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“On Margate Sands./ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing./ The broken fingernails of dirty hands./ My people humble people who expect/ Nothing.”
–T.S Eliot, The Fire Sermon: On Margate Sands, Part III of The Waste Land
In 1921, T.S. Eliot travelled to Margate on the Kent coast to recover from a nervous breakdown and concentrate on his writing. The Wasteland is about the dislocation of society after the First World War, and the overwhelming sense of desolation that Eliot felt was exacerbated by the view of Margate Beach before him.
Margate’s bleakness is often seen as a representation of the denigration of Britain’s coastal resorts as a whole. Much like Eliot’s “heap of broken images”, the seaside town has long been characterised by its empty shop facades, run-down B&Bs and lacklustre food. But now Margate is finally starting to get back on its feet, so much so that many describe it as ‘Shoreditch-on-Sea’. In what follows, SUITCASE explores the key factors in Margate’s redevelopment.
Liam Nabb and Louise Oldfield are some of the frontrunners in Margate’s architectural preservation. Relocating from Hackney to Margate in 2009, they transformed a Grade II listed townhouse on the prestigious Hawley Square into the gorgeous boutique B&B The Reading Rooms. Liam and Louise talk of the tight-knit community in Margate, of its coterie of artists and creatives (the manager of Florence + The Machine, the head of Moshi Moshi records and Tom Vek, to name a few) that live and work in the town.
Liam and Louise designed The Reading Rooms as an honest representation of Margate, challenging its down-at-heel image but being careful not to paint the town as something that it’s not. Three bedrooms – one for each floor – are complete with super kingsize beds, en-suite bathrooms with roll-top baths and a limitless supply of Ren products. Their crumbling walls like Renaissance frescoes are a testament to Liam’s training as an architect and property renovator in Florence. And The Reading Rooms offers a breakfast menu which guests can choose to have at any time of the day, in the comfort of their very own room.
Dreamland is most emblematic of Margate’s renewal
Liam and Louise set up the B&B as a destination in itself, before Margate’s regeneration plans really came into effect. Now people visit the town not only for The Reading Rooms and the Shell Grotto – a subterranean passageway first discovered in 1835 and covered in ornate mosaics of over 4million seashells – but also for new attractions such as Dreamland. One of England’s earliest amusement parks, Dreamland has been restored to its former glory by designer Wayne Hemingway, who celebrates the typically kitsch image of the traditional seaside fairground. There is a ferris wheel, merry go-round, helter skelter, waltzers and the Grade-II listed scenic railway (after being devastated in arson attacks in 2008, the railway is slowly but surely being rebuilt). In this regard, Dreamland is most emblematic of Margate’s renewal: there may still be work left to do, but the overriding feeling is one of joy and optimism.
The Turner Contemporary Gallery has played an equally big part in Margate’s rebirth. Opened in 2011, the gallery takes J.M.W. Turner’s connection with Margate as inspiration – the painter first visited at the age of 11 as a school pupil and returned here repeatedly from the age of 21 to sketch. It has most recently hosted Grayson Perry’s Provincial Punk retrospective and will show Risk from 10 October. Many shopkeepers remarked upon the uncharacteristic quietness of the town while the Turner was closed to install the exhibition, reinforcing just how vital the space is to the local economy.
Though there are still pawnbrokers, pound shops and a branch Woolworths that has stood derelict since the chain folded in 2008, the retail scene in Margate now much to offer. The emphasis throughout is on careful curation and beautiful design. There is the newly opened Etcetera, an interiors store selling original mid-century modern furniture and the kinds of plants and flowers that go perfectly with it; Haeckel’s, a lab-cum-shop on the seafront that sells grooming and body care products using local hand-harvested seaweed; Plinth, selling one-of-a-kind curios from British designers and a wealth of vintage stores on King Street, such as Madam Popoff and Paraphernalia.
As with the shops, a new wave of cafés and restaurants is breathing life into Margate. Seaside fare is about so much more than fish and chips here. There is BeBeached, a great spot for coffee, where you can sit on candy-striped deckchairs beneath bright-pink umbrellas, and look back towards the town across the bay. Fort’s is an archetypal seaside café in Cliftonville that serves all-day breakfast fare and homemade ice cream, while GB Pizza Co. slices up the best thin, crispy pizzas – try the Veal & Sage Salami or the Pear & English Blue Cheese. The team behind GB Pizza Co. also runs Roost. An ideal setting for a low-key dinner, it’s based around high-welfare corn-fed rotisserie chicken served with the kind of sides that owners Lisa and Rachel enjoyed when they lived in Spain – homemade chips and aioli appear on the menu alongside a zingy Asian-style ‘slaw.
On the way back to Margate train station, there is a street called Buenos Ayres (sic) though Margate’s resemblance to the Argentinian capital is far more implausible than its association with Shoreditch. Margate is a sweet seaside town with a community that genuinely cares about the course of its renewal, about protecting its individual and unique history. This is a regeneration story unlike any other, be it in city or on the coast, and we should resist the temptation to compare. As with Eliot, what we should really do when on Margate Sands is ‘connect/ Nothing with nothing’.
Words by Alicia Walters
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