"As the Turner Contemporary art centre opens in Margate this week, Joanne O'Connor finds an 'imperfect' seaside resort – but one that has much to love.
The sun is shining on Margate's Harbour Arm. At the end of the stone pier the BeBeached Café is doing a brisk trade, serving its signature brunch of baked eggs, spinach and mushrooms. Outside, young coffee-sipping customers sit in deckchairs, basking in the unexpected warmth of the early spring sunshine.
Across the water, the morning sea mists drift along the beach, drawing a discreet veil over the arcades, kebab shops and skeletal remains of the Dreamland amusement park, which disappears in the vapour like the ghost of summers past. A couple of hundred metres to the left of this spectre, perched jauntily on the harbour, looking out to sea, is an angular, glass-clad building. This, if all the hype is to be believed, is the shape of Margate's future.
Turner Contemporary is an ambitious arts centre which, it is hoped, will do for the Kent seaside town's fortunes what the Tate did for St Ives in Cornwall and the Guggenheim for Bilbao. For a building that carries such a weight of expectations, it seems remarkably low-key, functional even. "It looks like a fish processing plant," said one local shopkeeper. Businesslike it may be, but I like the way the opaque façade reflects the sky and helps to merge the building with its watery surroundings.
The gallery will be opened by Margate's most famous daughter, Tracey Emin, on April 16, but I was given a preview as the first artworks were being installed. Inside, the lofty reception area makes the most of the sea views while in the galleries, skylights and high windows filter in the northern light.
These are the same views, the same light that so captivated J M W Turner – the gallery is built on the exact site of the guesthouse where the artist used to stay on his regular visits to Margate. Some of Turner's most famous works were inspired by Thanet – the coastal area which comprises Margate and the neighbouring resorts of Broadstairs and Ramsgate – but only one of his paintings will be on show in the opening exhibition, which is a collection of contemporary works very loosely inspired by the artist.
From the gallery I walked into the Old Town, an attractive area of narrow cobbled streets behind the harbour. When I last visited Margate six years ago this area was down-at-heel and deserted, with many boarded-up shop windows. Today, it is home to a thriving community of independent shops specialising in vintage and retro homeware and clothing, art galleries and cafés, many of which have opened in the past 12 months.
I chatted to at least half a dozen shopkeepers and each of them said that the "Turner effect" was a major factor in their decision to set up shop here. In its first year Turner Contemporary is expected to bring 150,000 visitors to Margate.
The newest addition to the Old Town is Greedy Cow, a deli specialising in fine cheeses, charcuterie, artisan breads and real coffee, which opened last month next door to the Cupcake Café on Market Place. Rachel, the owner, is Margate born and bred, but moved away for many years.
"If someone had said a couple of years ago that I would be moving back to Margate I would have said they were crazy," she says. "But I've noticed a change in the town. There's a real buzz."
Across the square, Julian Newick is another returnee. Having spent years in Paris, he came home last year to open the Lifeboat Ale and Cider House, a cosy, rustic bar with an open fire, specialising in real ales, ciders and wines from east Kent. The bar has regular live music sessions and serves traditional food such as Kentish blue cheese, pies and seafood. Julian is passionate about sourcing local ingredients and hopes to start a weekly food market in the square.
On King Street, I walked into Margate Modern Art, a smart gallery specialising in art from 1870 to 1970, which opened six months ago. The proprietor, Jane Holbrey, moved from France to open the gallery. When I commented that Margate must seem a bit of a culture shock, she laughed: "Well, I used to live in Brick Lane before it was gentrified, and it had a similar sort of feel."
Modern art, cupcakes, charcuterie… it's all a long way from the popular image of Margate as the seedy and neglected town that holidays forgot. Then again, maybe not such a long way. Just a minute's walk from the Old Town and you are back on the seafront, which, sadly, does not seem to have changed much since I last visited.
But here too there is a promise of better times ahead, with plans to reopen Dreamland – which closed in 2005 – as a heritage theme park. It's hard to believe now, but in the Nineties this was one of the country's most popular attractions, pulling in two million visitors a year. The centrepiece of the new park, which is expected to open in 2013, will be the restored Scenic Railway, the oldest roller-coaster in Britain, which will be joined by vintage rides and amusements such as a Pinball Parlour, roller disco and a Fifties-style milk bar. Work has already started on the Thirties Dreamland Cinema which will house a new entertainment venue and an exhibition on the popular culture of the British seaside.
Sarah Vickery, an old friend of mine, is a director of the Dreamland Trust, which has been campaigning to save the park. We met for tea at Batchelors Patisserie, a time-warp café with original Formica tables. Sarah believes Dreamland will be more important to Margate's regeneration than the Turner Contemporary. "For years the emphasis has been on promoting Margate as this arty destination and its incredible seaside heritage has been neglected," she says.
Sarah owns the Shell Grotto, one of those strange and beguiling attractions the British seaside does so well. It was discovered in 1835 beneath a back garden in a quiet street and is an extraordinary underground cavern decorated with more than four million shells, arranged in beautiful and intricate patterns. The fact that nobody knows who created it, or why, only adds to the sense of mystery.
Margate was one of Britain's earliest seaside resorts and there are reminders of its heyday, from the grand Georgian terraces to the stone pier built for the steam packets which brought Londoners in their thousands to try the fashionable new pastime of sea bathing.
On the seafront at Cliftonville, once considered the posh part of town, stands the Walpole Bay Hotel, a gloriously eccentric remnant from the Edwardian era serving cream teas on an Art Deco veranda overlooking the bowling green, while the Victorian Nayland Rock Shelter on the promenade, where T S Eliot wrote parts of The Wasteland, has Grade II listed status.
It had been a day of surprises, but the biggest surprise of all awaited me when I checked into my b & b later that day. The Reading Rooms opened 18 months ago on a Georgian square a five-minute walk from the seafront. The owners, Louise Oldfield and Liam Nabb, who have a background in music and graphic design, moved here from London, tempted by the town's affordable Georgian housing.
"We wanted to create something special, that would stand on its own as a reason to come to Margate," Louise says. The 18th-century town house has been converted from 10 bedsits into an elegant guesthouse with three large bedrooms, decorated in shades of cream and ivory, with large French-style beds, chandeliers, stripped floorboards, and bathrooms which would put many five-star hotels to shame.
Guests can order from an extensive breakfast menu and have it delivered to their room, at whatever time they like. It's a bold move, to open a boutique b & b in a place like Margate, but the couple's bravery has paid off, with weekends booking up long before the Turner gallery was completed.
It's a difficult place Margate, imperfect and unpolished, but there is much to love. The sweeping expanse of the Main Sands is arguably one of the best beaches in the South East, and the skies which so famously captivated Turner really are extraordinary.
Lovers of all things retro will delight in Scott's Furniture Mart – Kent's largest emporium of antique furniture, bric-a-brac and vintage clothing – and in the quirky shops of the Old Town. And the recent influx of artists and creative types has given the town a dynamism which is lacking in more gentrified resorts such as nearby Whitstable, with its twee shops and fishman's cottages.
The Turner Contemporary will bring some much-needed publicity to the town and, if successful, the Dreamland heritage park will introduce a new generation to the simple pleasures of ghost trains, candyfloss and penny arcades. I hope so. It seems fitting that the blend of seaside kitsch and kiss-me-quick fun that saw Margate fall so spectacularly out of fashion could yet be its salvation.
Where to stay
The Reading Rooms, Margate (01843 225166; www.thereadingroomsmargate.co.uk) Decadent rooms and breakfast in bed at this elegant Georgian town house. Double rooms from £150 a night.
The Walpole Bay, Cliftonville (01843 221703, www.walpolebayhotel.co.uk) Double rooms from £65 a night.
Belvidere Place, Broadstairs (01843 579 850; www.belvidereplace.co.uk) In a neighbouring resort, this b & b is a breath of fresh air with its mix of contemporary and vintage furnishings and seasonal, locally-sourced food on the breakfast menu. Double rooms from £100 a night.
Where to eat
Bebeached Café (07961 402612, www.bebeached.co.uk) The best brunch in Margate, served overlooking the water at the end of the Harbour Arm; evening meals by candlelight.
Harbour Café Bar (01843 290110) Good bistro food in a great seafront location, with prime views of Margate's spectacular sunsets and regular jazz evenings.
The Ambrette (01843 231 504, www.theambrette.co.uk) Kent's finest ingredients, including lamb, wood pigeon and belly pork, subtly spiced and served with a modern Indian twist. Booking essential.
Eddie Gilbert's, Ramsgate (01843 852123; www.eddiegilberts.com) The best seafood in the area. A fishmonger, chip shop and seafood restaurant rolled into one, serving the freshest fish bought directly from the fleet in Ramsgate."