Revival-on-Sea

Revival-on-Sea

 the great British seaside resort now has art   galleries, coffee shops and concept stores galore  and it’s the Kent coast that’s leading the way

Once the jewel in the crown of the British Isles, a lot of coastal towns fell out of favour when holidaymakers – feeling the pull of  the package tour – opted for sun, sea and sangria abroad. Abandoned and unloved, disrepair and depression followed as their communities struggled to find a new direction. But the tide is slowly turning for the fortunes of these once forgotten places , with visitors returning in their droves.

Of this seaside renaissance, the Kent coastline is one of its biggest success stories to date, with Whitstable, Margate, Hastings and Folkestone all experiencing a surge in popularity. Much of the movement is down  to those in the creative industries who have taken advantage of its close proximity to London, competitive housing market and vacant commercial spaces. Artists Leon Hatcher and Emma Gibson moved to Margate last November and opened Plinth, an independent lifestyle shop and concept space in the town’s now thriving Cliftonville area. The store sells one-off curiosities and pieces of furniture, and doubles up as a studio as well as a platform for emerging artists to sell their artwork.

Their move to the area stemmed from an affinity with like-minded locals and their vision of Margate as a blank canvas they could build on. ‘We had spent a good few weekends here with Jess and Eoin from the local Tom Thumb Theatre. We felt welcomed, refreshed and invigorated by the sea but mostly by the people we met in Margate and the community here,’ Leon explains. ‘It’s a real magnet for imaginative souls to come together and build something exciting.’ These are sentiments echoed by Liam Nabb and Louise Oldfield of The Reading Rooms, a boutique bed and breakfast in a converted Grade II listed building in the town’s Hawley Square. Since they arrived in 2009, Margate is markedly different. ‘Now the Old Town is full of interesting shops and cafes and people making things; it’s becoming a destination for vintage and antique shopping,’ Liam tells us.

Back then, the Old Town was deserted and where the Turner Contemporary now stands was a car park. Now, the place is bustling with boutiques (Rat Race Clothing, Breuer and Dawson), retro eateries (Forts Cafe,  Roost) and  old-school apothecaries (Haeckels) that surprisingly don’t look incongruous with its traditional pubs and ramshackle beach huts.  It’s a similar story a few miles away in Folkestone, which has established its own Creative Quarter in the heart of its Old Town: a collection of studios to entice arty types to the area.  It may sound cynical but it’s a tried and tested formula that works.

As with London’s Shoreditch in the 80s, resourceful artists appear to be the driving force behind the changes. Those with a flair for building something from the ground up are moving in, which in turn attracts attention from big investors, creating a positive cycle  of regeneration.  This sort of wave of change brought about the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and, more recently, Margate’s Dreamland: a 100-year-old theme park that reopened its doors in July after an £18 million revamp led by designer Wayne Hemingway. With other seaside resorts still languishing in the doldrums,  surely their answer has to be: let’s fill this town with artists.

Morecombe

Retaining more old school charm than most, Morecambe’s Winter Gardens theatre harks back to a bygone era of music hall glamour, and although not yet renovated to its former glory, it’s worth the visit. While The Midland Hotel - a meticulously restored Grade II Art Deco masterpiece - boasts the modern trappings of a sun terrace, beauty spa and rotunda bar with panoramic views.

Mersea Island

A stone’s throw from the Essex coastline, this estuary island lures day-trippers  keen to sample the seafood delights of The Company Shed. Swing by the local Mersea Vineyard and Microbrewery to take some homegrown tipple home, and if you extend your stay, book into Monkey Beach Cottage – a 300-year-old cottage brimming with antiques, books and cosy trimmings.

Scarborough

Nestled on the North Sea coast of Yorkshire, Scarborough is billed as the St Ives of the North. Its growing surfing scene is drawing in a younger crowd and the council have invested £3 million regenerating the Spa Complex – a huge venue dedicated to the arts. The quirky Eat Me cafe, with its hanging Tretchikoff prints and pan-Asian-meets-northern menu is one not to miss.



Littlehampton

This unassuming coastal plot has two beachside cafes designed by leading British architects: the mesmerising East Beach cafe by Thomas Heatherwick and Asif Khan’s inside-out West Beach cafe. Both serve  up locally sourced seafood delicacies with breathtaking seaside views. Coupled with the weekly artisan market, it’s fast becoming a foodie destination.

  • Words: Catriona Taylor

  • Photography: Oliver Dixon, Plinth, The Reading Rooms, Donna Watson