For some reason I have always loved Margate and do try to visit the town if I am in the area. I have no childhood memories of Margate as I was raised in the West Country and Weymouth and Weston Super Mare were the resorts that I tended to visit. The nearest connection I had was that my mother visited Cliftonville in 1933 with her school. But this all changed in 2000 when my daughter went to university in Canterbury. At last, I had the excuse to visit Margate and so I did in the November of that year.
I had an idea what awaited me and was rather disappointed when I arrived. Margate was dying. The once elegant hotels were either closed or were just being used by the local authority. Even the marvellous Turner Light seemed to have abandoned the town. The shops were tired and there were a number of empty properties. As I walked along the beach I felt I could see the ghosts of day-trippers past although this was an obvious fancy. I left Margate that day but vowed to revisit the town when the weather was kinder and less bleak.
For a variety of reasons I did not revisit Margate until 2011. I was drawn back by the opening of the Turner Contemporary which was opened in the April of that year. Although still looking tired, the town had been greatly enhanced by the opening of the gallery. I was not aware of this at the time but the gallery had been built on the site of Mrs Booth’s guest house. This was the residence where Turner stayed whenever he visited Margate and he and Mrs Booth subsequently became very close. Their story is told in part in Mile Leigh’s movie Mr Turner which is now available on DVD. Although a tad dramatized, I enjoyed the movie when I saw it at the cinema and recommend it should you want to know more about his life. I also noted that people were not just visiting Margate because of the gallery and the splendid beach but because of the town itself.
Margate had responded to the opening of the gallery and to some extent had become chic. The café society had arrived and one could now eat al fresco under the strong Kent sun. Another thing I noticed was that a few antique outlets had begun to spring up in the area near to the gallery. In my view this enhances any town and Margate was no exception.
A few days ago I found myself in Margate again and although it was a cool autumn day the light was astonishing. It was almost if the town was bathed in blue. As I had an hour or so to kill before I caught my train back to Deal, I decided to visit these antique shops and was pleasantly surprised. I think I half expected rather chic antique shops with chic prices to match. But what I found was gloriously ramshackle with bargains to be had if you looked hard enough. What I did like was that a couple of the shops exhibited some of their wares on the pavements outside. A few seventy-eights as well as boxes of collectable items all, it appeared, for around a pound. One shop had some vintage signage possibly from Dreamland and the prices asked were a little more expensive. But this was an exception. Another establishment had a £1.00 basement which was exciting and some of the items for sale were to say the least very collectable. I picked up a Victorian book of poetry and was tempted by many other things but as I was travelling light that day I settled for Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome.
The nice thing about most seaside resorts is that for the last hundred or so years they have sold souvenirs such as postcards and traditional seaside gifts. Margate is no different and whilst a lot of these items have ended up in the garbage can in the sky some have gone through the years without fading and this was what I found that afternoon.
I personally think it is great fun to collect items from yesteryear that bring back memories of what your parents would have purchased when they were children. I looked through a couple of boxes of memories and was quite taken by the selection. few of the postcards pre-dated my parents and were from the era of my grandparents. Quiet postcards showing views of Margate and other local resorts. Small ceramics with the crest of the towns added. A brochure from Broadstairs dating from the 1950s. The choice was extensive. What was quite nice was that with one or two exceptions these vintage souvenirs were all reasonably priced. Still, I was travelling light so I resisted the temptation again.
Margate, if you travel by train is direct from London or with only the minimum of changes. I usually travel from St Pancras on the high speed trains which are very efficient. What I do like about the town is that the railway station is almost on the beach. If you have ever walked from Ramsgate station towards the sea then you will get my meaning.
Margate Railway Station is also great to look at so please take a few minutes to look at the great hall. It shares this distinction with the great hall at Ramsgate Railway Station but as I noted, Margate is much nearer to the beach. The area around the railway station is a little run down and there is a monstrosity of a tower block on your right which depresses me every time I see it. There was some great architecture in the 1960s and 1970s but there is no way that this eyesore comes into that category. Hopefully it will be demolished quite soon as it spoils the skyline of the town. Unlike the beautiful gallery.
If you want to find the antique shops then turn right and walk towards the Turner Contemporary. They are mostly congregated to the right of the gallery in the streets opposite the harbour arm. If you need refreshment then the cafes and pubs are good.
I also recommend the harbour arm and the gallery both of which have quite inexpensive places to eat. Margate is a happy place especially in the summer and the memories of my dour visit all those years ago have now been consigned to history.
What I did not count upon was that as I walked towards the railway station that I would find a book not in one of the antique shops but in a charity shop which had one of the most haunting dedications I had seen for a while. The book was a common edition of Scott’s Ivanhoe published by Collins. I have picked these editions up before. But what sold it to me was the dedication which I will share with you.
To my small friends from the Polish soldier
8th September 1940
It was a dedication from a gentler but paradoxically more violent era and quite how it found its way to Margate is anybody’s guess. But there it was. Margate had surprised me again.