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Selling the Seaside

Creative-class fantasies beset a British beach town

It started in London, the rumor about Margate. There was talk in Hackney in the east of the city, among a cloistered community of creatives: everyone seemed to know someone who had visited Margate, this little town to the southeast of the capital. The houses were cheaper there; someone had gotten a good deal on a place with original hardwood floors and Victorian detailing. Maybe we could move there, they said to themselves. I’ve heard this restaurant near me is opening a sister place by the sea. Elsewhere, in South London, writers and artists began to talk about a charming resort. It was a little run down, yes, but T.S. Eliot had found inspiration there, and the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner seemed to have loved it, and Tracey Emin—who ascended from Margate into the art world stratosphere—had landed there once more, back on earth, within sniffing distance of seaweed and damp sand.

Through the grapevine, the rumor began to writhe and shimmy toward its own seductive reality, becoming something between the story of Margate as it was and the story that people needed to hear. This was during the 2010s: a decade abutted at one end by a threefold increase in university tuition fees, at the other end by a pandemic, and which in the middle endured a Conservative-led austerity regime, an arduous rise in housing prices, and neglect of the creative industries. Between 2010 and 2016, local government funding of the arts decreased by 17 percent. By 2019, the UK had lost eight hundred public libraries. And in 2021 it was announced that the UK government planned to cut public spending on arts university degrees by 50 percent. So, Margate? people wondered, while enduring £6 pints of beer in city pubs with rancid vibes. There was a bubbling chorus of Margate among professionals with young children, who had heard that there was a real “village energy” there, far from what were euphemistically called “social problems” and the skyrocketing rents of the city. Margate! echoed artisans and cooks and craftspeople as they packed their bags for a new, more affordable home where they would have the beach on their doorstep, but also a delightful coffee shop that sells vinyl records.

By the time this talk reached me, it was effusive in a way that I took as a personal slight. I’m from Southend-on-Sea. A larger seaside town just across the Thames mouth in Essex, it’s the kind of place that the London creatives who I’ve met don’t ordinarily visit, except perhaps ironically. One woman was so affronted by its “bleakness” that she immediately got on a train back to London after seeing Southend’s main shopping street. The way people talked to me about Margate was different, as though, despite being eighty miles from the capital, it was already spiritually theirs: very much like London, but smaller, cheaper, and with the reassuring finality of the sea. It was close enough to the city that they could still travel back for meetings. Someone they knew was there already. It would hardly be like leaving at all.

Holidays in the Sun

Margate sits in the county of Kent, on a spur of flat land that pouts like a lip into the North Sea. The town clings to the northern Kent coast in a slim, stubborn strip, buttressed by a sand beach and saline waters. Farther along, the shore takes a sharp turn toward the south, into Broadstairs or Ramsgate—slightly more genteel, more charming, where the coast faces the sun rather than addressing the daylight askance.

Margate all but became the thirty-third London borough, at least in the public imagination.

Until the mid-eighteenth century, this little piece of land was an island called Thanet, separated from Kent by a shallow channel of water. Over the course of millennia, sediment accrued until the water became marsh, and Thanet rejoined the mainland. A little under fifteen miles inland are the soaring towers of Canterbury Cathedral, the seat of the leader of the Church of England. Further to the west is Maidstone, from which much of the administrative business of the county is done. Down in Dover, the British coastline reaches tentatively toward France, a point of uneasy proximity between an island nation and the continent it spurned. But despite its proximity to these nodes of power and its position at the easternmost tip of the coast—as though it is straining, veins popping, against the gravity of the capital city—Margate answers, almost begrudgingly, to London.

The London-Margate axis is a strange kind of correspondence, a provincial tear in the time-space continuum. For hundreds of years, Margate was a maritime town home to small fishing and shipping fleets, its priorities reflecting the pewter waters of the North Sea. Then, in the late eighteenth century, Dr. John Coakley Lettsome founded the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital, believing the sea air and water would be beneficial for the treatment of Londoners suffering from tuberculosis. The town was just close enough to be logistically viable for the transportation of vulnerable and often very sick patients, but just far enough away to be unsullied by the constant effluvial wash of sewage and industrial waste from the capital that beset my hometown of Southend, Margate’s mirror image on the northern side of the Thames Estuary.

Before long, holiday makers who had heard of the convalescent power of the water started to descend on Margate, first on steamboats and then along the rapidly unfurling lengths of railway that crisscrossed the country during this era. There were beaches in Margate, which meant there were soon bathing machines: wheeled boxes in which Victorians could undress, slip into their bathing costumes, and scuttle into the water with their modesty intact, like hermit crabs in outsized shells. Tourists brought money, which meant that before long the village had clambered up and out of the harbor, Georgian houses and guesthouses rising along the eastern cliffs.

Margate was one of a number of coastal towns that profited from the wealth and transit systems developed during the industrial revolution. Blackpool, on the northwest coast of the country, served the nearby mill towns; in the south of the country was Regency Brighton; London’s deprived east enders flocked to Southend. This was part of a broader cultural shift in Britain. Sea towns—fishing towns, port towns, sanitorium towns—started to reorient themselves, focusing less on the sea itself than on the narrow sliver of land that framed it. The sea gave way to the seaside, a tamed and manicured kingdom, salvaged from the water. There were now winter gardens (imposing, glass-roofed event spaces modeled on exhibition halls), as well as promenades, pleasure piers, and other amenities for affluent travelers, each of these resort towns expressing the relentless civilizing ambitions of the Victorians. For Brits, the seaside became synonymous with the important business of leisure.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Margate was an established seaside resort. There were a few amusement rides by the beach which, in 1920, became “Dreamland” at the hands of the enterprising John Henry Iles, said to have been inspired by a trip to Coney Island. The town attracted revelers from London throughout the summer, some of whom stuck around even after the long evenings had shrunk into the afternoon and the winter storms picked up. Many of the newcomers were Jewish arrivals from the capital, and by the early twentieth century, the town had a synagogue, a number of Jewish-run guesthouses, and a Kosher deli.

It wasn’t long, however, before the boomtime was over. Overseas package holidays and the democratization of air travel loomed, and during the 1960s, places like Southend and Margate became battlegrounds for packs of fastidiously tribal Mods and Rockers, subcultural groups differentiated only by the narcissism of small differences: a leather jacket here, a moped there. On bright summer afternoons, they would come in from London to brawl. It was a last frantic gasp for the seaside towns, which seemed to bristle with the anxious awareness of their own demise.

By the 1970s, Margate was in precipitous decline, the hotels shuttered or converted into small, subdivided apartments for use as social housing. There were further waves of migration to Thanet, though incomers no longer arrived of their own volition. Instead, they were dragged in by the economic and political tides. Even more people were displaced from larger towns by the lack of affordable and social housing in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s razing of the welfare state in the 1980s; the UK also housed refugees and asylum seekers in the town, where the overheads were low, and the housing (dilapidated, underloved) was plentiful. Margate began to be treated less like a satellite borough of London than a municipal holding cell into which the capital shoved the people whom it could not be bothered to accommodate and the problems it didn’t know how to solve.


A painting depicts people working on a shoreline with a larger town or city across a large body of water.
J.M.W. Turner, Margate, 1822, watercolor painting. (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.)

Mind the Gap

It would be decades before the tides turned again. Synonymous with Tracey Emin, the town’s glittering enfant terrible, Margate has long had an association with art, but this passive vogue became aspirational after the turn of the millennium. Just look how far that scrappy girl has come, the town seemed to say. We can be someone too. In 2011 came the opening of the Turner Contemporary art gallery, a prismatic, glass-skinned hulk erected on the site of J.M.W. Turner’s former boardinghouse and an arguably paternalistic prayer for what Margate could become, rather than a reflection of what it was. England’s other great artistic seaside town, St. Ives, had taken a similar path decades prior. The Cornish fishing village transformed first into an artist’s haven, then into a tourist hotspot, as Tate St. Ives—an outpost of the Tate art gallery mini-dynasty—opened in its current iteration in 1993. Like Margate, St. Ives could boast that J.M.W. Turner had lived there for a time; unlike Margate, St. Ives was also home, at points, to Barbara Hepworth, Virginia Woolf, and Ben Nicholson, with artistic roots buried deep into the twentieth century.

“You need to gentrify calmly,” he says wryly. “You can’t be that hardcore. You just can’t.”

Alongside the Turner Contemporary, an influx of arrivals settled in Margate during the 2010s, some of whom were drawn in by the town’s dialogue with—and proximity to—London and the arts. Among them was Lee Coad, a former creative director who moved to Margate with his wife and young family. Along with Rob Cooper and Charlotte Forsdike, Coad established the sister restaurants Angela’s and Dory’s in the Margate Old Town, a former fishing settlement of narrow streets at the hooked end of a long saber of beach, close to the harbor. The restaurants are expressions of good produce and cooking, but they are also stories—careful renditions of Margate’s foundational myths. There are echoes of its fishing heritage in the thoughtful seafood menus; the spaces have a curated rusticity to match that of the Old Town; and, in all things, they reflect the edict, risen from the ashes of nouvelle cuisine, of great ingredients prepared simply. Visiting the restaurants, I was reminded of the early twentieth century work of Alfred Wallis, a fisherman, scrap merchant, and, during his retirement, self-taught painter. Wallis’s paintings of the Cornish seaside—rows of fishermen’s cottages, lighthouses, scrappy boats heaving on waves—were seized upon by art collectors in London in part for their status as naïve art: organic expressions of the inherent nobility of a lost and modest coastal life.

Shortly after Coad’s relocation, Franca Pauli, a curator, and her partner Dario, a producer, moved to Margate from Italy, lured by the promise of lower rents. Once their studio was renovated and ransacked after a break-in, they decided to open up the space to the local community, holding a grand reopening with homemade pizza. People began to talk, mistakenly, about a new pizza shop on Northdown Road, and rather than rebuffing the rumor, Franca leaned into it, opening 101 Social, a soup kitchen and community space, during the UK’s pandemic lockdowns, as much a healing experience as an expression of the sociality of the place.

With seed crystals—namely, food and art—around which they could cluster, the rumors about Margate commenced, and it was back on the London map. The conversation rippled eastward along the languid lower reaches of the Thames, bringing a new influx of day trippers in its wake. It leaned into the long curve of the coast, washing up former city dwellers in successive waves. By the time the micromigrations to Margate reached a crescendo in the late 2010s, the town had been dubbed “Shoreditch-on-Sea,” after London’s emblematic center of hipster gravity. Margate all but became the thirty-third London borough, at least in the public imagination.

In 2021, Sargasso, a little harborside restaurant, reopened under the care of a team from the much-hyped Hackney restaurant Brawn. Margate was now home to what reviewers described as “one of the country’s coolest restaurants,” part of a dining scene punching above the town’s population of just over sixty thousand people. It was a big investment, a huge renovation, the kind of food that visiting Hackney-ites would instantly recognize as their own but that might not meet the needs of the town where it had landed. There was a feeling that perhaps Sargasso had come into Margate with a little too much hubris.

I went to Sargasso myself one afternoon and ate skate cheeks while a capricious sea breeze snatched napkins from tables. Nearby, an American roared into the wind about Greta Gerwig, the merits of small plates, and the incredible scene here in Margate. At the furthest tip of the harbor arm—a long, concrete wall brutalized by the thrashing waves, curving tentatively into the blue—the rumors had come to roost.

Where Goes the Neighborhood

As the Margate discourse reached saturation point, the town’s other, less saleable, extremes have begun to add up. The borough of Thanet recently had the second highest rate of child poverty in the south of England, with five of its neighborhoods among the top 10 percent of the most deprived wards in the country. Before its recent revival, Nigel Farage—one of the most catastrophically influential figures in British politics to have never been elected MP—ran for election there with the broadly xenophobic and regressive United Kingdom Independence Party in 2005 and 2015. Farage lost both times, but his association with the town chipped away at Margate’s already dilapidated public face. Already the victim of a coastal boom and bust, now it was scorched earth in the fight against immigration, waged for some spurious new and reactive British identity—never mind that, as of the 2021 census, 88.6 percent of Margate residents were born in the UK, compared to England’s average of 82.6 percent. Reporters took to the streets with cameramen and bouquets of barbed little questions, observing with anthropological remove the people who sat out talking, smoking, and drinking on the steps of the overcrowded housing that had once been grand hotels.

Every town is overlaid with its invisible double, the nexus where histories meet imagined futures.

The recent influx of Londoners could be construed as a fix for some of what still ails Margate; the notion is that money will flow down the Thames and come, by some imagined economic current, to rest by the beach. Certainly, tourism has made for a food scene with a level of clout I can’t imagine in my native Southend: taco sheds, cocktail bars, nationally reviewed restaurants like Sargasso and Bottega Caruso, and at least three from-scratch makers of artisanal ice cream. New residents have begun to purchase houses and smarten up Margate’s tired-looking streets. But these supposedly emancipatory economic changes may end up disempowering Margate’s longer-term residents even more: over the ten years leading up to January 2022, Margate experienced one of the greatest spikes in house prices in the country, an increase of 102.5 percent. The more Margate was talked about, the more divided it seemed.

Every town is overlaid with its invisible double, the nexus where histories meet imagined futures. But the map is never quite the territory. The word on extraordinary places runs aground in the real world, like the walls of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, which were built high by the King Gilgamesh but even higher by the epic he spawned. In the case of Margate, the town seems to buckle under its own reputation: Margate the artistic enclave, “broken Britain” Margate, Margate the food pilgrimage site, impoverished Margate, Margate the resurrected, racist Margate, Brexit Margate, Margate the dream of a London displaced. Maybe Brits project too much onto the seaside, a shorthand for childhood and joy and a time when the country felt, briefly, like it contained within its outer limits the ingredients for its own happiness.

Underneath all the rhetorical Margates, there is a quieter, more cohesive crossroads where old and new have begun, tentatively, to meet. Lee Coad, for his part, sees the disconnect between his two restaurants—party to the gentrifying thrust of the town’s emerging food scene—and Margate more generally: “There is a lot of deprivation. For me, it’s never always been about food or restaurants. It’s about being part of a community.” Unemployment figures published in July this year showed that Thanet had the highest unemployment rate in Kent. To bridge the gap, Coad has embarked on a project to provide training for local young people who want to get into the hospitality business, christened The Perfect Place to Grow after a work by Tracey Emin, who has helped to finance and accommodate the project. The initiative plans to incorporate paid work placements and a new café, located in a former morgue for those who fell victim to the sea, which sits in the shadow of a new Emin-founded art school. The first intake of trainees will be starting at the end of October.

There is also Franca Pauli and Dario Colombo’s 101 Social, which nimbly turned what could have been an exclusive creative enclave into an embedded and communal space. Pauli is aware of the perils of playing the savior in a place to which you’ve only recently arrived. “It must be a dialogue,” she says. “Because this place has gone through hell. So we’re not here to fix it. We can maybe fix each other, you know, I can fix myself or let this place fix me.” A fifteen-minute walk from 101 Social are the Windmill Community Gardens, which bring together volunteers and visitors from across the town. And just down the road is the former Margate synagogue, which closed after its congregation dwindled to eleven members. It is now being slowly converted, in a project led by Jan Ryan, into a community cultural space. Ryan is also involved in an ambitious oral history project called Cliftonville Voices, which has collected hours of testimony from residents and former residents of Margate’s Cliftonville area to tell those stories that are left behind in the great imaginary Margates of Londoners’ dreams and nightmares: about the international food stores along Northdown Road, the restaurant opened by Slovakian Roma migrants, the largely forgotten Jewish history of the area.

Even those who’ve left Margate speak fondly of the community there, an “ecosystem” running underneath the slick facade of the scene: Sunday socials with local chefs, a network of Black transplants to the area, the work of people like radio host Paul Camo or restaurateur Eli Thompson, whose Olby’s Soul Café doubles as a charity and a hub for local music production and performance.

British Sea Power

On one of my visits to the town, Ernestine Lawrence, who grew up in Margate and has returned there in retirement, invited me to her house. We met after a hair appointment. I had been searching for something big, something that would tell me the truth about Margate. But as Lawrence complained about the situation with the bins (there are not enough of them; they aren’t big enough; and the seagulls descend like flies), it was clear that longtime residents like her would not let their town be buried under the fairytales of visiting Londoners. Lawrence showed me the bright new restaurants of the Old Town, and we waited for the Loop bus, which we took—packed with people and their shopping, buggies, kids—up and into Cliftonville, where she gestured at the site of a former department store that was now a food shop and, upstairs, a pool hall. She pointed out cafés that she had been to and closed-down places that she missed.

At her house, while she served me meatloaf, Lawrence recounted the Jewish businesses that used to exist in the area, and the folk dance she recently hosted at the old synagogue. She walked me through the bedrooms that she uses occasionally to host people booking through Airbnb and told me the story of her mother’s old meat-mincing crank and her father’s former kitchen shop in the Old Town. She talked about the Holocaust, which brought both sides of her family to the town, and the prison where she teaches English. She spoke for a Margate less known and more real than the imaginary refuge of passing fortunes.

The story of the British seaside is one of glory and demise, from the great Victorian resorts to deprivation and rebirth. But once I set aside the need for narrative, the Margate I saw was less baroque. Here is the town as it presented itself to me, not all at once, but in glimpses. On arrival, I saw the unshakeable ordinariness of a British train station; modernist toilets; flyers for a soul music night; Margate’s history retold in mural after mural; a stone plinth engraved with something about sandwiches; a T.S. Eliot quote; hostile seagulls. I saw the seafront: men hunching against the wind; cockles dressed with vinegar; a shuttered café; cascading ripples of soft-serve ice cream; “big buns big buns big buns for sale”; kids stealing an advertising board outside a fish-and-chip takeaway; an American saying, “This isn’t fine dining, I’ve told her so many times this is casual dining, it’s just really great seasonal ingredients”; a chicken pie; little cocktail bars; the psychedelic visual musings of Beatriz Milhazes; a car park striped with shifting dunes of sand.

In the Old Town, I saw a crafts studio; an informational plaque about the production of fertilizer from seaweed; boxes of fudge; baby portraits in the window of a photographer’s studio; an old-fashioned bakery selling hot cross buns the size of a newborn’s head; baklava; a KFC. And up in Cliftonville, I saw coastal outposts of London cafés; an impeccably made hot chocolate; yoga studios; jars of shito in a West African grocery shop; confessional graffiti; the wood paneling of a perfectly maintained 1960s kitchen; a selection of modestly priced board games in a secondhand shop; buses; a Christian bookstore; the local Labour party constituency headquarters; children in bright blue sweaters spilling out of school gates; sachet mixes for making Turkish sutlaç; a community advice center. I saw a poster promising a new and better Margate, and Margate as it is.

*Editor’s Note: The online version of this story has been updated from print.