By Emily Mathieson
May 21, 2015
Margate London
Credit: Courtesy Thanet Tourism

When the Dreamland amusement park reopens next month, its heritage roller coasters and retro rides will add another dynamic attraction to the growing list of reasons to visit Margate, a once down-at-heel British seaside resort.

Perched directly on the Kent coast, about an hour east from London, the historic town and its huge swath of sandy beach first became popular with vacationing urbanites in the 19th century. But insensitive development followed by a period of decline in the 1970s and 1980s left it languishing behind places like Southwold and Brighton.

Thankfully, an ambitious, thoughtful renovation program is steadily putting Margate back on the map. The Turner Contemporary, a striking gallery on the seawall, opened in 2011 with support from provocative Young British Artist (and local) Tracey Emin. Named after the famous Margate resident J.M.W. Turner, whose evocative seascapes were inspired by the region and whose life was thrust back into the spotlight in the Oscar-nominated film Mr. Turner last year, the gallery is free to the public and showcases avant-garde and progressive work; this month’s exhibits feature Grayson Perry and Carlos Amorales.

Of course, Turner and Emin are not the only artists to have found inspiration in Kent’s salty scenery. Its light and vistas have drawn creatives for years, only now outsiders can see their work as hip little galleries such as Limbo or the Pie Factory open up in the revitalized Old Town area. Here, the shops and buildings that spread out from the historic Market Place are being colonized by groovy cafes and antique emporiums selling everything from Indian woodblocks to vintage prams. Artisans who might once have settled in the more affluent resorts of nearby Ramsgate or Broadstairs are appearing, too—stop by Haeckels, an innovative newcomer, for fragrance and skincare products made from local seaweed in a cliff-top apothecary.

In this mix, it’s easy to see how post-hipster designer Wayne Hemingway was attracted to the Dreamland project. The UK’s “original pleasure park” was saved from demolition a decade ago, and Hemingway has since spearheaded the meticulous restoration of its vintage bumper cars and rainbow-colored Big Wheel. In keeping with the uplifting spirit of the original, Dreamland’s new era—which will include a café, roller disco and circus performances—is being ushered in with a mini-festival June 19-20 starring British “rockney” singers Chas & Dave.

Apart from the beloved Reading Rooms bed and breakfast in a Georgian townhouse on Hawley Square, interesting and stylish places to stay are thin on the ground—but it’s only a matter of time before the town’s creative boom takes over accommodation, too.