I decided to take a day trip out of London last Sunday. It’s been a while since I took some time out to explore a new part of UK and I decided to take advantage of the last of the long summer days as we head into autumn. Though it wasn’t exactly beach weather, I had heard good things about the seaside town of Margate and decided to take the 1.5 hour express train ride there to experience a complete change in scenery on Kent’s northern coast.
Margate used to be one of the most affluent seaside towns in the UK, its close proximity to the capital drawing holiday-making Londoners to its golden sands. Like many other UK seaside resorts however, it gradually fell out of favour in the mid twentieth century, resulting in many of the town’s attractions degenerating into a state of disrepair and neglect.
This has turned around in recent years however, with Margate undergoing a regeneration resulting in a huge resurgence and turnaround in visitor numbers. Since 2011, Margate has seen the installation of a new Turner art gallery (the Turner Contemporary Gallery), the renovation of its Dreamland theme park and the refurbishment of many of the town’s Victorian and Georgian seafront properties. All of this has led to Margate being crowned the title of Best British seaside town in 2016, attracting hipsters and holiday-makers from London and beyond.
If you’re travelling from London, you can get a direct train from Kings Cross St. Pancras or Victoria. The 1.5 hour express train from St. Pancras costs about £25 for a return ticket – a quick and simple journey to make.
Upon arriving in Margate, you only have to walk about 5 minutes before you’re by the beach, with the smell of salt in the air. This being the end of summer and the fairly windy day meant cold water temperatures and a deserted beach, despite it being clear and sunny.
I walked along the beach by Canterbury Road, passing the Margate Clock Tower and headed on to Marine Drive, marvelling at the colourful refurbished seafront buildings.
I continued walking towards the Margate harbour arm, passing by the unmissable Turner Contemporary Gallery and the Margate Information Centre.
Looking out at The Bay, facing the North Sea, I watched the waves crashing on the walls, mesmerised by their power and intensity as the sea water occasionally washed over the walls onto the parked cars.
After spending 15 minutes or so, gazing lazily at the waves and horizon, I walked the length of the harbour arm, turning round at the lighthouse and walking back along the side facing the beach. Located on the inland side of the harbour arm are cute little cafes and restaurants with colourful doors and outdoor benches, a perfect lunch spot on this cool and sunny day.
After a slow lunch, I decided to check out the Turner Gallery to warm up a little indoors, having now spent 2 hours out in the cold. Unfortunately, my timing was poor and most of the gallery was closed as they were in the midst of installing some new art exhibitions, so all I got to see was the Books artwork by Yinka Shonibare.
Leaving the gallery, I decided to head towards another one of Margate’s attractions, the mysterious Shell Grotto. The most direct route there took me through King Street, passing by a number of old junk shops selling vintage goods like children’s toys, old uniforms and antique luggages.
Also located en route is the old Tudor House, a 16th-century 2-storey timber-framed house kept in remarkably good condition. I didn’t take the time to enter the house, but I think tickets costs something like £2 or £3.
The Shell Grotto is maybe a 10 minute walk from the Tudor House, located on a quiet, unassuming street in a residential area. The entrance to the attraction is the shop and cafe, with tickets needing to be purchased at the cashier before you can head down the stairs to the museum and underground passageways themselves. The museum is not a large one by any means, containing a few original artifacts and panes of information about the discovery and contents of the caves.
The Shell Grotto, an underground passageway filled with over 4.6 million shells delicately arranged in intricate designs, was discovered in the 1830s. However, as no official dating has ever been done, no one really knows when it was actually conceived. Also unknown are the reasons or purpose behind its construction, making the experience of walking through these ethereal underground passageways a little unnerving and ever so slightly spooky. It was also strange seeing graffiti from the 1800s.
Can you see why this is called the Ganesha panel?
Leaving the Shell Grotto, I walk a roundabout way, first towards the Newgate Promenade by Walpole Bay, and then walking back by the beach towards the Lido Leisure Centre and Fort Lower Promenade. The residential areas I walked through were fairly deprived, perhaps unsurprisingly, with the higher than national average unemployment in Margate. There are reasons to be optimistic though, as things improve the closer you get to the Old Town area, with the appearance of modern cafes, design and minimalist furniture shops, mixed in between the old vintage shops.
After a stop for some tea and pastries, I went on a slow walk back to the Margate train station, just as the sun was starting to set. I stepped onto the train tired but happy to have made the trip, having had the opportunity to get a brief respite from hectic city life by the sea. My one regret though, was not having the time to visit the Dreamland amusement park! Such a shame, but hey, another excuse perhaps, to visit Margate again in the future! 🙂
Have you ever been to Margate? When did you visit and what was it like at that time?