Waking Up in Dreamland
An amusement park’s rebirth marks a new era for a once-faded resort town on England’s eastern shore.
There can’t be many roller-coasters that mean as much to a place as the Scenic Railway does to Margate. On the sort of morning that makes you see what painter J.M.W. Turner meant when he called the skies over this part of the English coast “the loveliest in all of Europe,” its handsome timber frame is a stately centerpiece for the town’s iconic Dreamland amusement park.
It’s not the fastest of coasters, chugging around its track at 35 mph with a ride-on brakeman to ensure that it doesn’t run away on the corners. But that’s how they made them in 1920, when developer John Iles unveiled the ride as Britain’s first “scenic railway.” And it doesn’t stop the squeals of thrill seekers from rising above the clatter of its wheels nearly a century later.
The Scenic perfectly encapsulates the town’s rickety ups and downs over the years. Margate lies in Thanet, a small, chalky district in Kent jutting out where the North Sea meets the English Channel. Along with neighboring Ramsgate and Broadstairs, the town was a fashionable retreat for Londoners in Victorian times. Dreamland has entertained generations of tourists with its menageries, roller-skating rinks, and daredevil rides. “You went there for every birthday,” recalls Mark Sawyer, who grew up in Margate in the 1980s. “As teenagers, we jumped the fence to ride the Looping Star or play the slot machines. I can still hear the sound of change dropping through the bars of the Mary Rose when it went upside down.”
Most of the rides were sold off in the 1990s as crowds waned with the rise of package tourism to southern Europe. Dreamland closed in 2005 and fell prey to vandals and arsonists. The land likely would have been redeveloped, and the Woodward Scenic eventually demolished, if it hadn’t been for a group of locals who secured Historic England’s Grade II status for the ride, making it the first coaster ever awarded such protection.
Margate’s charms have been slowly working on Londoners, who are now less than two hours away by high-speed rail. The town increasingly draws creative types fleeing the climbing rents of East London for someplace where they can afford to make art. One is promoter Amy Redmond, who recently traded a one-bedroom flat in Hackney for a 10-bedroom property in Margate’s east end. She’s busy converting it into the Margate Arts Club, which will run residency programs and exhibitions.
“Margate has a lawless nature about it that I love,” Redmond says. “It’s slightly bleak yet inspiring.”
The red-brick sidewalks of the old town are lined with cafés and bric-a-brac stores, while up the cliffs is a collection of innovative shops like Haeckels, where you can buy perfumes made with foraged seaweed. Kent’s famous agricultural produce abounds in restaurants such as Ambrette, which serves clever Anglo-Indian fusion, and the exemplary GBPizza Co., on the beachfront next to the boutique Sands Hotel.
All this creative energy converges in Dreamland, which reopened last year as a dual-purpose art installation and amusement park. The arcade includes an original Space Invaders game and a Rolling Stones pinball machine from 1980. Hot dogs are made from free-range meat, and the pizzas come with buffalo mozzarella, but all remains realistically priced. And there’s an element of wild glamour: Redmond recently held a debaucherous drag show and dance party in the park’s newly restored ballroom. She too cherishes childhood memories of Dreamland. “Being back on those rides and watching the pink sunset,” she says, “has—no exaggeration—changed my life.”