“I’ve been going to Broadstairs arcades since I was ten and still haven’t won on the crane machine”

“Summer hots up at the Great British Seaside”, according to the official caption. Anyway, this is Margate. Image: Getty.

Every Christmas, lots of people from small towns and villages across the country head home to the places that their city friends forget exist. Trading the lively lights of London – it’s usually London – for the countryside, seaside or whatever other sort of sticks, the pilgrimage back to where you’re from is usually a mixed bag. It’s a weird balancing act between the warmth of nostalgia and the reminders of why you left.  

For me, that comes on the Isle of Thanet, which comprises the seaside towns of Ramsgate, Margate and Broadstairs, as well as several smaller villages, and is Kent’s most easterly point. It was formerly separated from the main land by the 600m-wide Wantsum Channel, but over the course of the last millennium the channel became filled up with sediment from the River Stour and the shingle that was collected along its coast helped to attach Thanet to the rest of England. The name, though, has stuck. 

And there’s something so fitting about it. Thanet has an island mentality: fiercely proud and protective of its local culture and history, while simultaneously suspicious of the world beyond its borders. Multiple generations of Thanesian families attend the same schools, drink in the same pubs and live in the same neighbourhoods as their parents. Those who do leave the Isle – for work or university – rarely venture very far, visit regularly, and often come back to settle down in the long term.

Though aspects of the Isle represent the quintessence of Kent – grammar schools, leafy suburbs and easy commutability to London – Thanet has enough patches of poverty and teen pregnancies to qualify as a Home Counties black sheep.

The Isle’s claims to fame, or infamy, depending on your disposition, include: Charles Dickens writing his novel David Copperfield while holidaying in Broadstairs, Margate artist Tracy Emin making the shortlist for the Turner Prize, Margate providing the setting for an episode of Only Fools and Horses, former prime minister Sir Edward Heath attending Chatham House Grammar School in Ramsgate, and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage trying, and failing, to be elected as South Thanet’s member of parliament twice. In 2017, Ramsgate’s old Royal Victoria Pavilion casino was converted into the biggest Wetherspoon pub in the country, and by extension, the world. 


Growing up on the Isle, my own feelings towards Thanet went through phases. I loved the beaches, parks and promenades. I loved the enduring pride and presence of local businesses – my first part-time job was at the butcher J.C. Rook and Son’s – and I was lucky enough to go to a very well-run school in Chatham House, which gave me opportunities I probably wouldn’t have got elsewhere.

But for all those perks, Thanet came with caveats too. The Isle, which has an overwhelmingly white-British population, is nonetheless convinced that immigrants are taking over and that political correctness has gone too far. As an ethnic minority from Thanet, let me say that nothing stings quite like being told to “go home” when you already are. 

That’s not to say that everyone from Thanet is a racist, but is to say that Thanet is home to a lot of racists, who take tabloid headlines at face value, and treat immigrants as a convenient scapegoat for the area’s wider problems. Margate’s Cliftonville neighbourhood, one pub pundit told me during my last visit home, is a “no-go zone” due to its large number of refugees. It’s really not.

Thanet’s more liberal-minded youth – who do exist – tend to flee to the city if they get chance, but even then there’s a strange magnetism that keeps us going back. I have plenty of gripes about the Isle, yet I can’t imagine going more than a few months without visiting. Family ties play a big part in that, of course, but even independent of those, there’s still something addictive about the area. I’ve been going to Broadstairs arcades since I was ten and still haven’t won on the crane machine.

When I was in sixth form, first getting to grips with Thanet’s spectacularly poor nightlife, which is characterised by pubs which think turning the volume up on their music makes them clubs, or a few cans down one of the bays, I remember making plans with my friends to leave this all behind us. But none of us have, and over the Christmas break, we’ll be back on the same beaches, in the same bars, ruing how the mega Spoons has ruined Ramsgate harbour trade, most likely before heading to the mega Spoons ourselves. 

The Isle of Thanet is not, as the Daily Telegraph once described it, “The Kent Riviera”. It’s not an island, either, but the beaches are lovely, and it is home.

You can hear Rohan talk about Thanet on Skylines, the CityMetric podcast.

This article previously appeared on the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.