Kent’s ultimate destination for the arts with galleries galore, a host of vibrant events, eclectic eateries and a myriad of museums, Margate continues to lead the way in Kent’s cultural revolution.
By Olivia Riccini
The ultimate blend of bohemian bourgeois combined with the tuneful tinkling of traditional seaside days gone by, it is Margate’s history that birthed the iconic persona the town so fearlessly encompasses today. Up until the last decade, Margate had continued to fulfil the ideal of a typical English seaside resort. Reaching its peak in the Victorian era, which gifted the town its grand architectural splendour, it was the long sweeping stretches of golden sand, enchanting promenades, amusement arcades and funfair-style attractions complete with candy floss and ice cream, that continued to entice tourists from across the country to the sunniest corner of the UK. These bygone days saw Margate become the mecca for the daytripper from London, greatly assisted by the water-transport via the River Thames and the invention of the covered bathing machine in 1753, but like hundreds of other seaside towns across the nation, this time of exuberance would eventually give way to a period of destitution. With the arrival of cheap package holidays to Europe in the late 1970s, the heads of tourists were turned, their custom stolen from a town desperate for their return.
With fewer tourists fuelling the economy, the latter half of the 20th century saw Margate and many other English seaside towns embark upon their ‘forgotten years’. Although this was a time in which these towns were obsolete places to visit, it was, for Margate, a no less than critical stage of character development. Quick to embrace a much-adored Blackpool-esque character, Margate immediately became emblematic of the sad decline of the ‘English seaside resort’ – yet all was not lost. There is something undeniably intriguing to the creative about a town once so frequented for its unique beauty and unrivalled fun, which then rapidly became a rusted place, desolate and destitute, and exposed to the harsh conditions of both nature and society. It was this rise and fall of Margate that undeniably added to its depth of character, and like a weathered rock star with many a tale to tell, it soon claimed legendary status. A complex history, so littered with highs and lows mixed in like paint with Margate’s natural features of golden sands and Turner sunsets (the only attributes to remain unchanged and beautiful), it is this concoction that inspired and enticed artists, most famously Tracey Emin, to embrace the town in all its crumbling glory, dragging it by its brightly coloured bootstraps into a brand new stage of culture, charisma and class.
Now a melting pot of elements left over from its previous identities as a Victorian resort and tacky relic, these traits are today juxtaposed with the resurgence of art and culture in the town, resulting in a complete rebirth and even a brand new nickname: ‘Shoreditch-on-Sea’. Similarly to its east end counterpart, to coincide with its rebrand, a plethora of places that include everything from artisan bakeries and refined restaurants to vintage stores and boutique independent shops, have popped up in Margate. This tidal wave of things to do and places to visit includes an array of art galleries, such as Margate’s biggest and most famous: the Turner Contemporary. It is this celebrated and world-renowned arts hub that fuelled much of Margate’s regeneration, the catalyst for an ‘if you build it, they will come’ style transformation.
Founded to celebrate J. M. W. Turner’s connection to Margate in 2001, the David Chipperfield designed gallery opened in 2011 and is now one of the UK’s leading art galleries. Since opening, the gallery has welcomed over 3.8 million visitors, put over £70 million back into the Kent economy and connected with thousands of people from the local community through their world class programme. Built on the site of the boarding house where J. M. W. Turner stayed during his visits to Margate, the gallery is inspired by the life and work of the celebrated artist, who found inspiration in the town’s skies and light and believed in the power of art as an agent for change. A visit to the Turner Contemporary is an absolute must when staycationing in Margate: enjoy the latest art exhibition, take part in tours or activities, or simply sit and relax in the café while enjoying views of the harbour over a cappuccino. Until 10 September, visitors to the Turner can see the latest exhibition, Beatriz Milhazes: Maresias, a survey of the work of Beatriz Milhazes, who is widely recognised as one of the leading abstract artists working today.
Alongside the Turner Contemporary, a host of smaller, independent art galleries are dotted among Margate’s streets, including some that showcase the works of local artists such as those featured in this month’s insideKENT artist profiles. One such gallery is the DIG Gallery (@diggallerymargate), displaying a selection of talented Kent artists, many of whom portray the landscapes of Kent in original and awe-inspiring ways. Just across the road from DIG is Gallery7, a studio and exhibition space featuring the works of both Steven McGuiness (@macthree_s) who depicts local scenes, and the work of his sister, Lisa McGuiness (@lisaillustrations) who celebrates the character and charm of Thanet through bright, bold and brilliant paintings. Lisa’s work usually includes affectionately funny captions such as ‘Kent Riviera’, ‘Broadbados’ and ‘Costa Del Kent’ as ingenious, tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the area.
Art in all its forms is celebrated in Margate, extending beyond visual galleries and into theatres and events. One such venue is the Tom Thumb Theatre, a family run arts hub originally built as a coach house in Victorian times, then transformed into one of the smallest theatres in the world in 1984. “We aim to be a springboard for emerging talent and a laboratory for more established artists to experiment with new work. Our programme is a wide range, including theatre, music, film, comedy, poetry and cabaret,” says co-owner and creative director Alex Ratcliffe. Another venue that frequently showcases new talent of all shapes and sizes is Cliffs in Cliftonville, which takes further formation as an award-winning café, record shop and hair salon. One of Margate’s most iconic venues for events and entertainment is of course Dreamland. As well as vintage rides that hark back to those halcyon days of the seaside resort in its peak, Dreamland hosts a multitude of events, including world-famous acts, sellout gigs and concerts. June sees the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Will Young and DJ Annie Mac perform – be quick with those tickets!
As art encompasses almost everything in Margate, food is no exception. For those wanting a quieter trip to peruse the galleries, admire the beach and explore the town, Margate is brimming with cool coffee shops and cosy cafés, as well as ultra-hip wine bars and trendy spots for cocktails. One such place with incredible views of Margate sands is Little Swift, yet another venue that welcomes live acts and music. Guests at Little Swift can sip wine while watching the sun go down over the beach alongside a perfectly laid out charcuterie board of delicious local produce. If you’re craving a cleverly concocted cocktail, visit Mori Mori, a Japanese bento and izakaya restaurant with expertly crafted dishes – a must-go for any foodie visiting Margate.
Another foodie treasure not to be missed is Buoy and Oyster. Proud to have been awarded two AA Rosettes since 2019 and to be featured in Harden’s UK top-rated restaurants, here diners can indulge in exquisitely cooked seafood dishes. The majority of the menu comes straight from a local fishmonger’s 18-day boats which fish the waters off the Isle of Thanet – so eat assured that everything is local and fresh. Just next door sits Buoy and Oyster’s delightful neighbour, Waverly House: a seafront venue with food and beverage offerings across multiple levels. Guests can enjoy the first-floor restaurant, which offers all-day dining serving a seasonal menu and priding themselves on quality produce and ‘honest humble cooking’; a sit down three-course set menu focusing on the best locally sourced fish and seafood in the private dining area; or party and dine with bigger groups of friends and family in the gallery – a brand new addition for 2023.
Margate would not be the eclectic cultural hotspot it is without its abundance of museums and places of historical interest. Many of these are brilliantly quirky and unique, such as The Crab Museum, a whimsical ode to crabs; the Powell Cotton Museum which houses one of the largest collections of antique taxidermy; and the perplexing Shell Grotto. Thought to have pagan origins, it remains a mystery how this fascinating place came to be. With underground passages and chambers intricately decorated with thousands of seashells, this is truly a local marvel.
Another museum can be found in one of Margate’s best hotels, the Walpole Bay. Home to a myriad of intriguing artefacts from the 1920s and more, the Walpole Bay continues to celebrate the elegant side of Margate and its cherished history. Built for discerning guests at the height of Victorian seaside mania in 1914 and extended in 1927, the Walpole has been lovingly restored to her former glory only recently. Expect sumptuous rooms, spacious lounges, a flower-decked veranda, an Edwardian restaurant, snooker room and a 1920’s ballroom complete with an original sprung maple dance floor – traditional Margate meets modern luxury at its finest.