The Isle of Thanet’s Renaissance

Amicia de Moubray edited ‘Saving Thanet:  The Architecture of Kent’s Forgotten Coast’ published by SAVE Britain’s Heritage in 2011 and is author of ‘Twentieth Century Castles in Britain’.

The star is in the ascent for the Isle of Thanet which lies at the extreme eastern tip of the Kent Coast.  Surrounded on three sides by the sea its last hey day was in the 18th century when it became ‘THE’ fashionable seaside resort.  It can even lay claim to being the place where the sea bathing hut was first invented.

‘Dismounting from my steed I’ll stray

Beneath the cliffs of Dumpton Bay,

Where Ramsgate and Broadstairs between

Rude caves and grated doors are seen’

So wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem ‘The Delinquent Travellers in 1824.  He was just one amongst many fashionable folk including J.M.W. Turner and the architect, Sir John Soane who flocked to the Isle of Thanet each summer from the 1790s onwards to enjoy the Kent Coast and the new vogue for sea bathing.

People visited in their droves. More than 18,000 in 1792 rising to over 21,000 by 1815.  Among the myriad amusements to be enjoyed were: assembly rooms, libraries and reading rooms, tea rooms, pleasure gardens and even a grotto which still exists today and is open to the public.  The delightful Theatre Royal in elegant Hawley Square, a short stroll from the seafront, is a happy survival of this golden age.  It was opened in 1787, making it one of the country’s oldest continuously operating purpose-built theatres.  To the east of Margate, in Cliftonville, The Tom Thumb Theatre, originally built as a coach house in Victorian times was transformed into one of the smallest theatres in the world in 1984.

Margate by Jon Bidston

Margate by Jon Bidston

 

Cheap flights, the collapse of the British seaside as a holiday destination and the closure of the Kent mines all contributed to the decline of Thanet.  A few years ago it was in a parlous state and the future of the Isle looked bleak to say the least. But lo and behold the opening of Turner Contemporary in Margate three years ago coupled with the advent of the High Speed Rail link is beginning to have a dramatic effect on the area particularly on the fortunes of sunny Margate.  Once again, this stretch of the Kent Coast is fashionable and architects, designers, day trippers, and painters are descending on Margate to enjoy the renaissance of the Old Town with its plethora of vintage clothes and furniture emporiums and the ever growing numbers of restaurants, not to mention smart hotels like ‘The Sands’ with its terrace overlooking Margate’s sandy beach.  A new boutique hotel is due to open shortly opposite Margate’s Winter Gardens and ‘The Reading Rooms’ is a stylish B&B option in Hawley Square.

Over in Ramsgate the Albion Hotel, originally built as a holiday retreat in 1790 – Queen Victoria and the royal family occupied it for three months in 1816, is being restored to its former glory. From it’s position on the crown of the hill it surveys the whole of Ramsgate and the Royal Harbour. Its Georgian frame imposes itself powerfully onto the landscape but with the style and eloquence of a time gone by.

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The Royal Harbour Brassiere  has a stupendous view of Ramsgate atop soaring white cliffs  and the Royal Harbour Hotel is a first class B&B overlooking the harbour in handsome Nelson Crescent.

 

Ramsgate-20Less than ten years ago Sir Roy Strong described Ramsgate as having ‘the largest stretches of undiscovered late-Georgian terrace and crescents in any English urban complex.  Not for much longer if one listens to the local estate agents.  Thanet has so much to offer less than one and half hours by train from London.  Go on – explore this highly rewarding stretch of the Kent coast for yourself.  There is so much to see and enjoy.

Amicia lives at Doddington Place near Sittingbourne and helps run the gardens which are open to the public from 30 March to 30 September. She is also the co-ordinator for the Kent satellite of  ‘Chelsea Fringe’ which includes events in May at The Abbey Physic Garden in Faversham.

Thanet Open Studios will show artists work in Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Margate and the surrounding villages over three week-ends in August and the fifth Summer Squall – a festival of visual and performing arts, will take place from 23rd to 25th August.

At Turner Contemporary, Making Painting explores the timeless act of painting through the work of JMW Turner and Helen Frankenthaler (until 11 May).

Turner Contemporary by Carlos Dominquez

 

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