The 18th of September was a Wednesday and a quick look out my window showed that it was a beauty with the sun splitting the trees. This was my third full day out of hospital and whilst I was still not anywhere like at 100% I was undoubtedly feeling a whole lot better than I had been a month earlier and I decided on a day out exploring at a gentle pace. I had my Loop Bus pass and so it was a simple matter to jump on the bus which stops just outside my digs and take the short journey to Margate. I have walked there along the cliffs many times and it is a lovely stroll but I was not feeling quite that fit just yet.
I suppose I should tell you a little about Margate, especially the recent history as the place has been up and down more times than the horses on the carousel at Dreamland (of which more later). I shall start with an introductory piece I wrote about the town on the now sadly destroyed Virtual Tourist website in 2011, updated in 2013, and then I shall tell you the more recent goings on there.
“In many ways, Margate stands for just about every other seaside resort town in the UK and has now become an anachronism which is sad but, I suppose, ultimately inevitable.
Margate lies on the extreme East of Kent, in fact just about as East as you can go in England without getting wet! Overlooking the Channel, it is easy to see France on even a not too clear day. The town is part of an area known as the Isle of Thanet, in ancient times properly an island but now part of the mainland, and is best known not for it’s ancient history but for it’s 19th and 20th century role as a daytrippers paradise. This was a place to escape the grimy reality of inner city London for a day or possibly a week long summer holiday. Margate was the place for a “beano”, effectively a daytrip on a hired coach with candyfloss, a walk down the pier, a few beers, fish and chips and then a sleep all the way home as the order of the day.
I spend quite a bit of time in Thanet, more specifically Broadstairs, which is only about four miles away. I have many friends in Margate so I hope readers will understand my reluctance when I deliver a slightly unpleasant verdict on the place. I am not unnecessarily denigrating Margate but, frankly, it is a mess.
Economic recession and the combination of cheap foreign holidays and the often appalling British weather have led to the decline of all British holiday resorts and Margate is no exception. The British holiday industry is pretty well dead now.
I also have to mention, and I am being very careful how I say this as VT very rightly and properly has an embargo on political (in the widest sense) comments, there is another issue. I do not wish to mislead the reader and I have to report that Margate now has a large population of mostly Eastern European immigrants living in what were formerly holiday bed and breakfast establishments. Rightly or wrongly, many of my friends in the town will not walk in the area of Cliftonville after dark, if at all, and these same friends associate this situation with the immigrant population. Drugs (evidence of which is easy to find), violent crime and a complete lack of confidence in the local police have led to areas of Margate becoming “no-go” zones.
I can personally attest to the change in the place even in the last five years. The photos on this front page (again this was a reference to a VT page) were taken in 2006 and having revisited in 2011 it is a much changed place. For example, Dreamland, the “theme park” featured in one of the photos further down this page, had mysteriously burned down, thereby removing the last major link with the traditional leisure industry. This was the last big draw for the holidaymakers. It is generally accepted locally that the fire was no accident as the site was prime land for development.
Shuttered up shops, beggars and decay seem to predominate here now. Certainly, if you are in the area, have a wander around, you will be safe enough in the centre of town (avoid Cliftonville as mentioned) but there is little to see here now. I find it very sad.
As readers of my other VT pages will understand, I tend to find the best in any particular place, and I really do not like to make very negative tips or pages but I am afraid I can find little good to say about Margate, save for the fact that I have many good friends there.
Update August 2013
As of this month, the local press are reporting that any potential redevelopment of Dreamland is going to be delayed for at least a year due to various legal complications. A shame really. I shall update here as I get any further information.
That was then but this is now.
Here I am writing about Margate again in 2019, so what is new? Charles Dickens, who was no stranger to this part of the Kent coast wrote a novel called “Tale of Two Cities” and this could very well have been written about Margate. The town centre is just about staggering on as a commercial entity but there are still a huge amount of empty commercial premises and many of those that are open are charity shops. There are a large number of beggars / allegedly homeless people (many are not homeless at all) and street drinking is fairly prevalent.
Set this against the fact that the Turner Contemporary gallery is hosting the prestigious Turner Prize as I type this and a recent survey showing a rise in house prices in Margate of 55% in the 10 years to 2019 and it is difficult to know what is going on, it is an odd juxtaposition. Ten years ago Ramsgate was considered the more genteel of itself and Margate (traditionally huge rivals) but now it is apparently like a warzone on Friday and Saturday night. Indeed one of the men I met in hospital was there as the result of being seriously assaulted by a gang of youths in Ramsgate which is apparently a common enough occurrence nowadays.
I do not think Margate is as rough as it was ten years ago although I personally would not be too happy wandering about Cliftonville after dark and I can look after myself. OK, I shall rephrase that, I wouldn’t give much for my chances of looking after myself at present but hopefully I shall not always be incapacitated although there is nothing I can do about getting old!
As for dear old Dreamland, it seems to be a bit like me i.e. you just cannot kill us off and it has had a lick of paint and is back up and running. At time of writing it is getting ready for “Screamland” which is a Hallowe’en based opening on a few nights, presumably in an attempt to extend the season a bit. I do hope the weather keeps up for them.
That is the general outline of the place so what of my day out there then? Well, I knew that there was little or nothing to do there (or so I thought) and whilst it was lovely and sunny it was far from stripping off for the beach weather, not that I am much of a beach bunny anyway. Still, sightseeing was not the object of the exercise as I just wanted a bit of wander to see how quickly I tired.
I jumped off the bus in Cecil Square which is very much the centre of town. I saw a church a short way down Union Crescent as churches are fascinating places (if they are open which, regrettably, most are not these days) and also often good for war memorials which is another interest of mine. Well, it looked like a church and it had once been a church but it now stands as a sign of the way my country has changed since it opened it’s doors as a Congregational church in 1860.
Nowadays, as the image shows, it is the Masjid Al-Birr. From living in an overwhelmingly Muslim area I know that masjid is merely another word for mosque and thiis place is locally known merely as the Margate mosque. I wonder what the 19th century non-conformists would have made of it. Whatever their views may have been it seems that mosques face the same problems as Christian churches and this one was firmly locked up so no exploring for Fergy there.
I think I may have mentioned it before but since my operation my appetite has returned with a vengeance and you could not carry food to me at the moment so it was time for breakfast and I knew just where to go, the Mechanical Elephant. Whatever under the sun is a mechanical elephant? Nowadays it is a pub of the Wetherspoons chain which I have spoken of often enough here and where they do a decent breakfast. Like all Wetherspoons pubs it is linked to the history of the area and there was indeed a life sized mechanical elephant which took tourists for walks along the front here in Margate.
It was invented by a chap called Frank Stuart and unveiled in 1950. It was locally nicknamed Jenny for some reason and whenever it was decommissioned, or whatever the word is for taking a petroleum propelled pachyderm out of service, it was bought by the ever eccentric Peter Sellers to add to his collection of automobilia. Mad as it sounds, the idea took off and similar “beasts” were exported to Australia and America. If you are in the slightest bit interested in the whole concept of pretend Proboscideans there is an excellent and lengthy article here but I do warn you that it is dangerously addictive reading!
Inside the pub (not inside Jenny the Elephant) breakfast consisted of pancakes, bacon, male syrup and blueberries which is a great favourite of mine. It was all washed down with a decent Lavazza coffee and I’d like to share another little piece of information with you. In Wetherspoons they serve unlimited free refills of tea and coffee or rather you serve yourself from the self-service machines which are so simple even a technophobe like me can use them without mishap. Given the ludicrous prices charged by the chain coffee places, I reckon my £1:55 for as much coffee as I want is money well spent and the breakfast is pretty inexpensive as well.
Whilst I do like Wetherspoons generally, for some reason I cannot warm to the Elephant, charming as the name and the backstory is. Apparently it had had a £500,000 refit three months previously and I did not even notice as it looked pretty much the same as I remembered it. The staff seem to have some sort of aversion to cleaning tables as they are nearly always in need of it and it just lets itself down in lots of little ways like the supposed free wifi almost never working. Of all the many Wetherspoons I have visited this is probably my least favourite but it is a cheap, tasty breakfast and that is all I want. It is interesting to compare and contrast it with the Royal Pavilion in nearby Ramsgate and the difference is night and day.
As usual the wifi was defunct so I was not going to sit there all day and catch up on this blog as I might have otherwise been tempted to do. What I am going to do is digress horribly for a couple of paragraphs, as I tend to do, but at least this time I am going to give you fair warning and you may well wish to scroll down until you see the words “Digression over”.
I mentioned that I do not know why Margate named it’s mechanical elephant Jenny as I always thought Nellie was the industry standard for naming females of the species with males invariably being Jumbo. The reason for this is the children’s song but as usual every day is a schoolday whilst blogging and my research for this post showed that the song, written by Ralph Butler and Peter Hart was not released until 1956 when Jenny had been stomping up and down Margate front for six years. Butler is somewhat of an interesting and most prolific character writing, inter alia, “Run Rabbit Run” and “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”. That is a digression but not the one I had planned which was to do with the “Nellie” song.
Some years ago I attended First Aid classes although they were called “Emergency Life Saving” classes in those days for some obscure reason and obviously an important part of this was CPR and we were taught to mentally sing the first portion of the song whilst doing chest compressions i.e.
“Nellie the elephant packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus
Off she went with a trumpety trump
Trump trump trump”.
After that it was time for two breaths to assist the patient breathing. Our instructor told us a quite amusing story, quite possibly apocryphal, about someone who had occasion to use CPR for real and due to the understandable stress of the situation was singing Nellie out loud as he did the chest compressions much to the bemusement of the assembled gawpers.
I have just re-read this little section and I reckon that, even by my appalling standards of rambling (hence the blog name), this must be some kind of a record. This appears to be an excursus of a diversion from a detour off a digression so four for the price of one. Also, I reckon that not one person actually scrolled down past this due to the natural curiosity of the human mind but I shall do as promised so…….
The clock is on time but the tower wasn’t.
Time to continue my midweek Margate meander and I thought I would take an image of the clock tower which is such a landmark here. Again, like the Royal Harbour in Ramsgate, it is a view I have literally dozens of images of but I just fancied another one. As I am in full-bore research mode today, I might as well tell you a bit about this fine structure.
The clock tower on the front was built to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Victoria which was in 1887 although they did not manage to complete the building until 1889. If you look closely at the top of the tower you will see something which is quite unusual and I have cropped the image to assist you. What you are looking at is a time ball which was raised at a few minutes before one o’clock (1300) every day and then dropped precisely on the hour which was useful for local people but particularly so for mariners off the town and for whom precise time is important. With the advent of radio and subsequent even more sophisticated devices the time ball fell out of use some years ago but at the suggestion of a local worthy called Arnold Schwartzman funds were raised and the time ball was restored and returned to use in 2014.
Beside the clock tower is a well-tended little park which affords a good view out over the sands and although I had not walked far I felt the need for a sit down for a little while. I really had become quite weak during my hospitalisation but this was no problem as I was in no hurry to do anything and I was just testing myself out.
After my small break I took myself down to what is known as the Old Town and again was struck by the number of closed commercial premises as pictured above but in one instance it worked to my advantage as the shop you can see called Henry’s was having a closing down sale and I bought the little table tripod pictured for a knockdown price. It was a great shop full of all sorts of interesting knick knacks, including a lot of photographic gear and it is sad to think that it will soon be gone. There is much talk in the media about “the dying British High Street” as a catch all term for the demise of the retail industry but in this case it was literal as well as figurative as most of these images were taken in High Street, Margate.
The more I walked the more commercial decay I saw but, again, it was cheek by jowl with regeneration and quite vibrant businesses as evidenced by the pleasant little al fresco cafe you can see pictured. I really don’t know what to make of Margate any more.
As if to prove the point, right beside the cafe was the lovely building you see in the other image and was once the Midland Bank but is now a charity shop for the excellent Pilgrim’s Hospice charity. The charity runs a hospice adjacent to the QEQM hospital I have mentioned so much and is very well supported locally and the name, if you are interested, derives from the fact that this was once on the pilgrim route to Canterbury to visit the shrine to Thomas Becket (not Thomas A Becket as it is often rendered.
Apart from being a beautiful building both internally and externally, this is one of the best charity shops I have ever been in and I have been in a few. It deals exclusively in books and artistic items and is brilliantly laid out with everything in sections, in alphabetical order and so on, it puts many high street bookshops to shame, well what high street bookshops are still in business that is. The building also raises another important issue and that is of banks in towns and villages which are closing down hand over fist to maximise shareholder profits and the customer be damned! “Banks and building societies closed a total of 3,312 branches in between January 2015 and August 2019, with an average of 55 closing each month. A further 100 branches have already been scheduled to close before the end of this year” (info from the Which.co.uk website. From my current location in Broadstairs it is a 90 minute journey each way by public transport to visit my nearest branch of TSB while the Broadstairs branch I used to use is now a bar and escape room of all things. An absolute disgrace as if the banking industry had not disgraced themselves enough.
Since this visit I was talking to a local Thanet resident, born and bred in Broadstairs and himself a former professional dancer and artist who said that Margate was now full of what he called the “bohemian bourgeosie” which I thought was a lovely phrase and probably pretty accurate. Margate really does baffle me now.
I took myself for another walk and really struck it lucky. I walked past the Margate Museum which is staffed by volunteers and therefore only open at very limited times, none of which have coincided with my visits to the town. Joy of joys, it was open and as I am a sucker for Museums I was straight in there to pay my modest entrance fee and go for a look round.
I apologise for the lack of images for this section but they are about as paranoid about photography as the North Korean military! Every inch of wall space not taken up with the mass of Margate memorabilia they have is covered in a “No Photography” sign and I really do not understand why. There were no particularly delicate artefacts that I could see that would have been affected by flash and there was enough light that non flash photography would have been possible if that was their concern.
The building itself is interesting as the Museum is housed in what was formerly the old police station with the local Magistrates Court on the Upper floor. The second cell along was probably the most interesting as it had housed the main player in a local cause celebre namely the murder of 63 year old Rosaline Fox in the Hotel Metropole, Margate on October 23rd, 1929. She and her son Sidney Fox had checked in together as they had often done in various hotels round the country. They were low-level swindlers who would run up large bills and then “bilk” them i.e. make off without paying. Rosaline had made a will in favour of her son and he insured her life, subsequently increasing the coverage.
On the night in question a fire was discovered in Rosaline’s room and her lifeless body was dragged from it. Death was determined to be the result of the fire and she was buried but enquiries revealed that the fire was discovered just twenty minutes before the insurance policy was due to expire and there was also evidence that it had been set deliberately. The body was exhumed and a post-mortem conducted by the eminent and very famous pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury who determined that the deceased was dead before the fire started and the cause of death was strangulation. Sidney Fox was arrested and held in the cell here before being taken upstairs to face the Magistrate where he was remanded to Lewes Crown Court. Despite pleading not guilty, the jury decided otherwise and he was executed by hanging in Maidstone jail on 8th April 1930, incidentally the last hanging there before that function was moved to London prisons.
Although there is a good selection of police related exhibits, there is much more to the Museum than that and, naturally enough, there is much to do with the holidaymaking aspect of Margate including an excellent original Punch and Judy booth complete with marionettes. The seafaring history of the town is also well represented.
Going upstairs to what was the old Courthouse there are exhibits covering all sorts of subjects, including much of the civic life of the area although I think my favourite exhibit was a display case of the local Association of military veterans of the Korean War. As these gentlemen are getting on in years now they no longer meet much and their collection of medals and the like have all been put in one place and entrusted to the care of the excellent volunteers here who proved to be most helpful.
The volunteer who told me about the Korean War exhibit also told me about the display describing the pitched battles between “Mods” and “Rockers” in the early 1960’s which plagued seaside towns like Margate and, most notoriously, Brighton. The volunteer remembered it as he had been there (he was a mod) and it transpires he was a fellow musician who was still gigging regularly. I hope I am still playing live when I am his age!
Whilst researching this piece I came upon an article from the local online newspaper dated December 2018 and describing another proposed act of cultural vandalism for which Thanet District Council is notorious. They want to sell off the Museum and the adjacent (now disused) Town Hall to raise money for more of their profligate nonsense ideas. The article states that 100 people had signed an online petition and I thought that was pretty poor. As I have described, Margate does not have too much in the way of attractions and to lose this would be a sin. I cannot find out what the current position is although it is obviously still open (sometimes) as of September 2019.
With all this local historical activity and walking around I was ready for the first drink of my now severely curtailed daily allowance so I headed to the Lifeboat, another one of the micropubs that proliferate round Thanet these days. I know the guy who owns it although he was away on a charity bike ride in France at the time so I contented myself with a pint of mango cider from the excellent selection and a chat to the pleasant barman as it was fairly quiet at this early in the day. I did take my time over the pint which is totally alien to me but I am having to get used to it and I am quite pleased that I have stuck rigidly to my new regime. I cannot wait to get off these anti-coagulant drugs to increase it slightly although it will only be ever so slightly as I really do need to cut down for the sake of my poor old long suffering liver. If you have ever seent he film “Silence of the Lambs” you may remember the rather chilling quote from Hannibal Lecter when he said of someone who had fallen prey to his cannibalistic habits, ““I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” I doubt even Dr. Lecter would find my liver appetising even if he could manage to cook it.
Here is another one for you and again it came to light as I was researching this. Apparently the reference to liver, fava beans and wine is an in joke and I think it is quite a clever one at that. I quote here from this website as I will only make a mess of the spellings otherwise.
“Great line from Silence of the Lambs everyone knows. But most people don’t realise Dr Hannibal Lecter is making a medical joke.
Lecter could be treated with drugs called monoamine oxidase inhibitors – MAOIs. As a psychiatrist, Lecter knows this.
The three things you can’t eat with MAOIs? Liver, beans, wine.
Lecter is a) cracking a joke for his own amusement, and b) saying he’s not taking his meds.”
How did I ever get onto this whilst writing bout a day out in Margate? My mind really does move in strange directions.
With my pint slowly consumed I started making my way back to the bus to return to Broadstairs which was no problem as central Margate is fairly compact and easily walkable. On the way I saw the houses you can see above which were rather charming and in stark contrast with the general air of decay that pervades so much of the centre. As you can see they are in Lombard Street and it is a miracle they are still there as the area was heavily bombed by the Germans in the Second World War. Not 100 yards from here is a fairly modern shopping centre and gym complex which is built on the site of Margate College which was totally obliterated during an air raid. The nearer of the houses is named Smuggler’s Cottage and may well have been such as that area of enterprise was prevalent all along this coast. The further of the two is dated 1690. I thought it was good to leave the town on a positive note and I returned to Broadstairs for a quiet night attempting to catch up on this blog which never seems to happen.
There is still plenty more to discover in Thanet and my love affair with the QEQM NHS hospital and hate affair with Broadstirs NHS Health Centre continues in future posts here so stay tuned and spread the word.