Mention the word ‘Margate’ today and most people (at least, those not yet in the know) will immediately think of a sad, forgotten, rather depressing, peeling seaside town, full of boarded-up boarding houses, pound shops and cheap housing, accommodating benefit-dependant immigrants. Having re-visited the town this week, after a gap of several years (well, decades actually) I was so pleasantly surprised by it’s recent regeneration that I feel compelled to set the record straight.
Margate today, with it’s impressive newly-opened ‘Turner Contemporary”; a striking architect designed gallery that dominates the skyline:
(image courtesy of Visit Kent)
and an eerie ‘Anthony Gormley figure standing half submerged on the end of a stone jetty, staring out to sea as the salty spray and rising tide flood in to claim it
along with other new commercial and residential developments, there has clearly been a huge injection of monetary and artistic investment and Margate has, once again become a vibrant, thriving seaside town. It has an ever-increasing professional population, excellent facilities, a huge and active art community, super cool shops, restaurants and bars (many decked out in sleek and fashionable ‘mid-century’ or ‘industrial’ interiors) and, being within a mere hour and a half reach on a high-speed train from London’s St Pancras International, it is so conveniently accessible!
So pleasantly surprised was I that I had intended to entitle this post ‘Thank you, Thanet!” until I was reminded of Katherine Hepburn’s immortal line in the film ‘On Golden Pond’:
“My name is Ethel but when I married Mr Thayer (Henry Fonda), my life changed forever because everyone thought I had a lisp……”
So ‘Margate, Magic and Memories’ it is….
Margate, being one of the three Kentish seaside towns (along with Broadstairs and Ramsgate) that make up the ‘Isle’ of Thanet, in the far South Eastern corner of the UK, has experienced mixed fortunes over the centuries but with its wide open skies, dramatic seas, miles of soft sandy beaches and rugged cliff faces, this once-thriving, self-sufficient coastal town, with its natural harbour (and man-made?) sea-wall, provided a safe haven for the fishing and trading fleets of locals and Londoners alike. Among them, arguably, in Georgian times, was Britain’s finest painter, J.M.W Turner. Eager to escape the smoky city and breathe in the fresh bracing salty sea air, Margate became a firm favourite of his, providing him with the perfect inspiration for over 100 of his incomparable sea and sky scapes. “The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in Europe” he once said.
Throughout the Victorian era and well into the 20th century, the popularity of these south eastern coastal towns as holiday destinations firstly for the gentry and then the hard-working city and farm workers of England’s South East, continued to grow. All along the sea front, promenades, piers, elegant town houses and garden squares and terraces began springing up in front of the ‘Olde Worlde’ smugglers cottages, narrow alleys and pirate and smugglers taverns of yesteryear.
By the mid 1960’s, with its newly opened Lido, Butlins holiday hotel and Dreamland amusement park, and with every B&B regularly filled to capacity, Margate was at it’s zenith. Thousands of holiday makers would spill excitedly from the tightly packed trains and descend annually throughout the summer months, upon the rows of brightly coloured ‘Sea View’ boarding houses and quaint wooden beach huts, in search of fun family times; long lazy days at the beach, building sandcastles, jumping the waves, dipping toes in the cold, ever-choppy North sea, eating gritty home-made sandwiches and tubs of vinegar-soaked cockles and mussels followed by sugary cones of fast-melting ice-creams – and all with the slim chance of a sun-bathe too! Brightly and colourfully-lit evenings were spent fearlessly riding the ‘illuminated’ helter-skelters, bumper cars and roller-coasters of Dreamland, sucking on sticky candy floss and sticks of rock, and enjoying all the light-hearted, slightly bawdy but perfectly harmless entertainment that many of the seaside postcards, amusement arcades and theatre venues had on offer.
And that’s precisely what brought me to Margate for the first time all those years ago. It was the early ’70’s, just as Margate’s fortune began to change and its once glorious heyday was already beginning to decline. I was hired by the Alan Blackburn Agency to work as a dancer for a summer season in Margate’s famous ‘Winter Gardens’, appearing in ‘Grayson’s Scandals’; an entertaining summer variety show, bursting with popular stars of the day and headlined by the then most popular TV comedian, Larry (“Shut that Door”) Grayson.
After barely a week of rehearsals in London, I took the train down a few days before the Grand Opening night to find accommodation with another dancer/ room mate, Pauline Boardman. Both of us had been hired late in the day and by the time we arrived, there were virtually no decent digs still available. But we did eventually find, and have to settle on, a grimy 1st floor flat at Lynton Court Mansions (which had previously been a girls school) in Cornwall Gardens, Cliftonville.
At least the walking distance to the theatre was manageable (just!) and the rent was cheap (well it was, till the landlord saw the size of my dog, Pasha, who would be rooming with us for the summer and promptly demanded an extra £8.00 per week!)
Opening night was a great success and we received rave reviews in the local press:
Looking back through my diary today, most of my entries speak of the camaraderie and endless laughter. They were very happy days, three months filled with glamorous nights on stage and afterwards dancing at the now closed (but still standing!) ‘Caprice Club’:
with fellow cast members and stage managers & crew, including the lovely John Ashby (L),
and Barry Moore (Larry’s chauffeur):
There were very un-glamorous mornings cooking up a storm of ‘full english breakfasts’ in our tiny kitchen for dear good friends including John, an antiques ‘runner’ and his brother-in-law Gary both of whom kept us in plentiful food supplies once they’d discovered we both could cook! (Where are they now?)
Most afternoons were spent fruitlessly trying to re-capture my dog after a long run on the beach. Afghan hounds, beautiful as they are, are so in-bred they’re pretty dumb animals, almost impossible to train and a nightmare for their owners, in terms of grooming and exercise; once let off the lead, it can take hours to catch them (I once chased Pasha for 3 hours straight, from headland to headland, before I finally caught him in Broadstairs and had to bring him home on the bus !!)
There were fun days out too such as when we had a photo shoot to promote the show. This one was in the dock yard in Rochester, on board the HMS Lincoln (which tied in nicely with Larry’s ‘OOh I do Love a Sailor” and ‘By the Sea” songs )
There are so many stories I could tell but two in particular stand out. In the middle of our ‘Can Can’ number (which the band always played far too fast and furiously as it closed the first half of the show and by then they were gasping for their ‘intermission’ beers!) well, one of my contact lenses popped out near the front of the stage as we (the chorus) were making our way along to the back. No sooner did I mention it under my breath to the dancer next to me, Denise (Watson) Metliss, when she suddenly broke ranks and began high-kicking her way back down stage, where she elegantly dropped into the splits. On returning from her impromptu ‘solo’ she casually whispered in my ear “Panic, over, I’ve got it!!” Bless her!…Especially as, being an asthma sufferer, every night she’d collapse in the wings as soon as we came off stage from that number and had to be pretty speedily extricated from the suffocating laced-up can-can corset we all had to wear.
(A sketch of our Can Can costume)
The second half of the show was opened by the amazing jazz singer/pianist, Paula Watson, hot from America. Her section was at least 45 mins long followed by the singing duo the Barry Brothers who had another 10 – 15 minute singing spot.
So, in addition to the 1/2 hour intermission time, most of the dancers knew they had plenty of time to leave the theatre at that point, to get some food from the local chippy and be back in good time for our next number. I say ‘most’ because three of us had a part to play in the Barry Brother’s song: ‘She walks like an Angel Walks’, and had very heavy complicated costumes (Fur coats over jewel-encrusted body leotards, very heavy head-dresses and masses of jewellery) to get into. These were all stored on the other side of the stage from our dressing room, in a tiny room up 3 flights of stairs. It always took us a while to get ready for this number so we couldn’t risk leaving but we’d place our orders with the other girls and sit and wait out the time……until they returned.
(Another sketch, this one is of my fur coat costume)
One evening though, Paula, feeling unwell had decided to cut short her songs – by about 25 mins!! A shrill, panicking voice suddenly screeched a TWO minute ‘call’ over the tannoy system and…well… all hell broke loose! You’ve never seen dancers move that fast in your life. Total mayhem ensued back stage, under the stage up the stairs, down the stairs, in the dressing rooms. Dancers, musicians, performers…. Yes, even the late great Rod Hull (and that vicious, evil Emu who would ‘goose’ you at every opportunity!)
People were dashing about in all directions and bumping into each other in various states of undress with expressions of nothing but sheer panic on their faces. To this day I don’t know how we all managed to get ourselves dressed and in place on stage in time; just as the curtains opened..but we did….and the audience was none the wiser…… That’s showbiz!
So, after happening upon another Turner favourite at the V & A earlier this week
and then meeting up with an old schoolfriend who quite coincidentally was planning a day away at the very same seaside and invited me along for the ride, I suddenly found myself on a train, speeding through the lush Kent countryside, retracing the same journey I’d taken all those years ago.
Arriving in Margate station on a glorious day with not a cloud in the impossibly blue sky, the first impression was one of complete sensory overload!
Firstly the smell of the salty sea air just smacks you in the face (as did my hair; it was very windy!). The glare from the sea was blinding and the noise of its furiously galloping white horses as they crashed and broke against the shores just below us was dramatic, deafening and exciting! The seagulls circling overhead just added to the cacophony!
The first thing to greet visitors is a series of large stones, set in a circle, each with charming sentiments that immediately set the tone:
And then there in front of us, lay the bay:
Straight ahead, in the distance, beyond the wooden beach huts, was the beautiful Georgian(?) bell tower customs house (now the tourist information centre),
with huge columns of sea spray rising up behind it as the waves crashed into the protective harbour wall…..and there right alongside it , by complete contrast, were the angular shards of the ‘Turner Contemporary’ glistening in the sunlight like crisp, white sugar cones. The view from inside revealed the same view Turner must have enjoyed looking at the sea and wonderful skies from:
For the next few hours we just walked and walked. All along the sea front where I revisited the Winter gardens:
and so many old haunts…..the Lido, and the Tom Thumb theatre.
I was delighted to find my old digs still standing (and considerably spruced up!)
Although it’s clear there are still some areas awaiting improvement:
And still others that remain simply frozen in time:
Eventually hunger set in and what better lunch to have at the seaside than good old ‘Fish & Chips’ which were absolutely delicious – the cheeky seagull thought so too!
The afternoon was spent leisurely idling around the old town’s quaint alley ways and shops
followed by a spot of beach-combing now that the tide had retreated, to see if it had left behind some of its treasures.
After a very welcome cup of sea (in a converted red double decker London bus, no less!)
and with pockets bulging with salted caramel fudge and sea shells, it was time to head for the station and home, once again.
Today was one of those truly memorable days, one filled with lots of emotion and thoughts of happy care-free distant days, long-lost friendships….and even longer lost youth.
Margate today is embracing the future and forward-looking. It offers so many things but above all, by far the best, is Hope. For if she can live through adversity and hard times (even her famous Dreamland burned down and has risen again from the ashes) and yet, come through it all relatively unscathed, able to re-invent herself, become re-vitalised and even re-connect with old friends, well then……who knows, perhaps we all can too?
Sigh……Yes, Larry, it certainly has……