New life for coastal towns in Britain

(Image credit: Masked Photography / Getty Images)

Seaside resorts across the UK have struggled in recent decades, but Folkestone, Hastings and Margate – once frequented by royalty – are cleverly reinventing themselves through art.


There is no mistaking the Grand Burstyn. Shaped like an ocean liner and piebald with decadence, this monstrous 550-bed hotel looms over Folkestone Harbor and the English Channel. Last November, part of the facade above the main entrance collapsed without warning Two hotel guests had to be taken to hospital.

Borstein’s unfortunate state reflects the fortunes of this port city. By the time the hotel was completed, in the 1980s, the British beach holiday was already at its peak, and cheap flights and cruise tourism were busy taking customers to sunny destinations abroad. When I first stayed at the hotel 2 years ago, my room reeked of stale cigarettes and filled the upper floors New asylum seekers from the channel.

This time there was scaffolding for much needed maintenance. My room was clean, with a sea front view and at £34 a night was very good value. It felt so relaxed, like a vacation destination.

Coastal resorts across the UK have struggled in recent decades. Once the kings’ watering-points – King Edward VII was a Folkestone regular – the likes of Folkestone and its close allies Hastings and Margate have fallen on hard times. In a 2021 government survey of the most income-deprived places in England, Hastings was 14th worst, Thanet (including Margate) 30th, and Folkestone 82nd (out of 316). And this despite the fact that all three are located in the southeast, the richest corner of the country.

Image copyright Larigan-Patricia Hamilton / Getty Images Hastings has been one of the most deprived towns in England for decades

Image copyright Larigan-Patricia Hamilton / Getty Images Hastings has been one of the most deprived towns in England for decades

The three chose a similar strategy to mitigate their misfortunes: Kiss Art. Two now house large galleries as engines of renewal, and the third has the largest collection of outdoor art in the country, turning the resort into a kind of cultural treasure hunt. This latest destination – Folkestone – has been described as ‘an unorthodox example of the power of well-aimed renovation’ and ‘a smaller, newer and cheaper version of Brighton’ in the Sunday Times Best Places to Live guide.

In Margate’s case, this revival all began with the 2011 opening of Turner Contemporary Gallery, an eye-catching building located directly on the quayside to pay homage to the English Romantic painter JMW Turner, who was a regular visitor here from the 1820s onwards. Turner noted that the skies along this shore were “the fairest in all Europe”, and he also admired his landlady on the seashore, Mrs. Booth. The couple, Mr. and Mrs. Booth, lived here until his death.

After Turner, the seaside town thrived well into the 20th century, its sandbar luring Londoners to trains to Margate, but it didn’t last. Artist Tracy Emin, who grew up in Margate and recently moved her studio here, recalls that it became a “no-go area” in the 1980s. Its amusement park has closed and stores have been closed.

The Turner Contemporary Gallery helped turn Margate's fortunes around (Credit: Paul Lovichi Photography/Alamy)

The Turner Contemporary Gallery helped turn Margate’s fortunes around (Credit: Paul Lovichi Photography/Alamy)

Now, though, Margit’s new fans are coming over for the visual arts more than the jelly eels. Over the past 12 years, Turner Contemporary’s galleries have regularly attracted 3.8 million visitors and contributed over £70 million to society. Amusement park Dream land Reopened with old rides, the once-dark Old Town Square has been transformed into a hipster whim of bookstores and pubs. It may still be a weekend wonder, but it’s a start.

The same can be said of Hastings, Margate’s companion in the Forbidden Cities Index. here Hastings Contemporary Gallery It too is a new building on the beach, but this time snuggled between the Charivari of the largest British fishing fleet ever launched ashore, surrounded by hulls, sheds and characteristic wooden net shops, where the nets were once hung out to dry.

The gallery opened back in 2012, and since then, its changing roster of galleries – some with a local focus and others with big international names in contemporary art – has attracted 500,000 visitors. “For every £1 spent at the Gallery, we believe there is a £3 contribution to the local economy,” said Liz Gilmour, gallery director.

Margate Dreamland theme park has reopened with vintage rides (Credit: Jennyka Argent/Alamy)

Margate Dreamland theme park has reopened with vintage rides (Credit: Jennyka Argent/Alamy)

When I visited, Gilmore was experiencing one of the major transitions of the year Soutine/Kosov, a thematic exposition bringing together two major figures in 20th-century painting: Chaïm Soutine, a professor of the School of Paris who grew up in Belarus; And Leon Kosov is a professor at the London School, his parents came from Ukraine.

Gilmour emphasized the importance of headline-grabbing exhibitions like this one in drawing tourists to the city and inspiring residents to connect with the culture. “This is a very disadvantaged city, with 1,000 homeless people, and we have a responsibility to the community. I want every child at Hastings School to come here as part of our outreach programme.”

Like Margate, the show effect seems to be working. George Street, the main artery of old Hastings, is a place for cigar dealers, vintage fashion and book-filled cafes. Gilmour says the show has been a catalyst for creators who choose to settle down; And at dinner at the Art Nouveau-lined Crown gastropub in Old Town, I saw actress Gina McKee feast on linguine.

Folkestone's creative district is home to galleries, artist studios and venues offering music, theater and entertainment

Folkestone’s creative district is home to galleries, artist studios and venues offering music, theater and entertainment

And so along the shore till my last stop, Folkestone, where the divide between the town center and the new creative quarter is very easy to see.

The first is a jumble of concrete, hastily rebuilt after all the damage caused by German bombs during World War II, with the former ferry port an obvious target. But come off the slopes through the Town Hall into the Old High Street, and suddenly it’s all pastel colours, cobblestones, gourmet food and art galleries, pretty people sipping lattes in the sun. Tucked away among the street food and quirky barbershops with names like Oh Sailor is the work of the likes of Banksy, Yoko Ono and Gilbert & George.

These pieces, and 70 others distributed throughout the city, are loosely connected in a series of artistic pathways. Every three years, this stock of outdoor art is augmented via the Folkestone Triennial, the latest edition (in 2021) of which has attracted over 220,000 visitors.

The Folkestone Art Trails series links the permanently displayed artwork of over 40 international artists

The Folkestone Art Trails series links the permanently displayed artwork of over 40 international artists

The Triennale and the tracks are the inspiration for Creative Folkestone, an organization funded in 2002 by millionaire Sir Roger de Haan, former owner of Saga group (Headquarters here), breathing new life into Folkestone. Besides the art, Creative Folkestone has restored 90 buildings and manages more than 50 shops and 115 studios and offices in the Creative Quarter, located between the city center and the port.

Turning the clock back 20 years, said Daniele Sangiuseppe, chairman of the Folkestone Hotel Association, and this was the red light district. “It used to be the cheapest and most dangerous place to live. Now it’s where everyone wants to be.” Sangioseppe is pleased with the progress his town has made recently.

Renovation is not only on the inside. Farther out on the water, with Grand Burstin’s brood over the dock, the Roger de Haan Charitable Trust has been working on the old ferry dock. The useless, windswept concrete tip that once sheltered the ferries to France is now a foodie Harbor Arm With about 36 food and beverage outlets along its length. There is a statue of Anthony Gormley dramatically placed low on the waterline, and a lighthouse at the end emblazoned with the words of Ian Hamilton Finley: “Weather is the third of space and time”.

Back when the poet’s words were first printed here at the 2014 Triennale, walking along the then-deserted pier was a walk in rusty neglect and sea decay. Now, though, the reward for running the gauntlet of craft beer outlets and taco stands is that the lighthouse has been reborn as a champagne bar.

How things have changed.

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