On the first floor of a repurposed cinema in Margate, 60-year-old Frank White inhales the warm smell of hot cross buns coming out of the vast oven below. “It happens every 10 minutes,” he says, somewhat wistfully.
White runs a stall called Grandad’s Workshop in Old Kent Market, where he sits whittling his own wooden pens, and even encourages customers to try their hand at making their own.
The market itself opened about a year ago. Finished in 1911, the building was once the site of a cinema, a bingo hall, and a snooker club, before being transformed more than into the present-day kitschy hub of foodstalls and independent craftsmen and women. Caterers stay on the lower floor, leaving tradesmen and women on the higher level to observe the scenes below.
White attributes changes in the area to the opening of the Turner Contemporary in 2011. But he was initially sceptical about whether it would have a positive impact, and when his stall first arrived at the market, whether it would see any success.
“Over the winter months it was obviously very cold and windy, you occasionally have those days when a man, his wife and a dog come in... It was very quiet, sometimes a bit disheartening,” White says. “In the summer it’s the opposite... I’ve heard so many people say what a wonderful place it is.” He believes that the changes to the area are attracting people who previously did not frequent the town.
“I hate to use the word ‘class’, but I think we are getting a different type of person coming into the area... It’s been a gradual thing, probably since the Turner centre opened,” he says, noting that these people might have a more “artistic” temperament and disposable income.
“We thought, this is going to be a complete white elephant and what a waste of our council tax. But, I have to put my hands up and say I’ll admit, I was wrong.”
“The more new businesses that open in the old town, the better it is for everybody,” agrees Michelle Norman from Mica' Coastal Crafts, also based at the market.“It has a knock on effect.”
Last year, both London’s Evening Standard and the Daily Mail ran stories proclaiming that London’s “hipsters” were heading to the Kentish seaside town in droves. On top of that, this summer, the renowned Dreamland amusement park threw open its doors again after a £25m revamp; it held a party on 26 May. “I think that’s going to bring a whole ton of people into the town again,” said Dom Bridges of Haeckels, which creates cosmetics made with ingredients such as seaweed harvested from the Kent coast.
Bridges and his partner moved to the Cliftonville area, east of the town centre, from London about three and a half years ago. “There’s been a whole bunch of businesses opening up there,” he says. “We’ve had Cliffs open, which is a sort of multipurpose space. Coffee, food, yoga, a record store. It does everything,” he says, adding that a further record store, Transmission, is run by someone formerly from Rough Trade.
Estate Agent Alan Munns, director of My4Walls and owner of the Thanet Property Blog, said that the High Speed 1 (HS1) railways has also contributed (section one opened in 2003, and section two in 2007), as well as London prices and the media interest itself. “The Turner is certainly part of a sequence of events and investments, I think it has put Margate on the map,” he says. “But the improved High Speed Rail link into London too.”
He mentions the different approach taken by people coming from outside, and how they arrive free from the local understandings of the townspeople. “We get clients from all over London,” Munns said.
The coastline is still scattered with English seaside amusement arcades and stray advertisements to watch Steve McFadden speak (sorry, you missed that – it was on 6 May). And the concerted effort to change the social fabric of the area, typified by the Turner, doesn’t come without its downsides.
Property prices have risen enormously in the past few years. According to rightmove, sale prices in Margate in the past year were 13 percent up on the previous year, and 25 percent up from 2007.
Because of this, people who are renting properties, rather than buying, are suffering problems. “The downside is that landlords are selling property and tenants are having to find new accommodation,” says Munns. “I wouldn’t call it a crisis but certainly there’s a shortage.”
In its 1950s and 1960s heyday, Cliftonville was a thriving shopping area. But in the last 10 years, it’s been an area of high unemployment and antisocial behaviour, says Munns. “The people from London all want to buy in Cliftonville,” he notes. “Local people won’t buy in Cliftonville.”