Oscar Wilde praised the taverns, TS Eliot composed some of “The Waste Land” in a shelter overlooking the beach and Tracey Emin wrote about her hometown in the Sun newspaper, lamenting: “The Victorians built a lot of Margate ... much of the amazing architecture has not been preserved. Grade ll buildings have burned down – desolate car parks stand in their place. What has happened to the beautiful England we once knew?”
Maybe another artist, JMW Turner – or, rather, the gallery which bears his name and opens in Margate next week – can help. Turner thought Margate’s skies to be “the loveliest in all Europe” and from Victorian times until the 1970s it was one of the most popular resorts in England. When holidaymakers discovered cheap travel to the Costa Sunshine the economy of the place collapsed almost overnight.
In this historic corner of England unemployment is at 20 per cent; crime is higher than the national average and almost 40 per cent of the shops are boarded up.
So what do locals make of the £17.4m spent on the Turner Contemporary gallery which now sits by the harbour arm? It will be judged by its architectural brilliance and by the quality of its exhibitions. But will it earn its keep as an agent for change?
With only £5m out of a budget of £40m being spent on improving Margate, many locals argue that more should have been invested in the infrastructure.
Derek Harding, programme director of the Margate Renewal Partnership, disagrees: “Turner Contemporary is the cornerstone of the renewal plan. This kind of culture-led regeneration not only changes the tourist offer but helps diversify the economy of the town by encouraging creative businesses to relocate here. It helps us rebalance the population with new and affluent families.”
Gallery director Victoria Pomery is convinced of the transformative power of the arts: “We can encourage and generate young artists and that will help produce a more productive economy.”
Pomery, who lives in nearby Ramsgate, will be encouraged by the extra £4.3m investment attracted by the Folkestone Triennial art show of 2008 – this year’s starts on June 25 – and the £6m that Tate St Ives in Cornwall drew from tourism in 2009.
“The gallery is a catalyst,” she says. “But it is going to be a long, slow process.”
Just how big a challenge it is can be gauged from the boarded-up shops of the high street and the grim 1970s Arlington House tower block which looms over the bay, mocking Turner’s lovely skies but mercifully due a makeover. At its base a Tesco is to replace a desolate arcade of shuttered shops. Historic buildings such as the Lido and Sea Bathing Hospital have fallen into rusty neglect and plans to convert them into luxury living quarters have been put on hold.
But just above the gallery on Fort Hill, the Arcadian Hotel – left empty for the past 20 years – has been renovated and work on 12 new flats started. Down the hill in the old town’s “cultural quarter”, galleries, studios, and boutiques are springing up.
Samantha Gollick of estate agents Thomas Jackson is yet to be convinced of the benefit to the community of the gallery. “We have been having a lot of enquiries from artists and sculptors but local people would rather the money was spent on a pool near the beach and an ice-skating rink. Most of all we want Dreamland revived.”
Ah, Dreamland. Once the essence of Margate, the legendary fun fair with its listed roller coaster and modernist cinema closed in 2005. But now it is being transformed into a heritage park with rides dating from the 1920s to the 1980s. It may be just as big a force for regeneration as the gallery.
Property is cheap by London and south-east England standards, with the average price for a detached house at £250,155 and a terraced at £131,973. Flats make up 60 per cent of properties, with prices as low as £39,000 for a one-bedroom. There are streets of terraced houses in need of renovation, run-down Victorian villas and seaside bungalows. The most expensive single house on the market listed by the Rightmove property finder is a four-reception, seven-bedroom house in Cliftonville for £750,000 (Lovetts Property Services).
Gollick suggests the most sought-after areas are in Cliftonville off Northdown Road. She has one with seven bedrooms and plenty of living space for £239,000. “One Londoner bought a six-bed period house for £280,000 – the price of his two-bed flat in Docklands,” she says.
Damien Cooke of agents Cooke and Co, who is an enthusiast for the Turner gallery, says: “Margate has not had this much interest since its heyday in the 1950s.” On his books is a terraced house with three bedrooms, equidistant from the Turner gallery and Dreamland, for £89,995; and an intriguing former pump house with its original ornate brickwork, stained glass windows and exposed timbers at £495,000.
Daniel Sutton, 47, owner of design company Designmap, moved to Ramsgate from London five years ago. “It was pretty grim then but thanks to the impetus of Turner Contemporary, Margate is becoming something of a centre for arts and design.”
Tracey Emin, who is to open the gallery, might find the answer to her lament in the entrance hall, where a neon installation by Michael Craig Martin is entitled “Turning Pages”. Could it symbolise a new leaf for Margate?
● High-speed rail to London’s St Pancras takes 1 hour 40 minutes; huge, beautiful beaches; potential to buy cheap and restore.
● Air of neglect; grand old public buildings left derelict; few hotels or restaurants.
What you can buy for
● £100,000 Two one-bed flats in almost any part of town plus a garage optimistically described as a one-bed flat for £8,000.
● £1m The most expensive property is £750,000 so keep the change and buy one of the fish and chip shops for sale.
Cooke and Co +44 (0)1843 231833
Thomas Jackson +44 (0)1843 221000
Lovetts +44 (0)1843 230960
Margate Renewal Partnership +44 (0)1843 609336