Isle of Thanet: Kent's timeless corner

TRAVEL SPECIAL: ROBERT INCE 

Queen and Country’s Robert Ince has travelled to some of the most exotic places on earth, but unexpectedly has found rugged beauty and plenty of things to see and do in the furthest outpost of the Kent countryside, the Isle of Thanet.

 Kingsgate Beach, Thanet

Kingsgate Beach, Thanet

“The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe” so wrote JMW Turner, arguably our greatest painter, of the region of Kent which became his inspiration and refuge in a long, creative and restless life.

The Isle of Thanet is a prairie-flat former island protruding out into the North Sea and surrounded by water on three sides. Today I’m in Thanet’s capital if you will, Margate, beloved of both Turner and Keats, which has seen something of a renaissance recently.

It’s a much repeated tale; dreary British seaside town cursed by terminal economic decline enjoys gradual arts-led regeneration dramatically reversing its fortunes. People are now visiting in droves, some even making this outlier of southern England their home.

The arrival of the Turner Contemporary art gallery in 2011, the introduction of the High Speed train from London St Pancras (80 minutes) and the recent revamp of the retro theme park Dreamland all helped breathe new life into the former ghost town which Tracy Emin fled in the eighties.

These days it’s an artist’s paradise and hipster hub, with allegedly more creative studios here per head of the population than in London. It’s not unusual to hear it described as Shoreditch-on-Sea, and even The Times named it as one of the country’s top 15 coolest places to live. Let’s not forget either that the area boasts some of the south’s best coastline securing several European Blue Flag awards for its beaches.

On a Sunday morning in Thanet there’s nothing more agreeable than sitting with a coffee on the sunny terrace at the Turner Contemporary beside the harbour before the town wakes up and the hordes arrive.

 Margate harbour

Margate harbour

The gallery is a white, modernist building and the town’s tribute to Turner, who critic John Ruskin described as “the father of modern art”. Created by architect David Chipperfield, it’s the largest contemporary art space in the south-east, an incongruous addition to the town which, at certain angles carries the ignominious appearance of a small warehouse or storage facility.

It also sits on the site of the guest house in which the great painter himself frequented. Enchanted by the dramatic light and sea vistas, Turner painted here more than a hundred oils and watercolours, in between indulging in furtive assignations with the landlady, sailor’s widow Sophia Booth.  

I like Margate. I like how it’s not trying to be something it’s not. Gentrification advances, but at a modest pace. And amid the faded regency glamour, its natural beauty shines through in the unlikeliest of places. Like when the morning sunlight catches the branches of the horse chestnut tree in the Old Town’s Market Square, around which cobbled streets boast quirky vintage stores, art galleries and trendy artisan cafes that could compete with anything in East London or Brighton.

Thanet’s main neighbouring towns, Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate all offer something unique and tantalisingly individual. Being relatively close to each other also means there’s no reason not to visit all three in one trip.

Eating

Broadstairs is Margate’s smaller sibling, four miles away and charmingly arranged around Viking Bay. No visit is complete without experiencing Morelli’s gelato bar, on Victoria Parade, opened in 1932, a camp homage to a bygone era with its pink leatherette booths, formica tops, soda fountain and jukebox. 

Further down the road, Ramsgate seduces with its continental alfresco culture around its royal harbour. Watch the thicket of masts bobbing in the marina from a Victorian arch at the Archive retail store cafe, or for something more fulfilling, the Royal Harbour Brasserie has 360° views across the harbour and the sea beyond with a great all-day menu and Sunday lunch for £10.

Thanet has the busiest fishing industry in the south east, and seafood lovers should get their fill at the Pegwell Bay Hotel with large balcony offering panoramic views of the bay, perfect for a boozy summer’s lunch.

The best pizza in Margate is at GB Pizza on Marine Drive, or for dining with stunning views over Margate Main Sands, you can’t beat the restaurant terrace at Sands Hotel which also does a superb afternoon tea. Buoy and Oyster, on the High Street, also has an outdoor terrace, or for modern european cuisine with a hint of the Caribbean, try Mullins Brasserie in Market Place. Gallery cum restaurant Hantverk & Found is getting rave reviews, as is the Indian food with a european twist at The Ambrette. Alternatively, watch the sunset with a Pina Colada at BeBeached Cafe on the harbour arm.

 Viking Bay, Broadstairs

Viking Bay, Broadstairs

Broadstairs has Michelin-listed Wyatt and Jones, with modern British seasonal dishes and a great view while the Tartar Frigate by the jetty has fresh seafood and live music. According to The Times, the “best tapas in the UK” is at Albarino on Albion Street, overlooking Balmoral Gardens, with the sea beyond.

 Minnis Bar and Brasserie, Birchington

Minnis Bar and Brasserie, Birchington

The recently revamped The Minnis Bay Bar and Brasserie In Birchington-On-Sea, a short drive west of Margate overlooks stunning Minnis Bay all the way down to Reculver and offers classic British cuisine and a majestic sunset if the weather Gods are on your side.

 

Drinking

The Lifeboat Ale and Cider house in Margate, an old fashioned spit and sawdust type of boozer is perfect to kick start your night. Then try the original 1930s seafront pub Cinque Ports which has had a gastro revamp, or Ziggy’s rooftop bar with breathtaking views while enjoying Jamaican jerk chicken and reggae tunes.

The only gay venue in town is the infamous Sundowners on Albert Terrace, a naff but fun disco bar with karaoke and a mixed crowd. Note to the wise, it gets busy - and messy!

Amy Redmond, founder of the London gay club night Sink The Pink recently launched a new arts and club space on Northdown Road, The Margate Arts Club, with regular club nights, performances and DJs.

 Broadstairs at dusk

Broadstairs at dusk

In Broadstairs, enjoy an apéritif at the Chapel on Albion Street, the Grade II listed St Mary’s Chapel built on the shrine to Our Lady of Bradstow in 1601 for Protestant worship. In recent years it became a book shop, still evident by the interior decor, and the unique mix of ale, books, religion and history gives it a quirky, old world charm.

Other pubs worthy of a visit are the Turner favourite, Northern Belle in Margate, Ramsgate’s boho Belgian Cafe on Harbour Parade and Belle Vue, a creaking 18th century tavern perched on the cliffs.

What to do

The Guardian once said Margate has “has had more facelifts than Joan Rivers.” And so too has Dreamland, the 1920s art-deco fronted amusement park now with free entry. Its latest incarnation by Wayne Hemingway cost £25m and offers a hip alternative to kiss-me-quick tat and donkey rides. Vintage fairground rides have been loving restored alongside interactive art installations, new bars and street food markets making it the town’s centrepiece. Daman Albarn of Blur recently curated the one day Demon Dayz festival here and at the time of writing Margate Pride’s after-party was in full swing.

 Beach shop, Broadstairs

Beach shop, Broadstairs

If you’ve done the Turner Contemporary with its world-class displays from international artists, why not check out the Old Town’s smaller galleries. Lombard Street Gallery is one of the oldest and most innovative venues holding exhibitions all year long.

For those of a literary bent, Dickens’ House Museum in Broadstairs celebrates the town’s association with the author who lived here from 1837 to 1859, describing it as ‘Our English Watering Place’. Most of David Copperfield was written at Bleak House, formerly Fort House, perched on the cliffs above Broadstairs. Now in its 80th year, the town’s Dickens festival every June offers Victorian ribaldry across seven days of events and entertainment.

In its 9th year, the Broadstairs Food Festival is on from the end of September promising over 100 stalls of tasty fresh and regional produce, while on the other side of town film buffs might fancy catching an indie film at the Palace Cinema, a cute old-school movie house on Harbour Street.

If time allows, find Shell House in Margate, a subterranean mausoleum made up of 4.6million shells, it’s provenance still a mystery. Cycle enthusiasts can attempt the 32-mile Viking coastal trail along Thanet’s promenades, broad sea walls and country lanes.

 Minnis Bay, Birchington

Minnis Bay, Birchington

Along the route you’ll see the Viking Ship ‘Hugin’ at Pegwell Bay, Reculver Towers and Roman Fort, Ramsgate Maritime Museum and St Augustine’s Cross where the first Mass was supposedly held in 597AD. Hire a bike at The Parade in Minnis Bay or The Bike Shed in Margate.

 

For bird’s eye views of the stunning Kent coast charter your own helicopter at Heli-Charter.com from £55 based on four people. The most popular tour is over Hell Fire Corner via Deal, Walmer, Dover’s white cliffs, castle and the English channel. While another tour follows the coastline to Herne Bay and Whitstable, soaring over majestic Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine ruins, the city walls and the River Stour.

Sleeping

Margate is seeing its derelict Georgian townhouses getting snapped up for bargain prices and transformed into chi-chi guesthouses, like The Dalby Rooms at Dalby Square where I stayed in Cliftonville, a short walk from the town centre.

Seaside luxury abounds at the Sands Hotel also in Margate, a boutique gem with Turneresque views from its superior rooms, or The Reading Rooms in Hawley Square. The famous Walpole Bay Hotel offers timeless Edwardian elegance, while over in Ramsgate, the renovated Albion House is a lovely place for the night, as is the Victorian grandeur at Bleak House in Broadstairs.

Shopping

Margate’s Old Town is a haven for rummaging with its second hand shops and antique stores. Other Margate gems include Junk Deluxe, Margate Retro, Hunky Dory, Paraphenalia, ETC Interiors, and the funky Cliffs on Northdown Road which is a record shop cum cafe and yoga studio.

Down the coast,  the Petticoat Lane Emporium in Ramsgate is a collectors paradise with 200 independent stalls selling antique, vintage and handmade goods.

Beaches

 Dumpton Gap near Broadstairs

Dumpton Gap near Broadstairs

Thanet’s most glorious and natural assets are its beaches and bays stretching along 19 miles of coastline. Most are bathing water beaches scoring high for management and water quality. Botany Bay is one of the best but was too busy on my visit. Further along the coast I stumbled upon an almost deserted Kingsgate Bay, enclosed by rugged white cliffs and soundtracked by the gentle lapping of the shoreline, like an oasis of tranquility all for me. A brief wade into the waters I’m certain had restorative powers, such was my subsequent buoyant mood.

Dumpton Gap in Broadstairs is worth a stop-off, as is Margate’s Bay Beach, while moments away and this year celebrating its 80th birthday is the famous Walpole Bay tidal pool which has seen generations of frozen yet rejuvenated bodies emerge from its foamy waters come winter or summer.

 Boys and boats

Boys and boats

Despite all the talk of regeneration, look deeper in parts of Thanet and you’ll see the evidence of the poverty and social problems endemic in any deprived towns. But the abiding impression is of a community basking in a growing confidence after years of neglect.

Thanet - or Than-ay as the hipsters now pronounce it - is a place of polar opposites. Old-school Thanetians and Ukippers mix with metropolitan lefties and DFLs (newcomers Down From London); mediocre modern architecture sits beside grand Georgian and Victorian buildings which could shame London’s fanciest stock; Romany kids and immigrants brush shoulders with young creatives; while seaweed fragrance emporiums and trendy pop-ups tout for business with shabby amusement arcades and Pound Lands.

These striking differences, it can be argued, enhance a place. And if balanced right, civic pride can once again be reclaimed by its long standing residents, producing a hopefulness that can only emerge in a place of progress and transformation.

I hope it’s only a matter of time before those enroute to Brighton and other established getaway destinations along the English coast decide to take a diversion and instead head east of Kent. Some might even stay.

 

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