The Isle of Thanet

The Isle of Thanet

The Isle of Thanet

The Isle of Thanet

Information Centre, Marine Terrace, Margate. 0843 20241.

Tucked into the north-east corner of Kent is the Isle of Thanet.

In Roman times it really was an island but the Wantsum Channel is now silted up and the River Stour is only a trickle. The North Foreland stands above the waters of the English Channel; to its south are Ramsgate and Broadstairs; to its west Cliftonville, Margate and Westgate. They are served by the same electrified railways, with frequent trains from London via Chatham and onto Dover.

Margate has no doubt that it was the local Quaker and glove-maker, Benjamin Beale, who in 1753 invented the first bathing machine, and by the 1780s it boasted forty of them. They added a touch of refinement to the business of sea-bathing which had just started to gain favour. Mounted on a wheeled platform, which was dragged into and out of the water, the machine and bather were covered from prying eyes. A swoop of canvas awning came down over the steps, once in the water, so that the bather could descend into the sea in privacy and with dignity. By the 1780s these machines were the status symbols of a resort’s success. Margate’s enormous expanses of sand and its proximity to the upriver capital made it, two hundred years ago, the place where Londoners rushed to the sea. The Margate Hoys which brought them were little more than open cargo boats which made the un-comfortable voyage from London at the cost of half a crown a head – twenty-five pence. The families would spend the whole week, or two, at the seaside and the fathers would come down, on the ‘Husbands Boats’ or ‘Saturday Boats’ after work for the weekend. This influx did not please everyone as much as it pleased them. The ‘flashy, noisy crowd were.. . morally dangerous.’ The fashionable, elegant, middle class, for whom the Assembly Rooms, the Theatre Royal, Salt Water Baths and Halls Library had been built, went to other more select places, and once the railway had replaced the ‘Hoys’ its popularity grew even more. Today the railway line into Margate brings you first through its suburbs of Birchington and Westgate-on-Sea.

Birchington is really a village in its own right with chalk cliffs, sea wall and long undercliff promenades. The Victorian artist Gabriel Rossetti is buried in the medieval churchyard of All Saints and Birchington was the home of Major Percy Powell-Cotton, a big game hunter whose Quex House is a place to be visited. It has three bays: Minnis Bay, the most popular, Epple Bay, the prettiest, and Beresford Gap for water-skiers. Next the railway comes to Westgate-on-Sea, a Victorian suburb, where grassy banks drop down to two beaches, and the delightfully peaceful Sunken Gardens.

A little to the east, passing the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital (1792), is Margate, not pretty, but a fun centre: bingo, amusement arcades, pop music, fish and chips and vinegar. Miles of quieter sandy beaches, gentler colourful gardens, places to visit and sports are nearby. The beaches are real family affairs. Donkey rides from spring to September; Punch and Judy in high summer and Kiddies Corner with roundabouts, slides, swings and trampolines going non-stop. There are tidal pools at Marine Sands and at Walpole Bay, Cliftonville. Water-skiing, board-sailing or wind-surfing; bowls, tennis, golf, putting greens, tenpin bowling, squash and badminton, and a new indoor leisure centre cater for the active. But overlooking everything at Margate is Bembom Brothers Amusement Park, with rides of all descriptions and degrees of thrill or terror. Just about every known way of making your stomach turn inside out is to be found somewhere within this amusement park. To be sure, the entrance starts gently enough with the odd roundabout and dodgem car. It is when you get inside the park that the fun begins and you no longer have time or reason to ask questions such as, ‘Is this really the tallest Big Wheel in Europe at 140ft? Is this really the longest Scenic Railway in Britain? Is that Looping Star really the ride of a lifetime?’ Yes, once inside there is no question, this is fun and all there for you to try for no more than the price of your entrance fee. The Pirate Ship which gets a gentle roll on before stormily pitching you all over the place, the Tudor ship Mary Rose which lulls you into a false sense of security with its sway until it turns 3600 full circle, and in comparison with those the Tri-Star, Troika, Ghost Train and Watershute are almost tame little trips. Bembom Brothers has certainly taken over where the old Dreamland left off.

Nearby are less heart-stopping attractions: Drapers Mill, in full working order, the sole survivor of three windmills. Open on Sunday afternoons in summer and on Thursday evenings in July and August.