Today we are again heading into Kent, to meet up with Tigger’s niece whom we have not seen for a while. Our eventual destination is Margate but because of ongoing and apparently never-ending rail works, trains are not going there today, so we have to travel first to Ramsgate and then to Margate by rail replacement bus.
The day is clear and sunny and this is just as well because seaside towns are apt to be bleak in cold or wet weather and Margate can be bleaker than most.
Margate is a seaside resort, though its heyday is behind it. It has gone steadily downhill and is these days a rather lacklustre place though it is still a favourite location for families wanting a relatively cheap day out at the seaside.
Margate’s main attraction for the above clientele is its broad sandy beach, well suited to the building of sand castles, playing games and running about bare-foot.
There is a large tidal paddling pool and the simple pleasures of the beach are supported by some children’s entertainments,
and the usual bars, chip shops and amusement arcades.
It would be wrong to write Margate off completely, however. While it cannot compete with Brighton or Southend (and may be preferred by some people for precisely that reason), it still has a few charms of its own.
The town still retains, here and there, traces of a more elegant past, a symbol of which is the Clocktower celebrating the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Its mast is slightly crooked, giving it the appearance of a staid lady with her tiara has slipped askew, a little worse for wear but still holding her own. And yes, the clock does work.
Or there’s Marine Gardens, a place to sit and read or watch the world go by, as long as you don’t mind the clatter of skateboards.
There are several shopping areas in which you will find the usual big names and some less common home-grown ones.
In the shopping area is Cecil Square with its noticeable Baptist church, where you catch buses for most of the places you would want to catch a bus to. The public library and the magistrates’ court are to be found here too. Cecil Square is, so to speak, the dot in the middle of the circle.
After lunch in a pub in Cecil Square, we went for a walk further along the seafront, where this intriguing building stands. Today it houses the tourist information office and shop but it used to be known as Droit House.
Built in 1828 for the collection of harbour dues, Droit House was destroyed by German bombs in the 1940s and rebuilt in 1947 according to the original plans. It adds a distinctive decorative note to this end of the seafront.
From here, away from the town and the entertainments, there is a good view out to sea. You can see pleasure craft sailing and, further out, commercial ships ploughing their way to distant destinations.
It is thus a good position for the lifeboat station. It was also a good place for Margate Pier, built is the 1850s but destroyed by a storm in 1978.
All that remains of Margate Pier (or Margate Jetty, as it was called called to distinguish it from the stone-built Pier which still exists) is pictures like this one by James Webb. It is in the recently opened Turner Contemporary gallery.
We went for a walk in the old town, which makes a contrast with the modern shopping streets and the brash seafront. The streets are a little quieter here and there are some nice restaurants. The higgledy-piggledy placing of buildings makes a change from straight streets and allows a pleasing play of light and shade.
Here too you find the Old Town Hall and Magistrates’ Court. This contains Margate Museum, a small but interesting one that covers the history of Margate though there is understandably an emphasis on law and policing. Photography inside the museum is allowed.
A narrow corridor on the ground floor contains the police cells for those held in custody while waiting to appear before the magistrate. We were amused to see that one cell is labelled “1 CLASS”, presumably being intended for a better class of miscreant, perhaps a toff brought in drunk and disorderly.
On the first floor is the courtroom, today a rather pleasant room with the air of a slightly disorganized museum study room. I don’t doubt that it would have seemed more formal and forbidding, especially to the accused, when it functioned as a court.
On the wall in a corridor is this picture of the old Droit House (apologies for the reflections), taken, according to the caption, “soon after the Great Storm of Dec. 1897”. I like the two nautical men peering at the camera from a doorway: getting yourself recorded on film would have been something of a novelty in those days. Could they, however, have guessed that the picture would one day be regarded as an historical document?
We returned to Cecil Square which is chronologically bracketed by the neatly prim Baptist Church of 1899 on one side and the 1970s Magistrates’ and County Court on the other. Here we caught a bus to Broadstairs.
Broadstairs is an elegant and charming seaside resort which retains something of its old-world character despite the slings and arrows of outrageous modernity. Its hilly high street (actually called High Street) slopes down to the beach and is lined with shops that combine the usual with the unexpected.
The modern supermarket alternates with the faded gilt lettering of yesteryear on shops that Dickens might have patronized. Some still sell products that would have been familiar to him.
Beside the bustle of the high street, it has secluded nooks. This one, looking like a corner in a Thanet village, used to be called Raglan Place and is today called Serene Place but otherwise, time has dealt gently with it.
Broadstairs has some ancient buildings, such as this 17th century chapel, and the famous arch, seen in many paintings and old photographs, which was once part of extensive fortifications protecting the town from invaders and pirates.
The arch leads down to Viking Bay and the town takes its name from the broad stairs which once led here up the steep slope from the harbour.
The relatively small beach, as deeply sandy as Margate’s, nestles in the shelter of the jetty as in the crook of a protecting arm. Despite the lack of beach entertainments (though there is a stall selling ice cream and drinks), the beach was packed today, showing that despite its genteel air, the resort appeals to a broad clientele.
As I was photographing the beach and everything else, the town crier happened by, but you expect that sort of thing in Broadstairs.
Dickens, of course, loved Broadstairs and went there often for peace and quiet and for enjoyment of its amenities. It is therefore unsurprising, if interesting, to find a Dickens house open for visits. I am not sure this is the only one he stayed in as I think there were several.
It’s a nice enough little house – photos not allowed, of course – and about average in interest. I don’t think you learn a lot here about Dickens and his life but, come to that, how much do you learn, really learn, in any Dickens house? Worth one visit, perhaps.
But now, with the beach and the cafes becoming quieter and the pubs and restaurants waking up, we felt it was time to start back on the tedious and indirect journey home. Rather than take a rail replacement bus from Broadstairs station via Margate station, we took a normal bus straight to Ramsgate station and there, a train back to London.
There was a time when we travelled to Margate regularly to see Tigger’s parents and the trip, every 3 or 4 weeks, seemed nothing special. That duty no longer exists and so we come to Kent less often. A trip like today’s, then, is a chance to visit favourite haunts and discover novelties. In a fast changing world, there is always something new to discover.