If you live in Royal Tunbridge Wells, chances are that everything east of Maidstone is a mystery to you. There’s no need to go to the dark side; why visit skankholes like Strood, Dartford and Folkestone when the glittering metropolitan lights of London and the hipster-filled beaches of Brighton are bigger, closer, and – quite frankly – better?
This question, however rhetorical, was answered back in August when me and a bunch of friends from the west side of Kent decided to give east a chance in order to visit our friend Becky in Canterbury, with the central point of the weekend being a trip to the oft-maligned seaside town of Margate.
It should probably be laid out upfront that this is not an in-depth report on the life, times and sights of Canterbury. All I saw of Canterbury was a bit of an old wall, the tip of the cathedral, the local Dominos, and Becky’s house (which, lack of hot water aside, was a nice student house), so unless there’s a demand to hear about these thrilling exhibits, there isn’t much to talk about. Having briefly visited the city several times before for school trips and engagement parties, I can confirm that Canterbury is a very nice (but small) city and the cathedral is gorgeous.
However, Margate was an entirely new prospect. Things I knew about Margate prior to going: it has a beach, is a valid word on Countdown (it’s a type of fish), has a newly rich non-league football team in the same division as Tonbridge, and this writer from Vice loves it. This was pretty much it. It didn’t sound particularly interesting – Countdown-valid name does not a good town make – so our west side hopes were low in spite of Becky’s protestations that it was lovely.
As it happened, it turned out to be a weirdly charming place. Sure, the Dreamland nightclub by the beach looks seedy as hell, the Turner Contemporary building looks a bit shit from the outside, and the skyline is dominated by a hideous concrete monster block of flats, but the clocktower would look at home in any pretty old European city and there were cliched but cute VW Camper Vans everywhere.
It’s a bit run down, as expected, but there are signs of regeneration, perhaps thanks to increased spotlight on the town since the Turner Contemporary opened in 2011. On Becky’s recommendation, we paid a visit to a bar called Rickus that opened in 2013. Featuring prime beach views and interesting bathroom decorations, it was run by a team of Lithuanian staff who knocked us up some excellent cocktails and has clearly become a favourite with locals and visitors, being highly ranked on TripAdvisor. While coastal towns are prime targets for UKIP’s immigration fearmongering campaign, Margate needs more appealing new businesses like this to bring people back to the coast and stimulate the local economy, and the elderly retirees in the area aren’t exactly going to be at the forefront of that.
If the state of the Margate branch of cheap clothing behemoth Primark is anything to go by, chain stores aren’t going to be responsible for it either. We went in so that Becky could buy a towel, and it was dark, dingy and – crucially – empty. The carpet was stained and the clothes were strewn everywhere. Now, chain stores on the coast tend to be neglected – in Cornwall, many chain stores haven’t bothered to open up shop in the county at all – but Margate is less than 80 miles from central London.
The town’s main pull is the beach. Its sandy beach could, if marketed effectively, bring in custom from west Kent, given that ‘our’ local beaches – Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton – are all stony and uncomfortable to sit on. Although the day had a cold breeze, we enjoyed sitting on the sand wth our fish (/pie) and chips, watching the sea as a beach volleyball tournament took place behind us, and Becky even braved the cold for a swim. But the beach isn’t enough: there needs to be more revitalisation, more ambition.
But it’s got potential to be popular again. Especially considering that nearby competitors look like this:
Some pictures here were taken by Becky, whose blog is here. Thanks for letting me use them!