Many British seaside resorts have been through hard times over the past thirty years, but Margate has fallen faster and further than almost anywhere else. I’ve played my own small part in this I admit. I went there on holiday as a child – well to Westgate-on-Sea actually, which to my mother was a wholly different and more genteel place – but apart from two trips there for my job I haven’t been back since.
The new Turner Contemporary Art Gallery, which opened in Margate in the spring, is being widely heralded as the start of a renaissance for the town. With awards from publications as varied as Regeneration and Renewal and Condé Nast Traveller, and with the visitor target for the first year already met, it was about time, as part of my blog odyssey through Kent, that I went to see it for myself.
Before I went I looked up the truly grim deprivation statistics. Walk for a mile along the length of Margate seafront, from the abandoned Dreamland amusement park, past the place where the pier used to be, to the Lido, and you are in streets home to the most deprived quarter of one per cent of the country’s population all the way. There is nowhere else in the southern half of England with deprivation that bad on that scale.
And you don’t really need statistics. Back home my wife mentioned to someone that we were going. “Oh – I took my mother there a couple of years ago” he said. “It’s such a sad little town these days.”
But a place can’t really be sad, can it? Only people can. It must be that we feel sad because of the state of some of our seaside towns – sad and also a bit guilty. Like we would feel towards an elderly relative who was generous to us as children, but whom in her dotage we somehow never get round to visiting any more. We still have the folk memory of the days when the sun always shone, the ice-cream was tastier and the people happier than back at home, but we’ve moved on to more sophisticated destinations with more reliable weather, leaving Auntie Margate to fend for herself.
So it is that as we travel down on a glorious October Saturday morning I can feel my childhood enthusiasm returning. Sun shining – Check. Should be able to see the sea soon – Check. No responsibilities for a day (other than gathering material for this blog) – Check. Yes, the contents of my subconscious are all present and correct. I had just been waiting for the right siren song to call me back.
And the Turner Contemporary really is all it is cracked up to be. JMW Turner came to Margate for the skies. The gallery, nestling unobtrusively into the cliffs of Fort Hill like a series of well positioned greenhouses, gives you every chance to enjoy them. The airy café at the entrance offers a stunning panorama of the beach and the seafront, and the clientele drinking their lattes and reading the broadsheets are a world away from the Margate of the deprivation figures. The barista who serves me is effusive. “Come back in the evening when we do table service dinners.” she suggests. “People come from all over Kent to watch the sun set over the bay while they eat.” And I can well believe it.
Their current exhibition is entitled “Nothing in the world but youth”. Works by David Hockney and Peter Blake rub shoulders with pictures of punks and skinheads from Margate’s gang warfare “heyday”. The galleries are buzzing without being painfully busy, and everyone makes a beeline for whatever best reconnects them with their own youth. So while the “We are the Ovaltineys” video may attract some, it’s the punk era posters that return me to my happy teenage years of unfocussed rebelliousness.
Back in the spacious entrance lobby, overlooked by Rodin’s The Kiss, I chat to the receptionist about the impact the Turner is having. She’s lived in Margate for four years and is really excited about the change. “75 businesses have opened since April, and it’s buzzing every weekend now”, she tells me. “Have you been into the Old Town yet? You’ll be amazed by the difference. It’s like Brighton”.
Margate Old Town , or at least the Market Place and the short streets which radiate off it, with their delis, cafés, small galleries and retro jewellery shops, actually put me more in mind of Rye, that gently bohemian artists’ town 50 miles to the south across Kent, than Brighton. But the place is undeniably on the up – all the more impressive as the national economy is flatlining. An estate agent’s board catches my eye – “To Let – suitable for art gallery/studio/showroom” – an unimaginable idea even two years ago.
However, things go downhill pretty rapidly. We wander away from the Old Town up the High Street in search of a pharmacy, a paper shop and some lunch. Boots and WH Smiths are still open, but lots of shops are not, and of those that are you wouldn’t find many of them very enticing. And after a depressing few minutes trying to choose between a largely deserted sports bar and a café offering tinned soup, we scuttle back to the sanctuary of the Market Place for some salt beef sandwiches and Kentish rosé wine in the Greedy Cow deli.
Still – no one is expecting the Turner to regenerate the whole of Margate on its own. If it can look after the Old Town, which means not just the shopping streets but the resolutely un-gentrified Georgian boarding houses behind them, then it will have done a great job in justifying the £15m of public money spent on it. The receptionist told me that they have funding for three years – during which time they expect all the exhibitions to be free of charge. After that its continued success will depend on the vision of the Curator and the team, and their ability to get sponsorship, paying customers and a share of whatever public funding is available. They’ve made an absolutely terrific start, and I for one will be back in the winter when they have a major exhibition of work by JMW Turner himself.
Now as Philip Cox, the DCLG regeneration director, put it, under the Coalition Government “regeneration is not dead, it’s different.” And one somewhat obvious difference is that there isn’t the appetite to fund big public projects like the Turner in future. But the regeneration job in Margate is only half done. There are ambitious plans to reopen Dreamland – once a rival to Blackpool Pleasure Beach – as a heritage amusement park, part of the town’s branding as Margate the Original Seaside. This can’t happen without significant public funding.
At the same time the owners of Arlington House, the 60’s tower block and (vacant) shopping precinct on the sea-front next door to Dreamland, have plans of their own, which include a new Tesco, shops, bars and a hotel. No public money is required, but the application has already been in for more than nine months, and it is rapidly becoming a planning saga straight from the pages of a Tom Sharpe novel.
I’m going to look at Dreamland and Tesco in my next blog post. For now let’s just say that Turner Contemporary has raised the bar of expectations enormously. And more than that – it has started to bring Auntie Margate back into the bosom of our national family at last.