It might still be a little rough around the edges but Margate’s hipster renaissance has catapulted it from derelict dump to “fourth hippest place to live” and “best seaside resort in Britain” in the seven short years since the opening of its Turner Contemporary gallery. Beside ourselves at the promise of sand, sea and soft play, let alone an art gallery we’d never been to, we skipped merrily out the door at 7am on a Saturday and hurried down to St Pancras to catch the high-speed Southeastern (which, despite travelling at speeds up to 140mph still takes more than 90 minutes, because Margate is basically the moon).
I’d carefully planned our itinerary the night before, aiming to hit that delicate balance of doing all the stuff we really wanted to do without trying to shoehorn in additional crap for the sake of it and all needing a nap by lunchtime. We decided against Dreamland because rides. Me and Babu are both extremely vomity people and we didn’t need that on our day out at the seaside, so we stuck with its separate Octopus’s Garden play area, the intriguingly named Shell Grotto and the Turner Contemporary, with plenty of time left over to construct some sand-disasters and suck in some sea air on the beach.
GALLERY: Turner Contemporary
By far my favourite thing about Margate, and kind of my entire reason for wanting to visit, the Turner Contemporary is a visually striking, hangar-like space celebrating the town’s association with JMW Turner. It’s ridiculously family-friendly thanks to its top-notch facilities, including a stylish cafe serving healthy, child-compatible meals and snacks; a cool shop selling amazing toys; a huge lift and nice baby-change; and, crucially, a big, airy kids’ area on the main landing with Vitra elephant seats, tables, colouring, books and – when we visited – elaborate animal masks to try on as part of the current Animals & Us exhibition. We particularly loved the immersive, fabric-strewn pod in the gallery’s entrance but were sad to miss Paula, the life-sized polar bear puppet who’s been roaming the gallery all summer. If we ever move to Margate we will come here every day.
Turner Contemporary, Rendezvous, Margate CT9 1HG
PLAY SPACE: Octopus’s Garden, Dreamland
I’d heard good things about Octopus’s Garden, Dreamland’s separate soft-play cafe, and while the pictures completely sold it to me, I wasn’t actually that struck by it in real life. In theory it’s a great play space, with a medium-sized climbing structure and slides, plus plenty of seaside-themed buildings to play in, but I couldn’t help finding the whole situation a bit depressing, as soft play tends to be, and if you looked beyond the facades of the cute little beach huts and shop fronts there wasn’t actually that much to do. On the plus side it was so quiet in there that Babu felt brave enough to tackle the entire climbing structure on her own, without either of us having to succumb to a sweaty bum crack clambering after her.
Octopus’s Garden, Dreamland Margate, 49-51, Marine Terrace, Margate CT9 1XJ
MUSEUM: Shell Grotto
I don’t know why but I imagined the Shell Grotto to be in a cave on the beachfront. I was wrong. It’s actually about a 10-minute walk away, on Grotto Hill, behind a modern facade and down a lot of steps (but it’s ok, you have to leave your buggy upstairs anyway). I kind of loved this place for being so weird and creepy, which was exactly the reason Babu hated it and immediately wanted to leave. While the staff are lovely and the Friends of the Shell Grotto have done their best to make it toddler-friendly with a colouring table in the mini museum room, there is definitely a vibe down there (I mean seances used to be held down there, for crying out loud). I’d have loved to have stayed a bit longer to stare at the mosaics and ponder why the hell anyone would dig a passageway 70ft underground then fill it with 4.5 million shells, but then again Babu’s bloodcurdling screams were quite a good reason to chicken out of hanging around to soak up any more creepy.
Shell Grotto, Grotto Hill, Margate CT9 2BU
TIPS: Take the high-speed train from London (various stations) and don’t worry about transport on arrival – you will just need your legs. If we ever do Margate again we’ll likely be giving the Shell Grotto and Octopus’s Garden a miss because I didn’t think either was that incredible, though I’m glad we saw them both anyway. If you have some extra time there’s also the Tudor House, which dates back to 1525 and which we didn’t bother with, despite it being on the same street as the grotto.
We ate at the busiest, dirtiest-looking takeaway fish and chip shop we could find in the hope that queues equalled quality, but they didn’t and it was a bit shit. In fact it was so unmemorable I have absolutely no idea what it was called, but it definitely wasn’t Peter’s Fish Factory and that seems to be the frontrunner as far as reviews go. In terms of ice cream, Melt Margate‘s gelato parlour wins the public vote.
We didn’t have time to do much shopping but we did pop into super-cute gift shop Little Bit, where I wanted to buy all the planters with faces, and on another trip I’d love to check out the Mar Mar cafe-bar-shop with its lush foliage, and minimalist coffee and brunch spot Storeroom by Curve.
Babu and Mummy explore the main sands at Margate Beach.