As Sam Mendes’ new film Empire of Light turns the spotlight on Margate, we take a look at the Isle of Thanet town’s architectural landscape – from Cliftonville’s Georgian squares to the seafront’s 21st Turner Contemporary gallery. In many ways, Margate is typical of England’s traditional seaside resorts (a lot of faded grandeur and retro bling), but I struggle to think of another with a more varied and interesting collection of buildings. We use the word ‘buildings’ in the loosest sense here: our list of highlights include an 18th century chalk cave, a mysterious subterranean shell grotto, a derelict lido, a 1960s Brutalist tower block, a miniature theatre, a vintage roller coaster and the Grade II* listed Dreamland cinema (the fictional Empire of Light in the aforementioned film). In no particular order….
Pictures: Above, Shell Grotto, Cliftonville Lido, Arlington House from Dreamland amusement park; Main picture, from the top of the Scenic Railway’s first drop (courtesy of Dave Young).
Unlisted. Date: 2011
Credited with kicking off Margate’s ‘cultural renaissance’ (thanks to the Telegraph for that), the jumbo gallery was built on the site of the rooming house (now demolished) where JMW Turner stayed during his frequent visits to the town. Personally, I’m not keen (from a distance, it has something in common with a nuclear power station; big and boxy and ominously featureless) but let’s put my feelings aside and deal with the facts. Turner Contemporary is the work of progressive English architect David Chipperfield (also responsible for Hepworth Wakefield gallery and the Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames) and consists of six identical gallery spaces set in an acid-etched glass skin. Inside, it’s all about volume and light, and the site’s relationship with the sea. Outside, lean over the sea wall and look for Anthony Gormley Another Time sculpture (pictured above): one of a series of 100 cast-iron figures scattered all over the world, Margate’s stands alone in the water and is only visible at low tide. For more info visit the wesbite.
• Margate CT9 1HG.
Photograph courtesy of Turner Contemporary/Thierry Bal.
Grade II*. Date: 1935.
This glorious modernist picture house was designed by cinema architects Julian Rudolph Leathart and WF Granger, built on the site of the former Dreamland Variety Theatre and opened in 1935 with a screening of The Painted Veil starring Greta Garbo. It was listed Grade II in 1992 (later upgraded to Grade II*) but saw a lot of changes in the preceding years. In 1972, the cinema (which seated around 2000 people) was turned into an early form of multiplex with two screens in the original balcony area and a live theatre in the stalls. The latter lasted only three years before being converted into a Bingo hall. The whole building closed in 2007 but, although its future is still uncertain, it remains a dominant feature of the seafront, its restored brick-clad facade and distinctive ‘fin’ tower resplendent with strips of neon light (love those curved windows). And it plays a major part in the latest Sam Mendes movie, Empire of Light (released in January 2023); the original Dreamland signage was temporarily replaced with ‘Empire’ for the duration of filming.
• Marine Terrace, CT9 1XJ
Photo: Dave Young
Unlisted. Date: 1926.
There’s not much left of Margate’s neglected art deco lido (closed since the 1980s) but you can see its four-sided beacon – a colourful concrete lollipop which towers over the Cliftonville seafront. Built by John Henry Iles (also responsible for the Dreamland pleasure park), the original lido boasted a semi-circular sea-water pool, sun decks, promenades, a Cliff Bar, terraced seating for 3000 people, diving boards, dancing… now it’s mostly ghosts and derelict buildings, snooker (the bar is still open), the crumbling remnants of a mosaic sign and a car-park of paved space, part of which recently collapsed. The privately-owned site has been under threat of redevelopment for years but a Save the Lido campaign got a leg-up when Grade II-listed status was bestowed on the 19th century Clifton Baths which sits in subterranean layers hidden in the cliffs beneath the site (it’s ‘one of the earliest surviving seawater bathing establishments in the country’, according to Historic England). The Lido campaign continues but the site’s complex ownership, mired in administration and debt, has hindered progress. For now, all you can do is hope and dream.
• 1 Ethelbert Terrace, Cliftonville CT9 1RX
Dreamland’s Scenic Railway
Grade II* listed. Date: 1920
The age and provenance of Britain’s oldest roller coaster was one of the key factors behind Save Dreamland’s successful campaign to protect the ‘heartbeat of Margate’ when the town’s retro amusement park was threatened with redevelopment in 2003. A rattling, vintage ‘woodie’ built by Dreamland’s creator, JH Iles, it’s one of 31 Scenic Railways built in Britain between 1907 and 1938 of which only two remain (the other is a 1932 number at Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach). The ride’s timber structure has been damaged by fire three times and reconstructed (most recently after an alleged arson attack in 2008). It’s not strictly architecture, but it’s structure and engineering and, as the grand old lady of roller coasters, it’s listed, too. Is it thrilling? Yep. I screamed my way around every inch of its 1.2km of bone-shaking double-looped track, but once it was over, I wanted to do it all over again. Dreamland, by the way, is also home to a Grade II* listed cinema of international importance (see above) and Grade II listed menagerie cages, the oldest zoo cages in the UK.
• Marine Terrace, CT 1XJ
Grade II listed. Date: 1964
No getting away from it, this 18-storey Brutalist monolith is an imposition – dominating the seafront, towering over the Dreamland cinema’s elegant fin (see above) – but the building has a fan-base, not only among those who deemed it worthy of a Grade II listing, but also among its residents (imagine – the views). It’s popular with Instagram snappers, too (see @eye.traveller). Like other buildings of its age and ilk, it has an air of noirish nostalgia; a place teeming with stories (the Twentieth Century Society’s discourse on its history reckons the 1979 Hawkwind song High Rise was written by the band’s frontman Robert Calvert while living in one of Arlington’s 142 flats). As for the nitty gritty, the block was designed by Philip Russell Diplock and built by developer Bernard Sunley (a man more familiar with leisure schemes in the Caribbean). Its listed status is partly down to the nature of construction (built without scaffolding) and the unusual zig-zag elevations. When fresh and new, Arlington’s mica-flecked, cast-concrete panels were a glittering white. A good clean would do wonders for its image.
• All Saints’ Ave, Margate CT9 1XP
Grade 1 listed. Date: unknown
From Grotto Hill, an otherwise unremarkable Cliftonville street, descend into the bowels of Margate and be amazed. Discovered in 1835, and open to the public three years later, this extraordinary folly consists of 70-foot of subterranean tunnel, encrusted with native shells (mussels, whelks, cockles and oysters) – around 4.6 million of them altogether. Entrance is via the Shell Grotto shop (lots of shell-encrusted stuff), along a narrow tunnel and into a domed rotunda followed by the so-called Serpentine Passage and, finally, the Altar Chamber. There are numerous theories about its origins: devotional space, a pagan temple, the work of bored fishermen with a lot of time on their hands – but in truth nobody really knows who created this decorative marvel, why or even when. Now Grade I listed, it’s privately owned and protected for posterity by the Friends of the Grotto. More info here.
Grotto Hill, Cliftonville, CT9 2BU
Nayland Rock Shelter
Grade II listed. Date: 1900
In 1921, the poet Thomas Stearns Eliot (better known as TS) was suffering from a nervous breakdown and convalescing in Margate, when he took a seat in this seafront shelter (by the roundabout, at the Westbrook end of the promenade) and composed six lines of Part III of The Waste Land…
On Margate Sands
I can connect
Nothing with nothing
The broken fingernails of dirty hands
My people humble people who expect
Historic England describe the zinc-roofed, cast iron and timber shelter as a ‘handsome, late Victorian/Edwardian seaside structure’ but it is largely down to the literary association with TS Eliot’s rambling 434-line poem that earned the Grade II listing. Take a seat yourself and see what the muse brings.
• Royal Crescent Promenade, Marine Terrace, CT9 5AE
Tom Thumb Theatre
Unlisted. Date: 1896
During my many visits to Margate, I’ve always been fascinated by this little red building in Cliftonville, so I was chuffed to bits when owners Sara and Alex invited us to take a look inside the Tom Thumb Theatre – billed as the UK’s smallest performance venue (with just 45 seats). The date is etched on a stone plaque above the pretty wooden verandah, but the building’s history is a little vague; we know it used to be a coach house (a rather unusual coach house – the look is Alpine meets Japanese meets Edwardian colonial fire station) – presumably for the house next door which has similar architectural features. It was turned into a theatre in 1984 by previous owner, Sarah Parr-Byrne whose tenure enjoyed two decades of stage plays and music hall productions until she closed the place in 2005 (it has since, we believe, had two more owners including Sara and Alex). Inside, the teeny ‘chocolate box’ theatre is a pleasing mix of red velvety seats, flock wallpaper, gold curtains, spotlights and the kind of atmospheric shabbiness I associate with day times in a night club (there is a little bar upstairs). I have yet to see Tom Thumb doing its thing: comedy nights, cabaret, jazz nights, theatre, poetry…can’t wait.
• Eastern Esplanade, Cliftonville, CT9 2LB
Unlisted. Date: 18th century (with 2019 additions).
You can’t help a little gasp of wonder when you first emerge from the entrance tunnel into a lofty subterranean chamber where lights glow in carved recesses, steps lead up to shafts and galleries and walls are decorated with paintings (an elephant, soldiers, a giant, a hunting scene…). Originally dug as a chalk quarry in the 18th century, the caves have been in various uses since they were rediscovered in the early 19th century, notably as a ‘gentlemen’s den’ (I’m thinking along the lines of a Victorian Bullingdon Club) and later as a tourist attraction. They were all but forgotten after they were closed in 2004 but Heritage Lottery funding – and determined community effort – saw them reopen in 2019 with a new visitor centre (designed by architects Kaner Olette, the building is clad in dark, chalky brick and doubles as a café, shop and ‘community hub’). The origins of the paintings are not entirely clear to me but I’m working on it.
• 1 Northdown Road, Margate, CT9 1FG
Grade II listed. Date: 1888-89
This ornate Victorian tower looks a little out of place against the gaudy lights of the Flamingo amusement arcade or, indeed, the Clock Tower Kebab House, but Margate is full of contradictions (it’s part of its charm). And this beauty is by no means the oldest kid in town (much of Marine Terrace, home of the Flamingo, is probably older). Built of Kentish ragstone and Portland stone, the tower was built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and is decorated accordingly. There is a clock-face on each of its four elevations; all set in stone and joined by heraldry and busts of Queen Vic and her royal heir Edward, Prince of Wales. Originally there were commemorative plaques in terracotta but these have been replaced by copper panels. On top, a cast iron dome, a weathervane and ‘Time Ball’ – the latter (I had to look this up) ‘consists of a large, painted wooden or metal ball that is dropped at a predetermined time, principally to enable navigators aboard ships offshore to verify the setting of their marine chronometers’ (thanks Wikipedia). As far as I can tell, there are only seven of these balls in the UK.
• Marine Terrace, CT9 1UN
Grade II* listed. Date: 1787-1874.
Margate’s theatre is – was – one of the country’s finest and certainly one of the oldest (the second oldest after the Bristol Old Vic). The original (built in 1787) was Georgian playhouse but a radical reconstruction was undertaken by London’s Old Vic Theatre architect Jethro Robinson altering the interior in 1874 (think high Victorian, ‘chocolate box’ decoration, red velvet seats, roses and swags, stalls, dress circle, a shell-moulded balcony, and a Royal box). Not that you can see inside. A faltering history has seen periods of decline, change of use and closure – but since the most recent operator’s lease came to an end, the theatre has faced an uncertain future. The curtain came down on its last show in April 2022 and having failed to secure Lottery funding (the building needs a few million quid to make it viable), the owners Thanet District Council are still working on a solution. Say a little prayer as you take in the stucco-fronted elevations (pilasters, corniced windows, brackets and scrolls).
• Addington St, Margate CT9 1PW
Grade II* listed. Date: 1525
Looking a little incongruous among its mostly Georgian-Victorian neighbours, one of Thanet’s oldest buildings was almost lost in a slum clearance in the 1930s but thankfully survived to tell the tale. Originally a yeoman farmer’s house, it was once set in open fields which, over the years, were swallowed by urban development. Over the years, the house has been home to mariners, Flemish weavers and cordwainers (the fancy name for a cobbler); the remnants of a back-yard maltings (for making barley beer) still survives. Although usually open at weekends, it’s currently closed for repairs [October 2022] but worth swinging by to admire the Tudor timbers and check out and the knot garden.
• 60 King St, Margate CT9 1QE
Walpole Bay Tidal Pool
Grade II listed. Date: 1937
This isn’t exactly architecture, and unless you’re very keen on 1930s bathing pools – and swimming in general – you’re unlikely to make a special journey to Walpole Bay. Still, it’s man-made, it’s thought to be the largest tidal pool in the UK and if you find yourself breast-stroking across its four acres of brine, you might like to know that its Grade II listing is partly down to its contribution to ‘sea bathing at the period of the greatest popularity of the English seaside’ (so says Historic England, who bestowed the listing in 2014). The pool was designed by Margate’s erstwhile borough engineer E A Borg in order to make swimming more viable during low tide. The rectangular structure is built of hefty concrete blocks and reclaimed iron tram rails – and it survives more or less intact aside from a couple of missing diving boards. There are no loos or facilities, but it’s free to use, generally quiet and safe (it can get a little rough when the sea rushes in at high tide).
• Walpole Bay, CT9 2JN.
Walpole Bay Hotel
Unlisted. Date: 1914.
Artist Tracey Emin and actor Ray Winstone are among fans of this ‘living museum’ – an eccentric, family-owned bygone, still proudly stuck in the past (think doilies, luncheon, cream teas, and an original 1927 caged Otis Trellis lift). The original owner Louisa Budge sold it in the 1990s to its current owner Jane Bishop (who runs it with her son Jason). In a game attempt to stay true to the building’s original style, Jane took a junk-shop approach to furnishing the place, filling every corner with period clutter: cameras, teddy bears, sewing machines, hats, tins, frocks, postcards, porcelain – the list is too exhausting to warrant more detail. Jane’s regular tours of the premises take you upstairs, along creaky corridors, to some of the more insane areas of her collection: ‘Cleaning through the ages’, for example, displays a haphazard tableau of carpet sweepers. If you are content just to wander past, the building is magnificently Edwardian (sadly it’s closed from October to March).
• Fifth Ave, Cliftonville, Margate CT9 2JJ
For more information on Margate and the Isle of Thanet check out Visit Thanet – new to the site is a downloadable map of the town’s Empire of Light film locations.
While in Margate, don’t miss…
The Old Town
Market Street, CT9 1ER
One of the most obvious benefits of Turner Contemporary was the regeneration of this quaint shopping quarter, centred around a grid of narrow streets one-block in from the seafront and lined with independents (pavement cafes, fashion, comics, books, art and vintage). Of note is the Pie Factory Gallery. A personal favourite is Ramsay and Willams (closed until Easter): half retro ice-cream parlour (dairy or gluten free and some unusual flavours – like marmalade) and half hip antique shop (old signage, metal furniture, magazines, movie posters and the like – see picture below). And don’t miss The Crab Museum on Broad Street: the town’s newest attraction is a museum devoted to the crab – the only museum in Europe, they say, devoted to the diverse decapod (and ‘the only place on Earth where you can find out what Stephen Crabb MP has in common with a prehistoric shrimp’). There’s some nice buildings here, too.
Powell Cotton Museum
Quex Park, Birchington CT7 0BH
Part of Quex House and Gardens (a suburban country estate, former home of the Powell-Cotton family), the extraordinary Powell-Cotton Museum displays vast collections of ‘world culture’ objects, mammal specimens, decorative arts, photography, local archaeology and curiosities. The museum is best known for its series of natural-history dioramas featuring animals from Africa and Asia. Tickets (£2.50) include entrance to the house and gardens (closed from end of October to February).
Market Place CT9 1ER
In a former police station in the Old Town, this jolly little museum traces the resort’s colourful history from bathing machines and paddle steamers to Punch and Judy. Some of its collection of paintings, prints, photographs and artefacts are displayed in the building’s Victorian cells or what used to be the town’s magistrates’ courts. Open weekends only and Bank Holidays. Margate Museum,