A stylish comeback
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For centuries a favourite with artists and writers, there’s much more to Margate than wonderful beaches and beautiful skies
From Turner to Tracy Emin, Thackeray to Oscar Wilde, artists and writers have always been entranced by Margate’s magnetism. While the miles of clean sandy beaches and spectacular skies are the town’s most obvious attractions, cross the seafront road and you’ll find grand squares, cobbled streets and quirky lanes of graceful period buildings, with unusual shops, excellent pubs, restaurants, plus the most haunted theatre in England, two fascinating museums, caves, and a mysterious shell grotto.
Right now Margate is on the brink of a massive revival, spearheaded by the town’s regeneration. Central to the plan is the construction of a gallery for Turner Contemporary on the seafront, planned to coincide with the transformation of the “Old Town” – the streets surrounding the old town hall and square – into a cultural quarter. Linking the new gallery and revitalized seafront will be new pedestrian roadways. In addition to boosting tourism, the aim is to expand local employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, making its economy less seasonal. It’s an exciting time, and anyone looking to buy a business or property there would be well advised not to wait until prices escalate.
“Our aim is to encourage the establishment of bars, restaurants, boutiques and art galleries in the Old Town,” says Derek Harding, Programme Director of the Margate Renewal Partnership. “We’re hoping that Turner Contemporary will initially attract the visitors, who’ll then be able to enjoy the town’s enhanced amenities . We’re aiming to make the Old Town a tourist attraction in itself, rather like The Lanes in Brighton. The Old Town redevelopment is a combination of restoring and adapting the beautiful old buildings, as well as building tastefully on two large sites we’ve acquired, in addition to the new road building. On the seafront there’s a 20 acre leisure centre called ‘Dreamland’ that is currently closed, but is about to be redeveloped soon, and we see this as the key to the future of the seafront promenade area. The project needs sensitive handling: Margate's makeover is a fine balance between regeneration and retaining the charms and traditions of the town.”
The genesis of Turner Contemporary began with a disappointment, when the costs of the initial scheme escalated alarmingly, at which point Kent County Council terminated the plan. However, such enthusiasm had been generated that a more flexible scheme, to be designed by internationally renowned practice, David Chipperfield Architects, became a reality. “This is going to be Kent’s first purpose built visual arts space,” enthuses John Haywood, Marketing Director for Turner Contemporary. “We envisage a gallery, a space for lectures/film screenings, a retail space and a café. I see it as a catalyst for beneficial change for the town, rather like what happened to St Ives and Glasgow. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate has been involved from the start and been tremendously supportive. During this coming year we’ll choose and finalize a scheme, and be ready to start building in 2008, anticipating completion in 2010. What is wonderful is that the gallery is being built on the site of Mrs Booth’s boarding house, where Turner lived. The views out to sea and towards the pier are exactly the same as the great artist himself would have seen.”
“Ours was the first beach in the country to introduce donkey rides in 1790 and to have deck chairs in 1898,” says Cheryl Pendry, Tourist Information Officer. “And now we have the European Blue Flag award and attract thousands of people a year. The sands host a range of coastal activities throughout the year, including Rock Doc walks, exploring the history of the cliffs and ways of safeguarding the area’s coastal wildlife. We have an outdoor jazz festival on the seafront, a puppetry festival, and an annual carnival with colourful floats. In June we are hosting a major free event with music, arena acts, pyrotechnics and aerial displays.”