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A Tale of Kentish Sea and Settlement

Last week, I had the distinct displeasure of travelling to the dying town of Margate not once, but twice. How this misfortune befell me I will not go into, but the two visits – while obviously dreadful – were also fascinating. This was because the Margate seaside is simply beautiful. I know that sounds sarcastic, but I’m serious, check out this view:

Not bad, right? And yet the town itself is a horror. The train station is vast, designed for hundreds, but it’s a shock to see even a tenth of that number. The promenade is graffitied and dirty, while Wonderland still appears to be something out of a horror game, recent refurbishment be damned. Dying shops cling to the old amusement park like leeches, desperately searching for any meagre income. Travellers’ Fairs spring up unorganised upon the town each weekend, causing a modicum of chaos and leaving horses’ waste on the streets. Even the Wetherspoons, inexplicably, is terrible.

In spite of its beach, Margate is an ugly town.

Ultimately, Margate feels like a nightmarish bizzaro-world. It continues to pine after the golden age of the fifties, and simply refuses to leave it behind, even as time mercilessly pushes it into the modern age. The result is an uncomfortable mix of outdated tradition and cheap, unwanted modernisation; summed up best by the abhorrent tower block stood right beside the aged Wonderland. It is not remotely appealing, and it is both the symptom and the cause of Margate’s decline as a holiday town.

This decay is replicated all along the Kentish Coast. Herne Bay, Ramsgate, Dover; all suffer the same endemic problems that plague Margate. These towns, however, all refuse to take responsibility for their own failures. The blame is instead placed at the feet of cheap flights and package holidays, taking people away from the cold British coast to the sunny shores of Spain and Southern France. ‘There’s nothing we could have done!’ is the cry. ‘We were set up to fail!’

This argument, however, is disputed by other, more adaptive towns, just a few miles away. Whitstable never even tried to compete with the beaches of its prettier settlements, and instead invested in shellfish and boating. As such, it is not entirely dependent on tourism, and has enough wealth to make the town pleasant. Ironically, this makes it a far, far nicer place to visit than the traditional tourist towns, with clean, affordable pubs and quaint cafes and ice cream parlours. Broadstairs meanwhile did stick to tourism, but was prepared to downsize in order to succeed. The town might not boast nearly as many hotels or amusements as Margate, but at least the ones that are there are actually pleasant. As such, the lion’s share of the tourists travel to the smaller resort.

Broadstairs is smaller than Margate, but also prettier and more popular.

Kent’s seaside towns are not a lost cause, however much the councils of these places seem to think they are. There are clear examples of how to succeed in this modern world for a British beach resort. But they have to make difficult decisions, and cut away the waste. Tourists looking for a cheap day out will visit a quaint British town with a lovely beach and a few amusements. They will not visit a hulking, decaying wreck, designed for thousands that will never arrive. The change is significant, and it is scary, but it is the only way to escape the cycle. Until then, the Kentish coast will continue to decline.

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