Arrive at Margate on the new high-speed train linking the international glitter of St Pancras to this distant stretch of the South Coast, and before you’ve even glimpsed the sea you’ll see Dreamland, Britain’s oldest amusement park, with a history as chequered as the town itself. It closed ten years ago this month. And its grand reopening is scheduled for next Friday.
Locals sometimes described it as the heartbeat of the town, because for a long time Dreamland dazzled. It first opened as a tearoom, the Hall by the Sea, in 1863, before being bought by circus impresario ‘Lord’ George Sanger in 1870. Today, the train arriving in Margate runs alongside the Grade II–listed Gothic-style walls and rusty metal cages where Sanger kept his tigers and elephants. Margate was a coveted destination back then. Londoners came to enjoy the sea air and pour through the turnstiles of Dreamland, though the odd dark cloud still drifted over town. Soon after it opened, a local prostitute was killed by a Dreamland circus strong man, and Sanger himself was killed in a fight. The beach at Margate where Sanger once walked his tigers saw clashes between mods and rockers in the Sixties, and then between mods and skinheads in the Eighties.
As foreign travel got cheaper, Dreamland faced tougher competition from cheap package holidays. By the 1980s, once-proud beachfront hotels and guesthouses housed social security claimants and asylum seekers. By the 1990s, Margate’s fortunes had really fallen and the fun shuddered to a halt. Dreamland rides were sold off, and the park closed. Those tourists who did bother to venture here saw a mangle of broken, rusting rides and boarded up candyfloss stalls. Dreamland became a reminder of the fallen fortunes of the town around it.
Now, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £18 million of private investment, Dreamland is being reborn. The wooden skeleton of the Grade II-listed scenic railway has risen once again above the site, an exact replica of the original which opened in 1919. The famous revolving Wedgwood teacups and caterpillar rollercoaster have been restored, and there’s a new helter skelter. The listed roller-disco hall will glitter again and there’s plans to turn the 2,000-capacity ballroom, which once hosted the Who, the Rolling Stones and T. Rex, into a venue for high diving, circus, magic shows and theatre.
With his wife Geraldine and son Jack, Wayne Hemingway has taken on overall design of the park, bringing in recent experience of working on other rejuvenation projects in Bournemouth and Wembley. As well as the job of unifying the disparate aesthetic of rides spanning from the 1920s until the 1980s, HemingwayDesign has also planned out the music and even smells that are to be pumped out into the park for some of the rides.
Tracey Emin, born and bred in Margate, has also created two new neon light pieces especially for the park. She has always championed the town, a place she has described as ‘romantic, sexy and weird’.
Today the fortunes of Dreamland and Margate are woven together so tightly that the optimism and energy being poured into the amusement park is mirrored in the rejuvenation of the town. When the trust announced it was recruiting 250 staff for the park, the queues of applicants wound down the street. Some of the applicants had strong memories of working in the park before it closed, or brought photographs of themselves on rides with parents and grandparents. Much of this archive material has been critical during the process of reimagining the site.
There’s no doubt that Margate’s on the up. The opening of the Turner Contemporary in 2011 gave the town an injection of cultural credibility, and in the compact Old Town, every street is dotted with trendy shops offering artisan coffee, vintage clothes or artfully distressed furniture. On the front, crystal chandeliers glitter above tables of well-coiffured ladies enjoying crab ravioli in the Sands Hotel with its heartstopping view across the bay. At weekends, local estate agents are kept busy by young families priced way, way out of the capital and hunting a five-bedroom Victorian semi that they can pick up for less than five times their salaries. The artisan pizza joint GB Pizza left Exmouth Market to open in Margate, and on Saturdays queues for their groovy canteen restaurant stretch down the seafront. Artists’ studios and cultural spaces like Limbo Arts, Crate Space and Zoe Murphy Studios are springing up in empty Georgian houses or disused electrical substations, since cheap space is something Margate has in abundance. A newer, faster high-speed link into central London is promised for 2018, bringing next-door Ramsgate just 50 minutes from St Pancras, making Margate a sweat-free metropolitan commute.
The rejuvenation of Margate is part of a bigger ripple of gentrification along this stretch of coast. It started in Whitstable, whose fortunes are not just rising but fully risen. A clutch of excellent restaurants like Jojos, Wheelers and the Windy Corner combined with seafront location and Regency architecture have hiked property prices up so far that many locals have cashed in and moved on. More boho and certainly more hippy, nearby Hastings is just out of commuter reach, although the art deco buildings and freewheeling life mean it’s a hipster’s paradise, and nearby St Leonards has gained the title Dalston-on-Sea.
Yet for all that, poverty is still shockingly close to the surface. In Margate, just 11 per cent of the population have a professional qualification and unemployment is at around 20 per cent, much higher than the national average.
Walk up behind the hill in the Old Town, and the vintage boutiques quickly thin out, giving way to pawn shops and charity shops. Scores of teenage mothers push babies, plugged into dummies. Outside Wetherspoon’s, men with hard-bitten faces smoke over their morning pint of lager. Turner told Ruskin that ‘the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe’ and painted some of his most generous pictures there, but this is also where T.S. Eliot wrote sections of the most devastating, brilliant poem of the 20th century, ‘The Waste Land’. Today, Margate is holding its breath, hoping Dreamland can work its old magic and restore the fortunes of this remarkable seaside town.