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Margate: From Waste Land to millenial dreamland

dreamland margate - Credit: Archant

Margate is attracting a mass migration of millennials who are transforming the town

On Margate Sands.

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect


So wrote T.S Eliot, who penned sections of The Waste Land whilst living in Margate in the 1920s. During this time, Margate was the rehab de jour of poets and artists, seeking introspection and recuperation by the sea.

A century on, I too, find myself drawn to Margate. For the past six months, my Instagram feed has been inundated with pictures of the town’s newly refurbished ‘Dreamland’ amusement park. I have my reservations, as I’m vaguely aware that Margate was once UKIP’s dreamland, too, but lured by promises of ‘delight and wonder’ I book a trip for the second week in June.

I’m not alone. It is called the ‘Margration’ – millennials are moving to Margate en masse. They are leaving London in search of lower rents, and taking their cold press coffee and Corbynista politics with them.

Of course, this is nothing new. When I bring it up with Andrew Davidson, a local antiques dealer, I’m promptly reminded that ‘people have been moving here from London as long as people can remember’. Andrew moved to Margate 12 years ago, ‘after taking a wrong turn via London’.

What is different about the current Margration are the political events that immediately preceded it. Just three years ago, UKIP were hopeful that North and South Thanet would return favourable results, even hosting their party conference in Margate’s Winter Gardens. What we know now is that UKIP’s dreams of securing a parliamentary seat in the region were never to be realised. Although 29 UKIP councillors remain in Thanet District Council, UKIP saw their vote fall by more than 20% in both constituencies last week; Thanet’s UKIP councillors are now a throwback from a bygone era.

Shortly after arriving I discover, somewhat ironically, that Dreamland is closed to the public for the day. It only opened the week beforehand, and is having some final alterations made before unabated tourist season commences.

Undeterred, and still determined to find ‘delight and wonder’, a short walk brought me to the pubs, cafes and restaurants which are nestled upon the harbour wall. I end up in Cheesy Tiger. Although the owner spends an inordinately long amount of time explaining the menu to me, I’m pretty sure it’s main staple is glorified cheese on toast.

I get chatting to Cheesy Tiger team member Paul White, who is 30, and only moved away from London two months ago after a friend from Berlin moved here and recommended it. ‘I wanted to have a bit more breathing room mentally. I was a tailor in London, but wanted to set up my own business. It’s exciting to watch it develop and to watch more like-minded people moving here. It seems like it’s got that genuine community.’

When I ask Paul about the G-word (gentrification,) he considers out loud that ‘no-one that I’ve spoken to here wants to come and take Margate for their own, they’ve made the conscious decision to move away from London’.

The General Election had happened just the day before, and Paul tells me that there was a great atmosphere down his local as they watched the results come in. ‘This place is solidly Conservative, but everyone I was watching with… was completely rooting for Labour’. Labour enjoyed a 16% swing in North Thanet, where it seems to have gorged on the remains of UKIP’s carcass.

It would be easy to be cynical about musicians-cum-tailors-cum-waiters-cum-artists like Paul. On a whim, he’s Margrated, not knowing anything about the place. But like others his age I meet, he’s very aware about the locals who have been here much longer, and keen not to be labelled as a temporary resident.

As I head back to the beachfront, I meet Matt Hanzo, who is sat outside Costa with his partner and child. Matt is 44 and has spent most of his life in Margate. He’s not working at the moment and is philosophical about the changes happening to his hometown: ‘There really is a strong sense of community amongst local businesses here.’

I ask him how he feels about Dreamland and he says that ‘most people in Margate wish [Dreamland] well but it’s a mixed bag, I’d like to see more being invested into the area. I don’t think anybody that lives here wishes anyone any ill, but the people here need to be seen, and sometimes we feel like we’re not… we welcome each and every person, but it would be nice for the priorities to be in order.’

Fifty young people were reportedly involved in a beach brawl during the May Bank Holiday weekend, but the locals I speak to don’t seem to know much about it. Rebecca Watts, 19, who works at Mr Simms Olde Sweet shop says she has ‘no idea’ about the fight: ‘See, Margate used to be like that years ago, quite rough, but it’s moved away from that now. There was another stabbing last week, down near Dreamland. That’s bad. But you get [crime] everywhere.’

Rebecca is from Ramsgate, and comes to Margate on the bus. She thinks that the Margration ‘is great, there’s different types of businesses coming down…if you compare Margate now to five years ago, it is completely different, much better’.

The only downside is that ‘housing is going up. It’s becoming harder for people locally to buy. I would move to Margate from Ramsgate, but I probably won’t be able to afford to buy, it’s really bad. My boyfriend’s partner rents a house up the road and it’s £800 per month for a two-bedroom apartment. It’s not very big at all.’

Undoubtedly, gentrification is the new challenge that faces Margate. Whilst the properties in Margate seem like a steal to any Londoner shelling out £1,000 a month for a one bed, the same cannot be said for those who are from the area.

‘I was offered a job at Dreamland,’ James Harty tells me excitedly as we have a windy conversation on the sea front. James is 29 and works as the creative operations manager at the venue, which was hosting Gorillaz that coming weekend.

‘I didn’t know much about Margate, but came for the interview and just fell in love with it… there’s a really good mixture of local people who have been champions of the town for years, and people who are slowly moving here and who really appreciate it for what it is.’

I’m chatting to James, and his friend Victoria, who also works at Dreamland, when our conversation is disrupted by a rotund bald headed man who walks past. He shouts (although it was arguably more of a grunt) ‘fucking gays, fucking refugees’ in our direction, and then walks off.

Of course, the man’s remarks typify perfectly the stereotype of a bigoted Ukipper who resents the social change that individuals like Victoria and James represent. But Victoria, 34, is quick to rebuff the gentleman’s remarks. ‘You always have that mix. There are a lot of LGBT people moving here because it is such a creative, open and welcoming place. But on the whole, the people of Margate are really accepting.’

The two friends tell me that since moving here they have helped to set up a group called OUT Margate. ‘I think one of the reasons we created [OUT Margate] was the idea that when it’s a small town you can get people who can feel uncomfortable and not used to it feeling so diverse,’ Victoria explains. ‘People aren’t necessarily used to seeing different types of people… so it’s about trying to get that transition balanced so that people feel comfortable on both sides. Obviously, it’s not nice to get people saying things like that to you on the street, but a lot of it is based on fear, so it’s breaking down those barriers and that’s important.’ Later on, I spot the man who shouted at us sat in a bus shelter, there’s a group of friends sat together further down, but he’s on the margins, looking out to sea.

In spite of this incident, the locals I speak to are overwhelmingly positive about the change that is happening in their community. For years, it felt like Tracey Emin, who grew up in the town, was the last remaining cheerleader for this once popular resort; which had a rough ride in the 80s and 90s, and in recent years endured the humiliation of a burgeoning UKIP connection.

You’d be wrong for thinking this. The people of Margate no longer ‘expect nothing’ as Eliot once surmised. They have been steadily grafting for years, are proud of their community, and are keen to see it come out the other side a more welcoming and successful place. Those who are moving to the area are right to be sensitive to the needs and views of locals, who have had no choice but to stick it out through thick and thin.

The millennials I spoke to demonstrated that they understood this; they are the product of Jeremy Corbyn’s socially conscious politics. If they integrate themselves mindfully, giving jobs to the locals and encouraging the council to introduce affordable rents, then it’s possible the millennial margration might help turn Margate’s fortunes around for good.

Grace Pengelly is a freelance writer working on her first book. Follow her @graciepeng

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