That Margate has become the dumping ground for the unloved, unemployable and uncontrollable from all over the South-East of England doesn’t make it an obvious choice for an escape from London’s mean streets for the bespoke-heeled, cultured and discerning. And yet, on a daily basis, DFLs – the Down From London brigade, as they are called here, with equal measures love and scorn – are scouring this seaside town’s streets lined with Georgian, Edwardian and Victorian properties, looking to upscale their apartments in London or to seek out a holiday home by the sea. They, like me, see past the girl fights in Morrisons, the grubby kids marauding the streets and launching themselves into the shallow water at the end of the Harbour Arm, the racist cab drivers and the in-your-face drug use. Instead, architects, gallery owners and designers have sensed the opportunity and change that my partner and I spotted just a couple of years ago.
This grimy, down-at-heel town – where donkeys first trotted on English sand and the Victorians took to the water for health rather than pleasure – bears a striking resemblance to Hackney (once my home) some 18 years ago. The artists, the hipsters and designers look like the folk I travelled bravely with on the 38 bus from London Fields to the West End back in the day. A recent viewing of Blank City at the local cinema club in the country’s second smallest theatre, run by a young DFL couple, also showed up hip parallels with New York City before the clean-up. My first sighting of a fixed-gear bicycle pedaling along the seafront gave me joyous palpitations.
Carry on along the seafront, past the shelter where T.S. Eliot wrote lines of The Wasteland, whose latter-day inhabitants create their own take on wasted
The creatives who now call Margate home have done what artists have done for generations: sniffed out cheap studios and gallery spaces. This time they’ve moved because the gentrification of London’s wildest boroughs has forced out those that don’t earn six-figure sums. This new wave, though, have found themselves caught up in the groundswell of positivity caused by the arrival of the art behemoth that is the Turner Contemporary. The austere David Chipperfield-designed gallery, slated by art critic Brian Sewell, opened just 18 months ago and in its first 12 months attracted an astonishing 500,000 visitors to its doors – three times the number originally predicted. We might have Mary Portas and her television cronies pounding the high street trying to create pop-ups out of deserted Woolworths or defunct Bon Marchés, and juicy stories fit for a reality TV series on every corner, but this town dragged itself up long before the government and Portas threw £100,000 at it.
Sip a glass of bubbly at St Pancras, put together a train picnic from Sourced and jump on the high-speed train to Margate as we did before making the move here. As you’re emptied out onto the concourse of Margate’s Victorian train station and are invariably met by lowlifes wielding tins of Tennent’s Extra, you may well wonder whether the hype is really true or even possible. But try to look past the boarded-up pubs and the looming brutalist building that has seen better days. Carry on along the seafront, past the shelter where T.S. Eliot wrote lines of The Wasteland, whose latter-day inhabitants create their own take on wasted; past the rough pubs, with their Sambuca and Jägerbomb deals, and which are filled on some nights with prime specimens of the master race – tattooed thugs with short foreheads planning their manifesto for white supremacy.
Continue further still, past the Formica-clad Wimpy “restaurant” and the arcades with their ringing slot machines and glass cases filled with China-made toys, past bags of rubbish ripped open by ASBO gulls, to where the nose-tingling whiff of malt vinegar and old frying fat sit heavy in the briny sea air. It might not be pretty, but turn your head westwards and there’s a sweep of fine, golden sand, an enormous sky that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean and that glimmering piece of modern architecture by Chipperfield.
There’s the whiff of excitement and possibility in the air in Margate. It mixes headily with the potent seaweed, sickly sweet candyfloss and the stench of a polarised populace facing crippling levels of unemployment
We’d been coming to Margate for two years. Firstly as day-trippers, stumbling across the Old Town with its vintage furniture stores, cute cafés and alehouse, feeling like we were its first discoverers. These shop and gallery owners were the pioneers – when the Old Town was just another no-go area, full of drunks waiting for their benefit cheques to clear, they set up shop, scrubbed their doorsteps and filled their stores with cleverly chosen pieces and work by local artists. Janet Williams at the Margate Gallery, Anne-Marie Nixy and her Qing interiors store and Lisa Hemingway’s Cupcake Café cleared the way for new inhabitants. These days the Old Town is packed with visitors and well-heeled Thanet dwellers, sipping pots of tea surrounded by their shopping bags and pedigree pooches.
After four or five visits to the town, we were smitten. We had bought furniture, wandered around brilliantly curated exhibitions at the Turner, discovered dusty emporiums filled to the rafters with sticks of mismatched furniture, vintage finds and upcycled lighting, and finished up with pints of Kentish cider at The Lifeboat and perfectly formed burgers at Fort’s Café. Each and every person we met talked of the promise of this town – of its incredible past and exciting future.
Having left SW6 for the green rolling hills of the Cotswolds to set up a mobile wood-fired pizza business (why not? We’d been publishers, publicans, chefs and social media consultants in our past lives), my partner and I searched for property for us and our huge dog, Henry, and storage for our pizza oven and VW Campervan. The first result that popped up within our ridiculously tight price parameters was a unit perched on the town’s old stone pier – the exact spot where a young Tracey Emin dreamed her dream of being someone. For £65 a week, including an alcohol license, the place had potential – and not just for storage. It could be a summer pop-up! How very 2012! There would be a tiny kitchen, a Roman-style oven on wheels dragged out every morning from behind the van, and no indoor seating.
Our pizza-making had been inspired by consuming the charred crusts at Pizza East, Franco Manca, Santa Maria and Pizza Pilgrims in London. The pop-up concept came from a trip to Orlando, where streetfood truck conventions were found all across the city – incredible quality food served from converted vans and lorries in the car park of a DIY superstore. We honed a dough recipe with the help of the Fabulous Baker Boys – the Herbert brothers, also based in the Cotswolds, whose handsome looks and public schoolboy lilt had made them cookery show pin-ups on Channel 4. Our first Twitter coup: we followed them, dropped them a line and were invited to meet them at their HQ. After a few trial batches, we nailed the dough.
There’s no theme or backstory here – no witty press release or cloying food trend. Small plates are banned
Within three weeks of searching we’d found a one-bed flat in the town’s oldest Georgian square for less than £400 per month, we’d booked a removals van and had started Tweeting about our impending move. Finding and following every single Twitter profile that mentioned Margate, we very quickly built up a knowledgeable, passionate support network of clued-up people who called this town their own: artists, designers, furniture makers, printmakers, chefs, photographers, civil servants, stylists, shopkeepers, hoteliers, restaurateurs, PR folk and journalists. We counted down to our opening day at the beginning of June of this year, offered half-price pizza on Twitter to all who came and 100 people showed up. No advertising, no flyers, no old-fashioned word-of-mouth, just Twitter and a website adapted from a free WordPress template.
As the summer stretched the crowds grew. On hot days we’d shift more than 100 pizzas from our tiny unit – to locals, to day-trippers, to gallery-goers, to hipsters visiting with their Leicas and perfectly topiaried facial hair snapping away at the seaside sights. Within a couple of months we were the number one restaurant in Margate on Tripadvisor, and acclaimed food writer (and Civilian contributor) Marina O’Loughlin had recommended us – again, thanks to conversations on Twitter. The more people we met, the more we realised that we weren’t the only ones to have fallen in love with this rough-around-the-environs, exciting, vibrant little town. The more we explored, the more we knew we couldn’t move, which made us realise we needed to find a roof over our heads as autumn fast approached.
We searched all over. Cliftonville, once the holiday spot for wealthy Victorians, and which currently makes the ‘burbs of West London look cheap with its incredible housing stock, was where we found a three-bedroom flat with enormous proportions on the frontline of Walpole Bay for less than £90,000. Currently home to privately-run children’s homes and hostels housing those on probation, Cliftonville’s slipped into a less than salubrious state. But, street by street, it’s changing. Just across the water from our pop-up, near the Turner, we found a restaurant space on the seafront. Ironically, it used to house the town’s branch of Pizza Hut (oh, how we worded the press release). With a six-month rent-free period guaranteed, we began stripping floorboards, plastering, painting and sourcing furniture. We wanted something Margate hadn’t seen before, but something that was instantly familiar to visiting Londoners, too. Vintage furniture was found, branding was created with the help of a close friend who happens to be one of the UK’s best art directors, lighting blew a hole in our budget, and we employed a good old-fashioned signwriter to finish the look. Our bare plaster and brick wall at the rear of the building shows the layers of history of the place. We’ve even left an old Pizza Hut tile in one corner, just to remind us of the building’s previous life. It confuses some – “a shame you didn’t get a chance to finish that back wall” – and entrances many.
So, after months of inhaling dust, we’ve opened. We invited the town’s favourite daughter, Tracey Emin, to the opening. She’s notoriously difficult to get hold of. We received an email from her PA this week wishing us well and telling us she’d swing by when she’s next home – a Twitter shout-out got us an email lead.
Margate might not have seen anything like it, but we’re pretty sure visiting Londoners will spot the La Marzocco coffee machine and barrels from Borough Wines immediately. There’s no theme or backstory here – no witty press release or cloying food trend. Small plates are banned and the only choice of wine is red, white or rosé – whatever’s on tap that week. We make perfect wood-fired pizza, sell olives and damn good coffee, stock ices by Gelupo Gelato and make pretty fierce chocolate brownies. At weekends we serve a breakfast pizza loaded with local sausage, bacon and a poached egg, create flat whites from our locally-roasted beans, and mix a mean Bloody Mary. We’re not trying to be clever or fancy or on-trend. Just good, simple food made well and with passion – if it’s sourced locally, all the better, but quality is what we seek. And without a single press advert, with only the power of Twitter and Facebook, we’ve been full every night since we opened our doors.
There’s the whiff of excitement and possibility in the air in Margate. It mixes headily with the potent seaweed, sickly sweet candyfloss and the stench of a polarised populace facing crippling levels of unemployment. Not a cab journey goes by without having to firmly tell a thick-necked driver to keep his anti-Eastern-European bile to himself – “Coming here, stealing our jobs. My son can’t get no work…” I imagine a younger, slightly-less paunched version of him sat at home sinking cans of Stella whilst playing his Xbox bought on the never-never from Brighthouse.
Dreamland, the town’s now-derelict amusement park, has been snatched back by the local Council for redevelopment thanks to a compulsory purchase order approved by the Culture Secretary. Every week events fill our social calendar: glorious celebrations of art such as Pushing Print, curated by Nick Morley: on a sunny October afternoon a steamroller rumbled through the Old Town creating beautiful prints designed by artists and school kids. Not a weekend goes by without furniture pieces by homegrown talent Zoe Murphy adorning the glossy supplements. Across the square from our decrepit one-bedroom rental flat we watch the avant-garde fashions of visiting Londoners trip in and out of The Reading Rooms, the stylish Margate boarding house that’s a byword for seaside cool and whose impressive occupancy rates would make Olga Polizzi weep with joy. Meanwhile, Tracey Emin is calling for the reopening of Margate Caves and for neon to be reinstated along the seafront. Forget Hackney-on-Sea: the good town folk won’t stop until “Viva Las Margate” is up in lights.
GB Pizza Co, 14a Marine Drive, Margate, Kent, CT9 1PF
07730 875340; greatbritishpizza.com