There is a new spirit afoot in British seaside towns. The tired image of fly-blown arcades, grim B&Bs and shabby promenades is being replaced by exciting new galleries, quality restaurants and destination hotels.

Clare Gogerty

Clare Gogerty writes about UK travel for The Guardian and Conde Nast Traveller, and is the associate editor of The Simple Things.
She is the former editor of Coast magazine and has written the National Trust’s Book of the Coast which will be published in spring 2015.

@ClareGogerty
www.thesimplethings.com

Published

June 23, 2014

Nowhere is this more evident than Margate on the Kent coast. Its curl of sandy beach always attracted Londoners motoring down for the weekend (as chronicled by Chas and Dave in ‘Down to Margate’), but the town slumped into hopeless neglect as visitors abandoned it for the Costas in the Seventies, sinking further when its pleasure park, Dreamland, closed in 2003.

Rescue came with the construction of the Turner Contemporary Gallery in 2011. Designed by architect David Chipperfield and showing contemporary art alongside work by JMW Turner (once a frequent visitor to the town), the gallery drew a fresh, arty crowd and produced a ripple gentrifying effect in the town. The Reading Rooms, an elegant B&B in a restored Georgian town house opened to acclaim, and the Old Town and the Harbour Arm began to bustle with cafes and shops selling vintage and contemporary desirables.

An influx of creative types, drawn by reasonable property prices and the burgeoning artistic community, egged on the revival. Cafes such as the restored vintage Fort’s in Cliftonville, epitomise the trend: run by a young couple, it offers locally sourced food alongside a calendar of events including DJ nights. And, best news of all, Dreamland is being restored. A campaign by the local community (now steered by Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway) saved the site from redevelopment and will rebuild the arson-trashed roller coaster (the oldest in the UK and hand operated) as well as gathering and restoring historic rides from around the country.

1. ART DECO SPLENDOUR IN MORECAMBE, Lancashire

The Midland Hotel, which overlooks the vastness of Morecambe Bay and its four-mile promenade, had fallen into a sorry state. Built in 1933 in Streamline Moderne style to the designs of architect Oliver Hill for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, its crisp, curved outline had become severely battered by storms and neglect. Property developers Urban Splash stepped in with a £7 million restoration, reopening the hotel in 2008. Now guests can enjoy Eric Gill’s sea-themed frescoes and sculpture which decorate the front and interior of the building, and spill out on to the terrace to enjoy those views in some style.

2. CONTEMPORARY CULTURE IN BEXHILL-ON-SEA, East Sussex

Another impressive 1930s building that has revived its town’s fortunes can be found at Bexhill-on-Sea. The De La Warr Pavilion, designed by architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, was built in 1935 in the International Style with clean lines, plenty of glass, a great sweeping staircase and sea-facing terraces. Although always used as an entertainment centre, it fell into end-of-the-pier weariness during the 1970s and 1980s but, following £8 million funding, it re-opened in 2004 as a contemporary arts centre. An imaginative and sometimes provocative programme of events offers contemporary music and art alongside kids’ activities and lectures. It also serves a fine plate of sandwiches.

3. REVAMPED ATTRACTIONS IN BLACKPOOL, Lancashire

With its three piers, acres of pleasure beach, Winter Gardens and spectacular Tower, Blackpool has been a city devoted to pleasure since the railway reached it in 1846. A victim of its own success and deluged by visitors over the decades, it became over-used and run down. A tranche of regeneration money is changing this: the Tower has had a refresh, retaining its ballroom with its elaborate gilded plasterwork and circus with its grand water finale, and adding a 4D cinema and ride to the top, where a floor-to-ceiling glass observation window delivers tremendous views and wobbly-knees. Next up for a revival is the Winter Gardens which, along with the Tower and other attractions, is now owned by Merlin Entertainments Group (which runs the London Eye).

4. GENERAL GROOVINESS IN DEAL, Kent

Because Deal has a shingle beach it was never swamped by holidaymakers – they headed to the nearby sandy beaches of Broadstairs and Margate instead. As a result, the seafront is much as it was in the 18th-century: a row of fishermen’s cottages and small houses extending into a conservation area. In its heyday, it was a busy harbour with boats anchoring in its sheltered waters. Nowadays many of the fishermen’s cottages are holiday homes attracting a new, incoming crowd who have brought with them (or encouraged) artisan bakers, vintage markets and chi-chi self-catering accommodation. Its long, rather brutalist concrete pier is popular with anglers and has been enlivened by the addition of a timber café designed by architect Niall McLaughlin to resemble the ribcage of a ship.

ALSO WORTH A VISIT

The recently-opened Jerwood Gallery on the beach at Hastings, East Sussex, is one of the new ‘string of pearls’ coastal galleries on the south coast: the others are Turner Contemporary in Margate and the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne. It’s one good reason to visit the town, but Hastings has much else to offer: the Old Town bustles with antique shops, delis and galleries, and quality boutique accommodation such as The Old Rectory and Swan House means that there is also somewhere comfortable to stay. Next up is the restoration of the pier currently undergoing a £14 million restoration and due to reopen in spring 2015.

Built of steel and resembling a piece of driftwood, The East Beach Café in Littlehampton, West Sussex, has brought a new crowd of architecture-curious people to the sleepy seaside town since it opened in 2007. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick (he of the Olympic torch and the new Routemaster), it sits on the beach and is the perfect lunch stopover. The mother and daughter partnership behind it has also opened The West Beach Café nearby, designed by Asif Khan and resembling a concrete container open to the sea.