The only colour on Margate seafront in February comes from the hoardings marking off the Dreamland site. The text and images tell of past glories and high hopes, and of how popular entertainment in the resort (starting in the 1860s and grinding to a halt some ten years ago) could yet come back to life. This was once the amusement park that beat all competition. For now, the hoardings mask an immense backland site stretching virtually from the railway station to the edge of the Old Town.
‘Lord’ George Sanger’s menagerie cages are still there, as is the 1920 Scenic Railway rollercoaster, fronted by the hulk of the cinema, its neon sign lit up again this Christmas. After the years of dereliction, asset stripping and unexplained fires, the listed status of these paltry physical remnants has brought £10 million to the site, including £3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund in November. Last month a public inquiry was opened to consider its future. Thanet Borough Council, supporting the Dreamland Trust, is arguing for compulsory purchase of the site from the owners, the so-called Margate Town Centre Regeneration Company.
Actual physical regeneration is to be found at the other end of the great sweep of beach. Like a couple of bulky parcels, on what would once have been the doorstep of Turner’s favourite boarding house, Turner Contemporary was opened less than a year ago after its own long and expensive set of troubles, involving a series of rejected designs and spiralling costs followed by court action for damages. Margate’s cultural regeneration (a term which probably sounded more reassuring in 2000 than it does in 2012) is now focused on David Chipperfield’s gallery, at first sight a curiously anonymous structure with its grey gridded walls and monopitch roofs.
But inside, hope looks as if it might be triumphing over experience: the place is buzzing with visitors. High level north-facing clerestories illuminate the galleries with natural light, while full height glazing looks out to sea in all the general purpose rooms. Outside again, without a single visible window towards town, the impression of a bastion returns. Occupy Thanet has set up its tents by the entrance steps.
I walked back to the station along the High Street, a block inland. The prospect of pound shops and boarded-up shopping arcades is broken only by a brightly lit branch of Peacocks, which went into administration last month. According to the January Shop Vacancy Report, Margate has one of the worst vacancy rates in the country, with more than 36 per cent of its retail premises not let.