Tides are great seducers. High, and the coast seems an impregnable fortress. Low, and she’s laid bare, a million stony treasures basking in the sun. On Margate’s beaches, Henry Moore-esque flints gleam beside perfect round chalk eggs. Sand worms scribble between fresh bouquets of seaweed. A giant’s causeway of rock pools stretch away, like stepping-stones to Holland. This stub of land, the ‘Isle’ of Thanet, used to be disconnected from the rest of the country by a silty channel. The channel shrunk, yet the disconnect remains. No longer useful as a port, Margate became a Victorian seabathing mecca – a place to cut off, recharge and retreat.
Margate has been stuck in a fallow rut for a very long time. Residential areas feel rundown and unkempt: ‘austerity bleakness,’ if you like. For some, this has a certain romance. It’s a wild west, a new territory. A place for the everyman. Fires are lit (illegally, but who’s watching?) on the beach each night. Monotone graffiti lines the Cliftonville coastal wall – who needs spray paint when you’ve got great lumps of free chalk? The abandoned Victorian Lido below the Walpole Hotel is coated in a thick green moss, with seagulls bobbing on its surface like toy boats on a pond.
But there are prospectors here. Pioneers and gold panners, switching the landscape from desperate to desirable. An influx of seaside-seekers, London escapees, artists and opportunists are slowly but surely chiselling away at Margate’s harder edges. Soon the working places will become leisure places. The brutal charm of Margate’s white cliffs will be seen as iconic, their form already flattered in the Chipperfield-designed Turner Contemporary Gallery.
The renaissance has already given new life to some, such as the beautifully restored Reading Rooms, a boutique bed and breakfast situated on the smart Hawley Square. The Reading Rooms takes its name from Margate’s 18th century heyday, when visitors came for the sea, the spas and the books, housed in Margate’s fine libraries. Haeckel’s is another story of rebirth – a local skin care and fragrance company formed out of ‘a love of the heritage of coastal living.’ Products are made using hand-harvested local seaweed and locally growing botanicals, packaged in beautiful sustainable glass bottles and sold in their exquisitely designed flagship store on the Margate seafront. Haeckel’s philosophy of taking care and giving back is one you feel rippling through the town’s new arrivals – there is a sense of gratitude for this place, this air, this light and this opportunity, and out of that flourishes friendliness and community.
Down at Margate’s main sands, history, like the tides, repeats each summer. A carousel of burnt torsos, striped windbreaks, 99 flakes and fairground rides. “Deckchairs and sunbeds for your pleasure and leisure!” promises the sign. The beach is awash with dogs digging holes, kids constructing sandcastles and seagulls pilfering chips. At sundown, locals fish from the concrete pier. Casting into the setting sun, hopeful lines stretched out to sea, these dutiful sentries mark the end of a day as they have done for generations.
What they say about the light here is true. Expansive and calm, the wide main bay reflects the sky like glass. Light comes from all sides, stopping you in your tracks. At low tide, rivulets of glassy, shimmering water snake across the wet sands. In summer, sensible folk take cold beers up to the roof of the Harbour Arm to bask in unobstructed golden warmth. And the sun sets in the most dramatic fashion: a great orange orb gracefully lowering itself onto the shimmering horizon, the only flash of heat in an otherwise flawless blue mirror.
Words and images by Kate Friend