A decade ago whenever I thought of Margate, the seaside town on the lower eastern tip of England that lies a little above Dover, I felt sorry for it. Rundown, drab, faded and out-on-a-limb; a town that few of my friends have flocked to. In recent years, things have changed.
Now, Margate means Tracey Emin, the creator of the much-discussed My Bed installation that was nominated for a Turner prize. The connection between this Kent town, Emin and art is ongoing. In 2011 an imposing light-filled gallery was opened close to the harbour wall. Its clever Norwegian architects wanted visitors to look out through sky-high windows and drink in the ever-changing palette of colours that sweep across the North Sea and so inspired JMW. More recently, thanks to Mike Leigh’s biopic, Mr Turner, and Mary Portas’ help regenerating the heart of this rather sorry place Margate is increasingly on the map.
The town is in the borough of Thanet, a name few knew until the run-up to the 2015 UK General Election, when one infamous Nigel Farage, then leader of the UKIP party contested its seat in parliament but lost. Thanks to the media’s interest in the new party with the larger-than-life leader, Margate was shown to be home to many considered-mad-by-many UKIP supporters.
I’m lucky. My great uncle lives in Broadstairs, an even smaller town a Sunday stroll south on the beach from Margate. So, every year if we can make it, we visit Uncle Rob and make a beeline for Broadstairs. And Margate.
Uncle Rob is an English eccentric. The sort whose cardy is done up on the wrong buttons and who has cherry bootpolish pieballing his shoes in an attempt to cover up splodges of white paint. The sort who cannot read music but suddenly leaps up from his chair to race to play on the grand piano that dominates his haphazard sitting room, climbs half way up a crescendo and dashes back to his seat as if he is involved in a game of musical chairs. The sort who looks perplexed when we ask him for a breadknife and a breadboard so we can help prepare his lunch and reappears triumphant with a serrated knife the size of his index finger and a plate. The sort who leaves all who meet him flop-jawed with wonder and wide-mouthed with delight.
And so it was to Kent that I went for the weekend with my mother, Rob’s sister, Jenny. The boys cannot bear to miss a weekend with their nutty uncle and cancelled all other engagements in London in order to come too.
The first item on the agenda was a trip to the Mad Hatter’s Tearoom with Uncle Rob, my cousin Alison and her husband, in old Margate. We headed for the garden and there we found no March hare, but instead a tall man in a yellow and black striped three piece suit and a top hat ringed with yellow tinsel. A label saying 10/6 sticking out of its band. We wouldn’t have expected any less.
That Peter, our Mad Hatter, has a day job in London and comes to Margate weekly to pursue his passion of running the tearoom is pretty mad. That he only opens on a Saturday seems mad too. The yellow-themed interior décor was cluttered, pretty and Victorian, with Christmas decorations and hundreds of photographs of his family and the royals, particularly Princess Diana. And photos of Peter wearing a variety of one-tone flamboyant behatted outfits. That he makes the huge variety of cakes and scones himself was unexpected and they were moist and delicious too. Peter talks nineteen to the dozen, regaling visitors with dramatic stories as he sits down and joins one table of strangers after another as if he’d known them for years. We left the tearoom sated, giggling and incredulous.
It’s mad that there is no entrance fee for the Turner Contemporary and fitting that our visit coincided with the Provincial Punk exhibition from my current favourite British artist, Grayson Perry. Sure, some of his ceramics border on whackiness and the levels of metaphor and meaning in his work are delightfully chewy, but I am not prepared to relegate our national transvestite treasure to the ranks of the ridiculous. He knows exactly what he is doing.
The Turner, the gifty shops, Victorian guesthouses, ornate porticos and a real old-fashioned beach, with soft honey-coloured sand and a flat and shallow sea make this a place worth revisiting again and again. Ignore the empty shops and look beyond to its past and future heyday and you will not be disappointed.
Along this coast the beaches are ribboned with seaweed and mussel beds, the imposing cliffs are layered like a Victoria sandwich and peppered with caves and tunnels that used to allow farmers to harvest the seaweed to fertilise their crops. Today, unfortunately, it lingers on the shore. When the wind is in the wrong direction, it stinks.
Just before dusk, Turner’s sky emerged, dramatic, paintable.
But the madness did not end there, for Uncle Rob had booked us into the Walpole Bay Hotel and we checked in when the pretty terrace was filled with people enjoying the early evening sun and a band was striking up in the basement. Look The Walpole up on the Internet and you discover that it is also a museum, an art gallery and home to the avant garde award-winning hairdresser, Jerome Hillian.
This 1914 hotel was closed down in 1989 and heading to be demolished. In 1995 it was rescued by a couple who had visited this stretch of beach as children and then brought their own children there to enjoy the huge seawater pool below the cliffs. Jane and her husband were determined to rescue and renovate the establishment and began in earnest to inject it with quirk, which may be why there is a vintage motorbike and a dolls’ pram for twins in the reception area, a wall devoted to the impromptu art of Tracey Emin and Jane’s ‘ego-trip’ display of herself with a variety of visiting celebs, from Larry Lamb to crazy Lord Bath, on the lid of the grand piano. I half expected to discover that Jane was related to the Mad Hatter.
It is pretty novel for a hotel to have retained its ancient lift, but nothing can surprise you here; not that a singer called Cat Couture, complete with purple hair, was breakfasting in the dining room and had just filmed a music video in the hotel; not that this is home to the a napery art exhibition.
The first floor gallery and the walls of the dining room are festooned with more than 130 framed napkins. So many guests have been moved by the hotel’s uniqueness that more than 150 of them have asked to paint, draw or write on a vintage linen napkin. All are counted out, documented and counted back in and at present only about ten have gone awol. Tracey Emin went one better and asked for 20 vintage sheets that had been worn too thin to use and turned them into an art collection.
This was a weekend of simple pleasures, enjoyed with close family under a blue sky, of warm evenings outside playing music, playing in caves and paddling in a shallow sea, of Tuscan sunsets, good old-fashioned food and of laughter, laughter, laughter.
Sadly, on Monday, our ‘walpoling activities‘ were curtailed (sorry, could hardly write this without adding a reference to Monty Python’s Cheese Sketch).
We’d be mad not to go back to Margate.