Margate: Grotty Council Estate or Beautiful Kentish Seaside Resort?

A few weekends ago, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I was doing the dishes at Chez Fordiebianco when the BBC World Service featured a half hour documentary on the regeneration of Margate, one of the many seaside resort on the English coast that have slid into obscurity over the last half century. As you might have heard, Thanet District Council – Margate’s local government body – and some very dedicated public figures had tried for about twenty years to halt the resort’s decline by turning it into a cultural destination for well heeled middle class tourists who like their art with a bit of beach. The Turner Contemporary was completed in April 2011 and this month it attracted its millionth visitor. Not bad for a small museum 2 hours away from London. The aforementioned BBC documentary included an interview with the owner of a daring new hotel on Margate’s waterfront who hoped to benefit from the influx of new tourists. As the best girlfriend ever loves nothing more than a bit of beachcombing on a nice sunny day and rather fancies new art, we found ourselves on a recent Friday after work in the Blackwall Tunnel, heading westwards. 2 hours later the car was parked, the luggage unpacked and the best girlfriend ever was sitting in the beautiful dining room of The Sands Hotel, gin and tonic in hand, studying a particularly nice piece of grilled fennel.

The next morning we woke up to a rather gorgeous view:

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Even at low tide the nearness of the North Sea to Margate proper gives it a nice classic sea side resort feel, and only a few metres after venturing out we were greeted with the classic accessories of beach life

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Emboldened and pleasantly surprised we started walking west on a well kept path next to the beach, from time to time seeing flocks of cyclists and other tourists, but certainly not more than a few dozen within the 3 hour walk. The beach was mostly kept immaculate, with sign of machinised sweeping from the night before. Each of the three bays we walked past had a beach patrol, supervised swimming areas (proudly displaying their blue flags, awarded for cleanliness) and a more or less well kept cafe.

So far, so dandy.

There were unfortunately still many signs that Margate hadn’t yet turned the corner from decade long decline and neglect.

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Not particularly welcoming.

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Concrete. It depends what you do with it.

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The view from the beach

The charming concrete abomination that’s spurting out of the ground there is the Arlington Building, a brutalist concrete block of flats from 1964, that funnily enough has an excellent website defending it’s existence. Unfortunately it completely and utterly dominates Margate’s skyline and turns the character of this admittedly rather pleasant seaside town into a South London estate. Not a place you would initially choose for a  holiday.

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One of those things does not belong here. Can you tell which one?

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Of course you ask yourself: What where they thinking? And why is it still there? According to the Website:

From the Thanet District Council’s Conservation Officer’s report, 2011:
“The tower block is a building of considerable merit; arguably ‘listable’ with extremely well considered crisp detailed elevations which add positively to the architectural character of the town – it’s jazziness responding well to the seaside atmosphere. It is a far superior building to the residential tower blocks erected by local authorities prior to the Ronan Point incident of 1968.”
Ok. Looks like it’s staying.
This means that Margate is pretty much only enjoyable if you look at its western side, towards the Turner Contemporary and the Harbour Shacks. These were apparently made available to entrepeneurs about two years ago and are now populated by a few pubs, a gallery and some restaurants. Together with the gallery, this side of Margate certainly seems to be thriving, and it’s a long time since I’ve been in such a welcoming pub like the tiny Harbour Arms. The whole concoction of shops and pubs is called ‘The Harbour Arm’ and yes, the have a website as well. Pretty digitalised place, Margate.

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The Gallery itself is a rather ghastly white modern cubist thing plonked on the harbour side and sticking out like a sore thumb or, even more appropriate, like the Arlington Building on the other side of the bay. It’s certainly nicer to look out than to look at it from the outside.

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So, what kind of summary should I come up with?
Did we have fun? Yes.  Is it a charming place? Yes. You can see that the council and the local entrepreneurs are trying hard to transform this into something special, and on a beautiful autumn weekend it certainly is. Nevertheless its structural problems are going to continue to make it challenging for Margate to become once more a synonym for carefree North Seal holidays. On the other hand, when the light hits it just right, it is rather strikingly beautiful and there are some excellent restaurants.
Just don’t let your eye gaze too much over the Arlington.

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