Margate with Mr Turner

By | Category: Travel destinations
Timothy Spall as JMW Turner

a still from the film, Mr Turner, starring Timothy Spall © Entertainment One

“Margate is on the up…” This was the message we often heard when we visited the town several years ago – but the optimism was invariably voiced somewhat hesitantly. The opening of the Turner Contemporary art gallery in 2011 had gone some way to boosting the town’s confidence but even so it was evident that there was a long road ahead.

This year however, signs of regeneration are more noticeable; a wide curve of steps onto the sands known as the King’s Steps were opened in 2013 and several smart new boutique hotels have sprung up, something lacking on our previous visit when the only hotel we found was a very odd one. In it, our room No 302, a recently refurbished mini-suite with four poster bed and sea views, was very pleasant  but there were rooms in the hotel was stuffed to the gunnels with what the owner called ‘museum objects’ but which we considered junk. The jolliest moment there came when on leaving, I was flicking through the visitor’s book and came across an entry by the artist Tracy Emin, native and passionate afficionada of Margate, in which she commented that in room 302 she had had the best sex in her life…

Of course Emin is not the only artist to have appreciated Margate – or to have frolicked there.  It was in fact the painter J.M.W Turner who had brought us to Margate this time as Margate is keen to share in the buzz created by the current Tate Britain show Late Turner –Painting Set Free and the soon-to-be released Mike Leigh film Mr Turner starring Timothy Spall.

the entrance to Turner Contemporary

the entrance to Turner Contemporary

Turner himself was born in London in 1775 but at the age of 11 he was sent to Margate to study at Mr Coleman’s school in Love Lane. Once there he embarked on a lifelong love affair with Margate, its sea, its sands, the ships and especially the light over Thanet. One of his first original works to survive is a drawing of a street in Margate with a view over rooftops and masts of ships to the sea beyond. The town in fact came to play an essential role in his life both professional and personal. Even after returning to live London he would catch the paddle steamer from the Tower of London to go down to the town to paint.

It is not known exactly when he happened upon the boarding house of the widow Sophia Booth but he soon became a cosseted guest and eventually his landlady’s lover. Turner was however, very secretive and the liaison as kept secret from his RA colleagues and sometimes he even  passed himself off as “Mr Booth” even when he eventually moved Mrs Booth to a house in which they both lived in Chelsea.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century the little town had 9,000 inhabitants, supplemented from time to time by waves of genteel holiday makers who came for the sea bathing – it was at Margate that the bathing machine was invented to preserve the bather’s modesty. There were attractive shops and elegant Georgian houses but even then there were plenty of pubs and eel and pie shops and the atmosphere was invariably jolly and welcoming.

Margate beach

the wide and long sandy beaches at Margate that attracted Visitors in the hundreds of thousands

Later the railways and the proximity to London brought an increase in trippers until in the twentieth century Margate was able to boast that it was the most popular seaside resort in the country. In more recent times however it suffered a sharp decline which culminated with the closure of Dreamland Amusement Park, previously one of Margate’s major attractions.

Now a concentrated cultural regeneration programme is attempting to restore Margate’s jolly and welcoming atmosphere and one place in which success in this is evident is the Old Town.  In this area of pretty old houses, winding streets and little squares, some 69 buildings were restored with help for the Heritage Lottery Fund and a plethora of fascinating new shops and cafes have opened.  Whether as part of a policy or by chance, the unique selling point of this area has become vintage –it is fast becoming a mecca for anyone interested in all things retro.

Amongst the clothes shops we liked Madame Popoff and the rather smart Betty B’s which is devoted to the 50s but there are other fascinating shops selling vintage toys, comics and furniture. That some quality specialist shops have settled here is another optimistic sign.  Danish Collectables sells sets of Arne Jacobsen chairs and lovely Scandinavian glass; Quing imports attractive items from China while Lady Tesla’s Loose Leaves and Mud deals in teas and tea pots – there is even one shop devoted to dog accessories.

Margate's Morgans

Morgans in Moulin Rouge mood © Giles Toller

The area is well served with cafes and tea shops including the attractive Cup Cake Café but it was when we were strolling up High Street that we came to the best retro find, Morgan’s Vintage Dance Hall and Coffee Lounge. It is situated in an unusually shaped Georgian building on two levels, the dance hall proper is on the upper level with magnificent views over the sea. Here one can attend classes in tap, salsa,  lindy hop, jive, bollywood,  tango and other types of dance, or watch others dance or simply sit enjoying a drink, meal or a cream tea. The owner Allyson Jones found the building as a ruin and has put her all into restoring it as somewhere to celebrate ‘the bygone glamour of the past’. As well as the classes she and her charming assistant Callum host salsa parties, poetry readings, swing bands, burlesque, vocalists and a wide range of colourful happening. A must-see, this attractive space, complete with glittering chandelier, is very special.

It is not however the only glittering space in Margate which is special. For many years the leading attraction has been the enigmatic Shell Grotto and it also continues to be somewhere no visitor should miss. Sarah Vickery the owner is often on hand to chat and there is a shop and pleasant café in which to relax after exploring the very atmospheric grotto. It has a lot in common with the shell houses and grottos which were fashionable attractions on aristocratic estates in the eighteenth century but in this case it remained undiscovered until the 1830s when a duck pond was being dug. It is a deep underground structure, the walls and ceilings of which are thickly covered in shells, consisting of serpentine passages linking a rotunda with a chamber. In layout it is reminiscent of the much larger Scott’s Grotto at Ware but the motifs of the shells here are different – sexual organs are depicted, something unlikely in the eighteenth century. Further in the eighteenth century such follies were built to show off and than anyone should have built such a complex structure and kept it hidden away seems strange. Many theories about its origins have been put forward but with no conclusive evidence ever found it remains a pleasing mystery and one which is unique experience to explore.

one of the intricate displays in the Shell Grotto

one of the intricate displays in the Shell Grotto

Possibly the Turner Contemporary Gallery now attracts marginally more visitors than the Shell Grotto and it has certainly put Margate firmly on the cultural map. There is always at least one of Turner’s works on display and currently Jeremy Dellar’s show English Magic from the Venice Biennale, explores transformations in British society with strange and original imagery while in another gallery, you can lie on yoga mats to appreciate Edmund de Waal’s show Atmosphere, consisting of ceramics which were created especially to capture Margate’s wonderful light.

The gallery was actually built on the site of Mrs Booth’s guesthouse and it an irony and maybe something which could only happen to Margate that the very presence of this iconic and very modern building made it impossible for Mike Leigh to film the Margate scenes in Margate. They were filmed in Cornwall…

Moonlight over Margate - a scene Turner might well have  painted

Moonlight over Margate – a scene Turner might well have painted

Never mind. We took a last stroll on the sands. Waves were breaking far out to sea, children were playing and a scattering of people were walking their dogs.  The pier and the smoke from the steamer’s funnel were long gone and there was little moonlight but this was still the Margate of The New Moon: or I’ve lost My Boat, You shan’t have Your Hoop. Turner’s spirit lives on in the fabulous light and those wide sands.

Next year Dreamland Margate is scheduled to reopen after an 11 year campaign.  Once again the theme is vintage and it will feature a glorious selection of rides, fairground paraphernalia, dance venues and amusements. Perhaps the fully restored 1920s Grade II listed scenic railway – Britaan’s oldest rollercoaster , will help to give the regeneration the necessary lift and  ensure that Margate’s future is truly ‘on the up ’.


Since writing this on 28th October it was announced that Margate was to receive a portion of the government’s £3 million grant for costal communities. It will restore the iconic but derelict art deco cinema in Dreamland, create a high quality restaurant there and bring the original facade back to its 1930s glory attracting new visitors and businesses and creating 171 jobs.


For more information about Margate, click here.

Images and story © Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck







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