Margate one of the world's top ten resorts Trust me, it's East Germany with wind farms
23:56 GMT, 13 December 2012
Recuperating after a nervous breakdown in 1921, the poet T. S. Eliot made a visit to the seaside town of Margate on the Kent coast.
While he was there, he sat for a time in a municipal shelter on the front and stared out at the concrete-grey sea beneath a wide but darkening sky. The sheer bleakness of the scene was to serve as a form of literary inspiration.
‘On Margate sands, I can connect nothing with nothing,’ he wrote in The Waste Land, one the finest 20th-century poems in the English language.
Bleak: T.S. Eliot wrote 'On Margate sands, I can connect nothing with nothing' in his poem The Waste Land
Exactly 90 years after Eliot’s epic first appeared, the term ‘The Waste Land’ seems more appropriate than ever for Margate, for the resort is even grimmer than when Eliot visited the place in the early Twenties, though it does have a rich history and retains some of its Victorian architectural charm.
Certainly, it is those positive aspects that one travel guide has been seduced by.
In an extraordinary move, the compilers of the Rough Guide, the respected international travel annual, have declared the resort to be one of the top ten places in the world to visit.
Most people in Kent might think of Margate as a nightmare place, but according to the Rough Guide, it is actually a dream destination, fit to be put in the same category as Earthly Edens such as Puerto Rico and North-East Iceland.
With its ‘golden sands’ and ‘dilapidated seaside charm’, Margate is ranked seventh in the Rough Guide’s ‘must see’ destinations for 2013.
So there we have it. Honolulu, Portofino and the Maldives can be ignored. Margate is where it’s really at. But, much as we might admire the unorthodox enthusiasms of Rough Guide writers, their determination to put Margate near the top of the global tourist summit is laughable.
'An upcoming area': Most people in Kent might think of Margate as a nightmare place, but according to the Rough Guide, it is actually a dream destination
The town is not even the seventh best place to visit on the Isle of Thanet, never mind the world.
Other nearby resorts like Broadstairs, Ramsgate, and Sandwich are far more attractive. The artist Tracey Emin, a Margate native who somehow embodies the more negative side of the town in the empty mediocrity of her output, once said that Margate is ‘romantic, sexy and weird’. She should have left out the first three words and she would have been closer to the truth.
Anyone inspired by the Rough Guide to visit Margate may be in for disappointment. I should know because for the past six years my wife and I have lived on the outskirts of the resort. In a fit of inexplicable folly, for which I must entirely carry the blame, we decided to buy a house there in late 2006.
Part of my perverted rationale was that I had always liked the idea of living by the sea. Moreover, as someone who loves to wallow in nostalgia, I have long been drawn to the relics of England’s past.
‘Bleak enough for you’ said my wife when we first saw the street where we bought our home. ‘Just about,’ I replied, relishing the mood of autumnal Victoriana.
Positive: Artist Tracey Emin once described Margate as 'romantic, sexy and weird'
Besides, I told myself, where else could you buy a period house with five bedrooms in the South-East of England for less than 250,000
Well, there was a reason why the property was cheap — and that was the location. Ever since our purchase, we have been told that the town is ‘an upcoming area’. But it seems pretty paralysed to me.
The reality is that, for all the Rough Guide’s excitement, too much of Margate could be an East German resort before the Berlin Wall came down. The feeling of degeneration is almost palpable.
In dramatic contrast to Margate’s centre which, proportionately, has more boarded up shops than any place in the South of England, the old town by the harbour has fared much better, its narrow, winding streets now full of boutique shops and cafes.
The catalyst for this change has been the arrival of Turner Contemporary Art Gallery, named in honour of Britain’s greatest painter J. M. W. Turner, the 19th-century genius who produced more than 100 pictures inspired by the Kent coast, including some of his greatest seascapes.
‘The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe,’ he once said. But for all its economic success, the modern Turner gallery is infused with none of that artistic spirit.
The building itself looks like a warehouse on an East Midlands industrial estate, while its exhibits are mostly the worst kind of pretentious tat that today passes for modern art.
Nor would Turner be too pleased by the view from the harbour, with large swathes of the estuary now given over to Europe’s biggest off- shore windfarm.
Economic decline is also reflected in the demographics. Margate was hit hard from the Sixties onwards by competition with cheap overseas travel, especially Mediterranean package holidays, so the local authority took the reckless decision to fill up the increasingly empty hotels and boarding houses with social security claimants.
Development: The catalyst for change in Margate's old town has been the arrival of the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery, named in honour of Britain's greatest painter J.M.W. Turner
The move was a disaster. Nowhere is ever revived by the import of poverty. The results are now all too apparent in the shuffling, penurious masses on the streets.
Decline has also brought an air of menace. I was on an early-morning train the other day from Margate, when, having fallen into a doze, I was woken by the sound of a beer can being opened. I looked up, and there was a young man taking a long swig from a can of Carlsberg Special Brew.
‘Celebrating’ I asked with a forced mateyness, trying to disguise my anxiety. ‘Yeah, just got out of prison,’ came the reply. ‘Oh, what were you in for’ I asked. ‘GBH,’ he said, taking another swig.
GBH seems one of the themes of the moment. A tattooed Margate barber struck up conversation with me recently while cutting my hair, during which he breezily revealed that his curriculum vitae included a longish spell inside . . . for GBH.
Yet it would be wrong to dwell entirely on the negative. The truth is that Margate does have potential, with its evocative location, its unique skies and its still-striking period architecture. The writers of the Rough Guide guide are not entirely wrong.
Fan: The Great Train Robbery fugitive, Ronnie Biggs, famously wished for a cool pint of beer in a pub on the Margate seafront during his exile in Brazil
There is something to be said for driving along the Margate seafront on an early autumn evening, past the gothic Victorian clocktower built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and see the sun setting on the horizon, with the sands bathed in gold and the sky turning a deep lavender.
It’s also true that, over the years, Margate has been adored by a wide range of public figures, some of them honourable, some infamous. Sir Jack Hobbs, England’s greatest cricketer, always spent his family summer holidays in Margate, believing that there was no place in England that could give him the same sense of relaxation.
The Great Train Robbery fugitive, Ronnie Biggs, always said during his exile in Brazil that his one great wish was to be able to have a cool pint of beer in a pub on the Margate seafront.
And, for all the architectural vandalism of recent years, Margate is steeped in rich history. Not only has it Britain’s second oldest intact theatre, the 18th-century Theatre Royal, but its local airport of Manston was one of the training arenas for the Dambusters crew in 1943. Metallic casing from the Dambusters’ practice bombs still occasionally washes up on the shore.
My wife and I once thought we had made a terrible mistake in moving to the area, but its charm has grown on us. As Chas and Dave wrote in their hit song Margate: ‘You can keep your Costa Brava and all that palava. Me, I’d rather have a day down at Margate.’
Clearly, the writers of the Rough Guide feel the same way.