Empire of Light shows the magic of Margate

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“The skinheads came to Margate to fight,” wrote Paul Theroux in Kingdom by the Sea. His journey along the English coast in 1982 started in Margate, but he did not stay there long. “They congregated across the boardwalk from an arcade called Dreamland.” Theroux’s Eliot-inspired account is grim; a sad window onto Thatcher’s Britain and the disintegration of its once prosperous coastline.

On the surface, Margate remains unchanged: Dreamland decorations and the brutalist Arlington House still dominate the main strip; The Georgian mess in the old town adds to the jagged charm. It was a filming location for Sam Mendes’ new 1980s film, Empire of Light (coming out this week). “Margate really makes a movie,” says production designer Mark Tildesley. “It’s perfectly enclosed – almost like the back room of a film studio.”

Centered around a dignified but struggling cinema (shot in Dreamland’s Stage II auditorium), the film calls upon Margate and her erstwhile skinheads to immerse us in the era’s recession and racism. But among the sand there are romantic scenes that flaunt the features of the city. You can feel a wave of nostalgia with the new downloadable Empire of Light walking map, starting with the vintage theme park Dreamland and the kitschy roller disco (both appearing in the film).

The site’s £25 million refurbishment in 2017 was confirmation that Margate’s revival would last. Now, with the help of the movie, 2023 seems to belong to the city annus mirabilis. TimeOut also did its job, proclaiming Cliftonville – which adjoins the old town – the coolest neighborhood in Britain. As a local, I see bookies and home sales shops being rapidly converted to brunch pads, LGBTQ+ party venues, and jewelry galleries.

Sonia Boyce's installation Feeling Her Way will appear in Margate.

Sonia Boyce’s installation Feeling Her Way will appear in Margate. Photo: Andrea Merola/EPA

Matthew Slotover, founder of the Frieze art fair and new chairman of Turner Contemporary, says Margate is now one of Britain’s premier art venues. Under the leadership of new director Clarrie Wallis (former Tate curator), Turner will be the first venue in the UK to host Sonia Boyce’s Feeling Her Way from February 4 to May 8. Boyce’s installation, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale last year, will immerse visitors in the sounds of five pioneering black singers.

“Artists are moving from Brooklyn to be here!” says Robert Diament, director of the Carl Freedman Gallery and co-host of the popular Talk Art podcast. “Margate goes international.”

A Grade II Dreamland cinema was used in the film.

A Grade II Dreamland cinema was used in the film. Photo: Landmark Media/Alamy

In February, the gallery will be hosted by the abstract painter Daisy Parris, “who is causing a sensation in the States”. From April to June, photographer Ronan Mckenzie will curate the BMW-supported To be Held program – interactive workshops, listening events and one-off installations will be drawn from her selection of promising black British and international artists.

Olivia Colman praised Margate for “three amazing restaurants”. I think there are at least six

Then, take a short walk on Northdown Road in Cliftonville to artist Lindsey Mendick’s new non-profit gallery, Quench. “Turner’s Naughty Little Sister,” as Mendick calls it, features ambitious work from emerging artists and is open Friday through Sunday. The nearby Hotel Michele has taken over a former charity shop, offering “common space for individually organized exhibitions, workshops and events”. The Tracey Emin Art School will also open in February. Concerts will take place in its event space, and 14 studios will host artists-in-residence.

Contemporary Turner.

Contemporary Turner. Photo: Phillip Roberts Photography/Alamy

Where art led, food followed. Olivia Colman, who stars in Empire of Light, praised Margate for having “three amazing restaurants.” I believe there are at least six, starting with the new Fort Road Hotel headed by River Café graduate Daisy Cecil. Traditional English food – inspired by ‘old-fashioned food writers’ like the late Observer’s Jane Grigson – comes at reasonable prices in a grown-up atmosphere (terracotta parquet floors, sharp service). Diamond swears at a breakfast that “no one knows about yet.” There is also a rooftop where you can see the famous Turner sky.

“I see Margate as something of a Bruton-on-Sea; there is such a high concentration of excellent food restaurants,” says Cecil. Her favorite place to eat is Dive, a tiny taqueria on an arm of the harbor that serves delicious margaritas. A few doors down is Sargasso – a favorite of Mendes’ film crew – where ‘extremely good’ Italian small plates are turned by the team behind Brawn. For newcomers, Staple Stores offers Insta-porn buns filled with coulis and crème pâtissière. Dive has more room at the new Selina co-work hotel in Cliftonville (Friday and Saturday nights only), next door to Libertines’ Albion Rooms. Both are welcome in a city with too few hotel beds.

Back on Northdown Road, a Parisian-style wine bar, and soon the Sète restaurant had just opened, courtesy of the team behind beleaguered Barletta (formerly based in Turner, it was forced to close after falling victim to a bank fraud). English and European wines, mostly from winemakers, pair with nice (but expensive) small plates. Still hungry? Buy a bento box at Mori Mori. Or head to the Dolma Bar, which returns with Balkan delicacies after a stay at Shoreditch House.

Olivia Colman in the Light Empire.

Olivia Colman in the Light Empire. Photo: Landmark Media/Alamy

If you can get a table, the royal seafood restaurant Margate – Angela’s; Italian Bottega Caruso – these are the reasons why you should come here. You can relax in Boutique No. 42 (formerly Sands Hotel, opening in the spring), just a few meters from both. But most of all, don’t miss Europe’s first and only Crab Museum, which opened last year. Science, comedy and philosophy collide in a satisfyingly peculiar experience. Pub quiz gold and no sign of a skinhead. Someone should notify Paul.

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