Viking Trail cycle route. We zoom past Turner Contemporary, up into Cliftonville and over to Palm Bay for panoramic sea views. We’ve bought our swimmers too and stop off for a dip at Walpole tidal pool – bracing! Electric bike hire costs from £35 per day (01843 228866, thebikeshedkent.co.uk).
Warmed by the sun, we hop back on our bikes and head for the Old Town, stopping at Haeckels at 18 Cliff Terrace. This premier seaweed beauty brand has helped to put Margate back on the map too, and the shop is immaculate, perfumed by scented seaweedy candles. Beauty treatments are also on offer (01843 447234, haeckels.co.uk).
1pm A LUNCH TO LINGER OVER
Our final stop before returning home is Dory’s seafood bar, overlooking the Main Sands. Dory’s is the little sister of Margate restaurant Angela’s, which has a Michelin Green Star for gastronomy and sustainability. Owner Lee Coad sources ingredients from local suppliers, recycles all vegetable waste and avoids plastic packaging wherever possible. It also has a wine shop selling organic, biodynamic and low-intervention wines. From Dory’s small plates menu we pick smoked prawns with aioli, a smoked haddock and potato gratin, and a squash and Black Mount tart, mopped up with buttered sourdough. We linger over a glass or rosé as we take one last look at those famous golden sands. (Small plates are priced from £7, 01843 520391; angelasofmargate.com).
NEED TO KNOW:
WHERE TO STAY IN MARGATE
- coast stayed at The Reading Rooms, a Georgian townhouse beautifully renovated by owners Louise Oldfield and Liam Nabb. It has two large, well-appointed rooms, just a stroll from The Old Town. The views from the attic guest room across the rooftops are spectacular. From £225 per night for two sharing, including breakfast, minimum two-night stay (07932 713292, thereadingroomsmargate.co.uk).
- Keepers Cottages has several self-catering properties close to the seafront in Margate, such as Number 3, with sea views, which sleeps four and costs from £1,395 for seven nights. (01304 382044, keeperscottages.co.uk).
HOW TO GET TO MARGATE
- By train: The High Speed 1 service, from London St Pancras to Margate takes 1 hr 20 min. There are also rail services from London Charing Cross and Victoria – both take a little longer.
- By road: Margate has good road links from London via the M2 motorway and the A2 and A28.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT MARGATE
- To help plan your trip, go to visitthanet.co.uk and enjoymargate.co.uk. Out of the main summer holiday season, Margate can be a little sleepy early on in the week, but more things are likely to be open from Wednesday to Sunday, so check opening times before you go.