Seaside postcard: Margate Following in the steps of Cockney geezers Chas and Dave, I spent yesterday on a day trip down to Margate. Think Kent, think top right corner, think two hours from London via the fastest train. Margate boasts more then 200 years as a top seaside resort, and many's the family holiday that's been spent on the town's sandy beaches over the years. But far fewer now make the trek down for a full seven days of bucket and spade and winkles, and the town is having to reinvent itself to turn back decades of steady decline.
Step out of the station and you're almost on the beach already. How convenient is that? Margate's main beach is broad and yellow, and north-facing, and rarely completely empty even in February. Only some of the seafront amusement arcades are currently open, while the rest are boarded up awaiting a summer influx that may never come. The most famous of these is Dreamland[photo] - a vast funfair complex packed with swirly loopy rides and various sugary delights. Except that Dreamland didn't open last summer, nor is it anticipated to open again in its current form. A smaller park of 'heritage rides' has been proposed instead, featuring classic attractions rescued from across the UK. In the meantime the huge Big Wheel has been dismantled, the minor rides have been cleared away, and only the Grade II listed ScenicRailway remains. This wooden switchback is the UK's oldest surviving rollercoaster, erected in 1920, although in 2008 it looks a pretty forlorn sight when viewed from the roof of the car park nextdoor [photo]. Let's hope it survives to entrance future generations of thrill seekers.
The centre of Margate, in the winter months at least, feels very much like a seaside town whose time has been and gone. There used to be a Marks and Spencer on the high street, for example, and now there isn't. A once grand-looking pillared shop on the seafront is now a Primark. Stand still for a couple of minutes and you'll probably be passed by both a mobility scooter and a revving boy racer. But council planners are trying to make a difference here by transforming the old town into a CulturalQuarter. They hope to fill the twisty narrow backstreets with alluring cafes, exclusive galleries and tempting boutiques. I found the cafes alright, but also a shop that sold dentures, a long-gone launderette and a firmly-shut museum. This metamorphosis has a way to go yet.
But there is one major arts project which, although years behind schedule, hopes to transform the future of the town. Margate has big plans to capitalise on the fame of its one truly famous resident - the painter JMW Turner - to invigorate local residents and to bring the right sort of people flocking to the town. So what better than a major new art gallery, built to a truly modern design, plonked down on the foreshore close to where he used to live. The site's just a boatyard and carpark at the moment [photo], as it has been for the best part of a decade, but the design is at last finalised and all funding agreed so construction should start soon.
In the meantime the Turner Contemporary project maintains a physical presence inside the tiny Italianate harbourmaster's office close by. It's little more than a couple of well-lit rooms with a temporary gallery space tacked on at the back, but this is the heart of the campaign to get the town involved and inspired. Here I met the lady in charge of spreading the word within Margate and beyond, and she delighted in explaining her vision with evangelical zeal. For half an hour. A six-part gallery of interlocking blocks is planned, clad in opaque milky glass, reflective during the day and brightly illuminated at night. Various travelling exhibitions will make their home here (although, interestingly, Turner's presence seems restricted to name only). The educational outreach programme has already begun, and a series of innovativeartyevents is underway (to which I was cordially and repeatedly invited). There's a real creative drive here and, if anything offers the opportunity to revitalise Margate from within and without, this is it. Why not come back in 2010 to see how it's all worked out?