Margate has had its ups and down. Less than two hours by train from London, the seaside resort town was hugely popular as a vacation spot throughout the 1800s and for a good part of the 20th century. But sadly, a decline began in the 1970s as Brits started to explore overseas travel opportunities.
In recent years, however, the town has been staging something of a comeback, making it one of 2014’s hottest short-break destinations for anyone looking for something a bit out of the ordinary. Here are five great reasons you should make the trip this year:
Central to Margate’s regeneration has been this striking art museum at the eastern end of the town’s sandy beach. It opened in 2011 on the exact spot where British painting great J.M.W. Turner stayed during his visits to Margate from the 1820s onward. The building celebrates the artist’s association with the town through temporary exhibits and events. More than 100 of Turner’s works were inspired by the east Kent coastline, and the museum is perfectly placed for you to experience the types of stunning seascapes so dramatically captured in his works. A new show, “Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner,” opens at the museum on January 25. It juxtaposes Turner’s work with that of Frankenthaler’s, an American abstract expressionist artist.
You can find traditional British establishments such as this one at every seaside resort in England, but what makes this place unique is its wonderfully quirky museum. Each floor houses a range of historic oddities, some relating to the hotel’s past (such as the maintenance cupboard filled with antique vacuum cleaners) while others are entirely random (a corner full of dolls). Also on display are 100-plus cloth napkins decorated by former guests. Some of the napkins had been mailed back to Margate from as far away as South America. Take the stairs around the hotel or explore the property via the beautiful gated elevator, which dates from 1927.
Chef Dev Biswal hails from Mumbai, but don’t expect typical curries on the menu at his acclaimed Margate eatery. Instead, you’ll find dishes inspired by Indian cuisine and made using local ingredients, such as loin of pheasant, venison or pork. Starters see innovative chutneys and raitas (yogurt-based sauces) accompanying generous portions of perfectly prepared fish and meat — try the calves liver with spiced Kentish pears, greengage chutney and horseradish raita — while mains offer flavorful twists on familiar British dishes: The slow-cooked Kentish mutton with Chantenay carrots, masala potatoes and Kashmiri-style cinnamon and saffron sauce comes highly recommended. There are also good-value tasting menus available for those who want to try it all.
The adorable warren of streets that make up Margate’s Old Town is home to a growing number of independent businesses, including several excellent antiques stores and vintage clothing boutiques. Check out Hunkydory 24 for an eclectic range of British and French housewares, furniture, postcards and taxidermy; visit Margate Retro for mid-century vintage furniture, lighting, clocks and radios; and see Paraphernalia, which stocks books, home goods and furniture dating from 1770 to 1970. At Madam Popoff Vintage, you’ll find two floors of period clothing for men and women. Just outside the Old Town, Fontaine specializes in French decorative antiques, from artworks to armchairs. The company’s beautiful showroom, a 100-year-old laundry, is only open Saturdays, but visits at other times can be arranged.
In 1835, Margate resident James Newlove was digging a duck pond on his property when he came across a mysterious cave lined with millions of seashells. Nearly 180 years later, experts still don’t know how the Shell Grotto came to be there, though theories abound: Some suggest that it was built as a folly by a rich landowner; others say that it could have been a smugglers’ cave or even a pagan temple. Attempts at carbon dating the 4.6 million shells lining the 70 feet of winding underground passages have so far proved unsuccessful, keeping the mystery intact. For those looking for a souvenir of their trip to Margate, the grotto’s gift shop stocks seashells of all shapes and sizes.
Photos Courtesy of Thanet Tourism and Andrew Davidson