The smell of the sea wafts by the second you step off the train at Margate, carrying with it all the nostalgia of a day at the seaside on which this town has so successfully capitalised. Leaving the station, the North Sea is immediately visible with Margate’s long stretch of fine and famous sand just a few hundred inviting metres up ahead.
In the summer months, the town draws in huge numbers of visitors, helped enormously by high-speed trains from London’s St Pancras. A record 4.2 million tourists stepped off the trains or otherwise made their way to the coast in 2017, worth some £319m to the local economy. Though holiday-makers hail from all over, sea-seekers from the capital are prevalent, just as they were in the Victorian era when the wealthy arrived on paddle-ships to ease their smog-filled lungs. It was only in the 1970s and 1980s, when Brits enthusiastically embraced cheap package holidays to Europe, that Margate and other UK seaside destinations plunged into decline.
Now, however, riding a wave of staycations and retro enthusiasm, Margate is on the up. And though this rise echoes that of a few other British seaside towns, the severe and persistent deprivation in so many others means Margate stands out. It has also managed to cultivate something that still evades similar destinations. Yes, Margate leans-in to nostalgia, as all seaside towns must – buckets and spades and sticks of rock are in abundance – but in addition, Margate is now ‘cool’.
DOWN FROM LONDON
Margate’s reputation has undoubtedly been bolstered by the fact that it is now acknowledged as an artistic hub. The town is still benefiting from the hype sparked by the 2011 opening of the Turner Contemporary gallery – a homage to the painter who visited the town throughout his life. Funded in part by Kent County Council, the gallery was one part of a wider East Kent Cultural Strategy, a direct attempt to implement ‘culture-led regeneration’ in Margate. Though it certainly raised some eyebrows at the time, the gallery has been largely successful. In recent evidence provided to a House of Lords select committee on regenerating seaside towns, the gallery claimed to have generated around £68m for the local economy and, in September this year, it hosted the prestigious Turner Prize. Combined with the reopening of Margate’s famous Dreamland amusement park, this evidence led the committee to describe Margate as a ‘clear instance of successful culture-led regeneration’.
Probably more important from the perspective of ‘coolness’ however are figures from outside the world of fine art. The once-controversial and Margate-born artist Tracey Emin recently spoke of her plans to set up a new gallery in her hometown, and British indie band The Libertines (fronted by notorious bad-boy Pete Doherty) has just opened a hotel a short walk from the sea-front. Alongside this, or perhaps because of it, Margate also has a reputation not just for attracting record numbers of day trippers, but for enticing former city-dwellers to pack up and relocate permanently. These DFLs (down-from-Londoners) as the locals refer to them, joined by DFAs (down-from-anywhere) and even DFSEs (down-from-the-South-East), now form a new community in Margate, one that brings with it money – many having sold houses at London prices.
Figures from 2017, reported in the local paper Kent Live, showed 1,830 people moving from the capital to the Thanet district, which encompasses Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate, with just 760 moving in the other direction. This upping of sticks is inextricably linked to the art scene. Thanet District Council recently reported that the number of creative businesses in Thanet increased by 84 per cent between 2013 and 2016, and the number of artists’ studios went up by almost as much. Many of these studios are home to groups of creatives who predominantly hail from London or other big cities.
‘We just got caught up in the excitement of the place,’ explains Ed Warren, who with his partner Kier Muddiman, moved to Margate from London in 2015 to set up their café-cum-record-shop-cum-yoga-studio, Cliffs. ‘As we got to know the place a little better we came to terms with the opportunities that were here to do things we couldn’t really do in London,’ Ed says. ‘We could start our own shop; we don’t have to work full-time. And it was good value.’ Cliffs is situated in Cliftonville, still a relatively poor area of town. The café is one of a few markedly sleek coffee shops and organic produce sellers which now incongruously dot the dilapidated high street.
Not far away, another DFL, Kate Harrison, works out of an art studio called RESORT, situated behind the red-brick Victorian façade of Cliftonville’s Pettman Building. Once home to a local coal delivery business, it was an empty warehouse when the artistic team took it over shortly after the opening of the Turner gallery. ‘A group of us came together, we turned this space from a shell into an affordable art collective,’ says Kate, who moved to Margate in 2011. ‘You just can’t have that kind of thing in London without having to re-mortgage yourself.’ On the plus side for the wider community she adds: ‘I suppose the movement [of people] has used a lot of spaces that would otherwise be abandoned. It brings people from other parts of the country here. It’s like a creative beacon.’
The DFLs, it seems, are happy with their decision to make Margate home, and there does seem to be a conscious effort among many of them to feed back into the local community. That said, Kate adds that about 80 per cent of the artists working out of RESORT are people who moved to Margate from somewhere else. It doesn’t appear that the new artistic scene is dominated by long-term residents, begging the question: can a shiny new gallery and an influx of artists really change a whole town for the better?
According to some established locals, the answer is yes. Many speak about the up-turn in the town’s fortunes and point to the wide range of cultural activities now on offer. One of these is Ian Dickie, director of the Margate Museum – a celebration of vintage Punch and Judy stalls and monochrome photographs of warring Mods and Rockers. He reminisces about the changing face of the town: ‘Up until 2010, this place was really in the doldrums. Really from 1970 to 2010,’ he says. ‘Now tourists are coming back. 2011 saw the Turner Contemporary opening. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Not everybody likes the building or the concept. But it brings thousands and thousands of people to the town. The place is beginning to look alive again. Lots of art galleries around, lots of retro shops. We used to call them junk shops years ago, but they’re retro now.’
It’s exactly the same story at Scott’s Furniture Mart, a family-run antique furniture emporium in Cliftonville where the founder, Ron Scott, 69, who moved to Margate aged 17, waxes lyrical about the town’s regeneration. ‘A lot of arty people followed the Turner,’ he says, perched on a piece of his merchandise, which spills onto the pavement. ‘It’s done wonders for us. And lots of people have come down and set up family homes, which is really nice because loads of the architecture is beautiful. Twenty to thirty years ago it was all divided up into houses of multi-occupancy, loads of little bedsits, and that doesn’t lead to good vibes. This is a real backstreet area with the cheapest properties and was the least affected to start with, but now you’ve got loads of trendy people moving in and really enjoying it.’
There is another side however. In a poll included at the end of a 2018 article titled: ‘DFLs and DFAs – benefiting Thanet or not?’ included in the Isle of Thanet News, 226 people voted in favour and 164 voted against the positive impact of these immigrants. Chief among the ‘no’ voters’ concerns was rising house prices – a side-effect of regeneration acknowledged by everyone. House prices rose ten per cent from 2017 to 2018 in Margate (though with the average house price still £207,000, the appeal for Londoners has probably not dropped). ‘The only downside, I suppose, is that young local people are not going to be able to afford houses,’ admits Ian.
THE DARKER SIDE
By no means the fault of individual DFLs, Margate is still a deprived town. A major art gallery and an influx of artists have not changed the statistics much. Cliftonville West and Margate Central remain the most economically deprived neighbourhoods in Kent, and are within the most deprived ten per cent of areas in the UK. Research compiled by the Consumer Data Research Centre puts Margate’s life expectancy at 73, the lowest in the county and almost eight years below the national average.
Homelessness and drugs are also frequently cited issues. Jason Moore, divisional director of substance misuse services at the Forward Trust, an organisation that provides specialist support for those struggling with drugs and alcohol explains that: ‘Thanet is the ninth highest place in the country for drug-related deaths from heroin and morphine. While the national average for heroin and morphine deaths is 1.7 out of 100,000, there are five deaths out of 100,000 in Thanet.’
Nor is this deprivation particularly hidden from view. Young day-trippers from London caught up in the Margate buzz may be surprised to find a place that, outside of the picturesque old town (an area which was also part of the local government’s cultural strategy), is still run-down. Litter is a chief concern. Five hundred metres around the coast from Margate’s main beach, where the old lido beloved of Victorians now stands derelict, Wayne Dixon is litter-picking with some volunteers. Wayne is on an extraordinary one-man (and his dog) mission to walk the entire coast of Britain, picking up every piece of litter he sees on the way and, as such, has a good perspective on the problem nationwide. It’s only when he points to the sheer volume of rubbish embedded into the earth at the top of Margate’s white cliffs that the scale of the issue becomes clear. ‘It’s particularly bad for a tourist town,’ he says.
There’s also another, particularly thorny side to Margate in the uneasy – for some – relationship between white residents, Eastern Europe immigrants who have settled in the poorer areas around Cliftonville, and the town’s Muslim inhabitants. Ed and Kier were originally warned-off buying property in Cliftonville by estate agents who pointed to the number of ‘foreigners’ in the area. ‘Racism is definitely there,’ Ed says. ‘We hear it on the street, people shouting, there’s still a lot of that.’
At the Margate Museum, Ian Dickie adds that the majority of people (63.8 per cent in Thanet) voted to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum and he considers immigration as being the main reason why.
All of this results in a certain awkwardness for some DFLs who are all too aware that their good fortune in finding a seaside spot with cheap accommodation is not the experience of everyone in Margate. ‘I think for some people who’ve always lived here it’s difficult,’ says Kate. ‘Initially, they see a big gallery turn up on their beach, and suddenly their rents go up and their families move out. It’s the residents that don’t have businesses that get shoved about a bit. It’s just awkward, it’s horrible. Artists and certain people get blamed for that kind of displacement, but it’s an argument that’s difficult to categorise as right or wrong. No one wants to push anybody out, but funnily enough we probably all got pushed out [of London], that’s why many of us are here.’
For many DFLs, including Kate, Kier and Ed, the answer to this unease is to work within the local community and give something back. Kate helps manage Arts Emergency, a charity which matches young disadvantaged children in Margate with arts and humanities mentors. At Cliffs, Kier insists that ‘it was one of the things we were really conscious of when setting this up, for it not to become some kind of London elitist place.’
As one story would have it, these well-meaning DFLs are entirely responsible for rescuing Margate. A 2019 article in the Telegraph promised to answer the question of: ‘How the ‘Down From London’ hipsters saved this faded seaside town’. Clearly this is an exaggeration. The DFLs are one aspect of Margate’s regeneration, but for every café run by a Londoner there are numerous local businesses serving up seaside nostalgia to tourists.
Given the statistics and the evidence on the ground, it’s also hardly accurate to call Margate ‘saved’. ‘In transition’ might be more appropriate. Nevertheless, what’s undeniable is that there is a sense of optimism surrounding this town. In this sense at least, the injection of culture and entertainment has been a success. ‘The whole of Thanet has come up by the bootstraps quite considerably, but from Margate’s point of view it’s really been enormous,’ says Ian. ‘Like everywhere else, it has its problems. But I think the good outweighs the bad a thousand per cent.’
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