Having cycled north from Canterbury to Whitstable (see my previous post), I set out to follow the cycle route (National Cycle Network regional route 15) along the Kent coast and into East Sussex – it’s largely on the sea wall, and thus level and 95% traffic-free, with the odd detour over the cliffs. In fact the route over the White Cliffs, on either side of Dover, involves rather more climbing, but from Whitstable to Deal is easy. And there’s an interesting variety of towns along the way, none very far apart, which I want to attempt to classify a bit.
Some towns have become heavily associated with gentrification in the last decade or so, with hordes of hipster DFLs (Down From Londons, mostly specifically from Hackney and Shoreditch) moving in and driving prices up. This applies most strongly to Margate, but also to Broadstairs, Ramsgate, Folkestone, and even Deal. But there’s also an overlapping group of towns that are reinventing themselves through art (as Bilbao did, for instance), such as Margate and Folkestone, and in East Sussex Hastings and Eastbourne. Then there’s a group of ferry ports (Ramsgate, Dover and Folkestone), of which only the second is still active – and then there are the small towns that used to be Cinque Ports (and were then notorious centres of smuggling), such as Sandwich, Deal, Hythe and (just across the border in East Sussex) Rye and Hastings. So it’s not easy to compare or judge these varied towns, but I think I can say that, for my own personal reasons, Broadstairs was probably my favourite.
East of the Roman fort and church towers at Reculver, the former Wantsum Channel, which separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland of Kent until the sixteenth century is now largely rich farmland, although pockets of wetland are being restored; cycling, it’s an empty few miles on the sea wall and then several more miles of fairly featureless resorts/retirement villages (Minnis Bay, Birchington, Westgate-on-Sea) before reaching Margate. Before the coming of the railways, when excursions from London were by boat, Margate became the first beach resort rather ahead of Brighton (which stole the limelight when the Prince Regent started visiting in the 1770s) – Britain’s first seawater baths opened in 1736, followed by the first beach donkeys in about 1780. The Theatre Royal opened in 1786 (and was refurbished in 2007), and artistic figures such as Keats and the actors Mrs Jordan and Mrs Siddons, not forgetting Nelson and Emma Hamilton, made Margate famous.
The first object of interest there is the beach shelter in which TS Eliot wrote part of The Waste Land (‘On Margate Sands/I can connect/Nothing with nothing.’) – it might seem unlikely at first, but in fact his subject matter was exactly the new lower-middle class (clerks, typists and the like) who came here just after World War One. 2022 is actually a big year in the history of Modernism, marking the centenaries of the publication of both The Waste Land and Ulysses, not to mention Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and also the founding of the BBC, the first performances of Brecht’s Drums in the Night and Walton’s Façade, and the release of the Expressionist horror film Nosferatu. Quite a year. The Waste Land was published in October 1922, but the centenary was being marked in April (which is when I came here), perhaps because that’s when the poem opens (‘April is the cruelest month’ – a reference to Chaucer, whose pilgrims were of course travelling to Canterbury). By the way – there’s lots of lazy journalism at the moment about ‘the almost unreadable Ulysses’ – no, as they should know, it’s the later Finnegan’s Wake which is really hard.
Just beyond is the spectacular Dreamland cinema (1935) – currently masquerading as the Empire, due to Sam Mendes filming Empire of Dreams there (a love story set in a seaside cinema, with Olivia Coleman and Colin Firth). It’s a wonderful piece of Deco architecture, with a soaring fin tower and, apparently, a cinema organ still in working order. Behind it is the Dreamland theme park, which I hadn’t heard of before researching this trip (and it was still closed for the winter), but it seems to have been key to Margate’s lure for the arty/hipster East Londoners – not so much for its architectural importance (the cinema and scenic railway are both Grade II* listed) but for its retro quirkiness, and for the hip bands that play there. It had run out of steam and closed but was compulsorily purchased by Thanet Council in 2013 and restored, reopening in 2015. It also includes the Cinque Ports pub, built in the 1930s and recently refurbished, offering craft beers and modern pub fare.
Just to the east is the art institution I had actually come to see, indeed the only one of the various high-profile art galleries along the coast that I actually found open. Turner Contemporary is named after possibly Britain’s greatest artist (no, not you, Tracey, although you may be Margate’s greatest artist), who came here regularly from the age of eleven, when he was sent to live with an uncle, and called its skies ‘the loveliest in all Europe’. The original plan was for a striking building by Snøhetta+Spence that was supposed to open in 2007 out on the harbour arm. That never happened, but a less challenging design by David Chipperfield (who I’ve also come across in Berlin and Anchorage, of all places) opened in 2011 on the waterfront by the start of the arm. There was a temporary visitor centre nearby in Droit House, the former customs office (built in 1812), which is now a proper tourist information centre. As you might guess, there’s no permanent collection, but contemporary artists curate exhibitions which often refer to Turner and include his works on loan. There’s also a good café, run by hip caterer Barletta, which also runs the rooftop café at Dreamland, and there are a couple of micropubs out on the harbour arm (the Harbour Arms, of course, and the Lighthouse Bar).
Margate does have a small and attractive old town – nothing medieval, however, but a few traffic-calmed streets with quirky boutiques and cafés, most notably Crate, a contemporary art and yoga space in the former Isle of Thanet Gazette printworks, with the predictable single-origin coffees upstairs in the Storeroom café. The tiny Little Prince pub is tucked away in the Old Kent Market, on Market Place. There are also some fine restaurants between the old town and Turner Contemporary, such as Angela’s, Dory’s, Bottega Caruso and Ambrette – however the really cool places are up in Cliftonville, the clifftop suburb to the east which is the centre of Down From London hipsterdom – most notably the Albion Rooms, a Victorian hotel refurbished by The Libertines as a recording studio complex.
It’s just a few miles, around Foreness Point, to Broadstairs, the easternmost town in Kent (but quite a long way west of Ostend). It doesn’t try so hard to be cool, and therefore, of course, achieves it. Actually it’s always been a bit gentrified, but with a population that doesn’t need high-speed rail access to London. Culturally, it’s associated with Charles Dickens, who was an amazing writer but doesn’t have the modernist credentials of Eliot. Arriving by bike from the north, I passed Bleak House, where Dickens holidayed in the 1840s and 1850s, writing David Copperfield and (his masterpiece) Bleak House – but the house was known as Fort House until the start of the twentieth century (the fictional Bleak House is in St Albans). It’s not open to the public, but there’s the Dickens House Museum in a house overlooking the harbour that was supposedly home to the model for Betsy Trotwood (in David Copperfield).
The harbour was renamed Viking Bay in 1949, in a rather confused tribute to Hengist and Horsa, the brothers from Jutland who began the Saxon (and Jutish) settlement of England in 449 – they came from what is now Denmark, but they weren’t Vikings. At Pegwell Bay, south of Ramsgate, where they actually landed, there’s a replica of a Viking ship, which was sailed from Denmark in 1949 – they copied a Viking ship because they apparently didn’t know what Saxon and Jutish ships were like, even though the Sutton Hoo ship had been discovered in 1939. The original settlement here was the village of St Peter’s, inland of what is now the railway station; the harbour of what was known as Bradstow or ‘broad place’, and then Broadstairs, was only developed from about the fifteenth century – the original timbers of the Tudor jetty are apparently still there, encased in later stonework, and approached by York Gate (1540), at the foot of Harbour Street. Incidentally, this is why Broadstairs and similar places have Victorian churches (at the rear of Bleak House, in this case) rather than a lovely old parish church.
In any case, an elevated esplanade gives great views over the harbour and the sands of Viking Bay, and behind it are some charming narrow streets with proper old-school shops, the most interesting being Harrington’s, the ironmonger’s that supposedly inspired the immortal Four Candles comedy sketch (Ronnie B popped in when visiting Ronnie C, who had a holiday home here) – I was surprised a couple of years ago to see that a Wetherspoons pub in Oxford was called The Four Candles, apparently because Ronnie B was a pupil at Oxford High School, and I was relieved to see that there’s a Four Candles pub here too (see below).
Food and beer are in fact one (two?) of Broadstairs’ main calling cards – start with ice cream from the delightfully retro Morelli’s parlour, complete with soda fountain and jukebox, then move on for dinner at The Table, Wyatt & Jones (or their offshoot Flotsam & Jetsam, which began as a pop-up takeaway and is now a very popular café) or Stark. But that assumes you can actually get in – eating out has become so much harder than it was, even if pandemic restrictions are largely finished. Stark is only open from Wednesday to Saturday evenings and W&J and F&J both open only from Thursday evening to Sunday lunch, while The Table opens Thursday to Saturday evenings and Saturday lunch (maybe they do all work a bit harder in summer). So they only open when they can be sure of being fully booked well in advance, unless something goes wrong, so forget about spontaneous dining. And Stark only offers a six-course tasting menu, stressing (their capitals) *PLEASE NOTE THAT WE ARE UNABLE TO CATER FOR ANY DIETARY REQUIREMENTS, DISLIKES OR ALLERGIES AND WE ARE UNABLE TO OFFER ANY SUBSTITUTIONS*. You know what? I’ll just go to the pub. Maybe via Staple Stores in St Peter’s, a bakery and café selling sourdough bread, cakes and pastries, and good coffee – but that’s only open Thursday to Sunday mornings. Surely the thing about staples is that you need them every day?
Fortunately, Broadstairs does happen to have a very strong selection of micropubs, which are a bit of a Kent speciality. In the centre of town is The Magnet, which looks like a traditional pub (if on the small side) and serves largely traditional, and mostly local, beers. Towards the station is Mind The Gap, and just beyond is The Four Candles, mentioned above – when it opened in 2012 it was Britain’s twelfth micropub, and since 2014 it has also been Britain’s smallest brewery, with a tiny plant in a three metre by three metre cellar that somehow produces 440 litres a brew. The Magnet and Mind The Gap are both attractive little places where you’re likely to find lovely Gadd’s beers (properly called Ramsgate Brewery, but as the brewery is now here in Broadstairs that tends to be ignored) – Eddie Gadd the brewer is presumably related to Steve Gadd of Staple (but not to Steve Gadd the American jazz drummer). In fact the brewery now has a taproom for those who want to drink on an industrial estate. Other larger pubs are also available, with a range of gins, wines and food, although the ones in the centre of town are quite touristy.
Margate is buzzy, and has been for a decade or two, while Broadstairs has a more established gentrification going on – it’s true that bed and board are harder to organise in Broadstairs, but if you can get that sorted, it would be my pick.