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Travel: Artist’s retreat revived by new coat of paint in magical Margate

Broadstairs Kent UK
Broadstairs Kent UK

I’m dangling head first 60 feet above the earth, eyes trained on the fairground below and praying the harness in which my ample middle-aged body is clamped does its job and holds me fast.

In prayer, I try to look to heaven and see only my feet above my head. Seconds later I’m plunging towards the ground and screaming for my life.

When – after a long and terrifying three minutes – we finally slow to a halt, a proud seven-year-old in the seat beside me boasts this is her seventh ride in an hour. It’s official. I am an abject coward.

The death-defying Pendulum is one of nine new rides at Dreamland, the retro funfair in the seaside town of Margate. As I hobble away, clutching the arm of my co-riding 12-year-old daughter, she sighs in disgust: “You’re just like the old woman on the rollercoaster in the Specsavers advert.”

How the tables turn! This Kent coast amusement park – which now has 26 fun-filled rides for all ages – has been a traditional holiday haunt for Londoners like myself. As a kid I rode its legendary Scenic Railway over and over again with my white-knuckled and long-suffering grandad at my side.

I’m thrilled to find the Grade II listed wooden roller-coaster still there, its cogs and other workings on show. It, like the park itself, lays claim to being the oldest in the UK, and the ride is preparing to celebrate its centenary next year.

Dreamland has it all going on – from live music, stage shows and movies to a string of eateries, bars and even an American-style cocktail trailer – thanks to a multi-million-pound regeneration project in 2017.

Sitting on a rooftop terrace and tucking into deliciously authentic Caribbean barbecue, I smile to myself as my science-daft daughter enjoys the current TV-inspired performance unfolding on the stage below – Brainiac Live for “science nerds and explorers”.

It took us around 12 hours to get from our adopted home of Aberdeen to Kent – but we let the train take the strain, travelling via London on the Caledonian Sleeper. We encountered no airport security queues, pilot strikes or computer meltdowns, just hassle-free travel direct to London Euston.

Regular train links to the Kent coast are less than a 10-minute walk away at nearby St Pancras Station. But we chose instead to break our journey, and take in a West End show (Matilda), as well as visiting Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, and Buckingham Palace – all within walking distance of our fabulously located base at the Strand Palace Hotel. By the time we finally arrive on the coast, we are happy to escape the city.

Just over a decade ago, Margate’s once-thriving past was in decline. But the tide has turned for the Thanet town that boasts such glorious golden sands and fabulous sunsets that it was much loved by the 18th-Century artist William Turner. The eponymous Turner Contemporary gallery – which opened in 2011 – has now put the destination firmly back on the tourism map. And it will be hosting the prestigious Turner Prize 2019 from September 28 to January 12 next year.

Also on offer is the 1835 Shell Grotto, 70ft of winding passages decorated with 4.6 million shells and the 1863 Margate Caves, which, newly restored, re-opened to the public in August.

From Margate, tourists can walk or cycle the four miles along the Viking Coastal Trail to picturesque Broadstairs with its seven sandy beaches. But this charming town, with its quaint fishermen’s cottages, is perhaps best known as Charles Dickens’ favourite holiday spot. Travel further afield and you will find the pretty clapperboard beach houses and famous oyster beds of Whitstable and the cathedral town of Canterbury. Back in our Margate base, we (just like Turner himself) visit the Old Town and treat ourselves to fish and chips at sunset from Peter’s fish and chip shop on the seafront.

As tradition dictates, we eat it on the sea wall, looking out to the pier and The Shell Lady; a bronze statue of Mrs Booth, the Margate landlady who became the artist’s lover.

As the sun dips into the sea, we tuck in to the fish, which at just under a fiver, wasn’t much to “shell out” for either. This has to be the perfect end to a perfect stay.

Travel back in time with an olde-worlde tour of St Peter’s village near Broadstairs. This award-winning tour brings history to life in what was once the historic seat of local government in the area.