Roger St. Pierre visits a unique property on the Kent coastA renaissance of Britain’s seaside is taking place. Corporate planners are looking anew at resorts that are at long last getting their acts back together. Take the Kentish town of Margate, for example. The turn-round of the past half-decade has been phenomenal. Streets are clean and tidy, flowerbeds are well tended and facilities have been refurbished and given a new lick of paint. Property prices – not so long ago among the country’s lowest – have experienced a very real hike.
The once iconic pier is sadly gone for good, having long since collapsed into the sea, but the Winter Garden has been renovated and the once renowned Benbon Brothers Dreamland fun park is said to be scheduled for re-opening.
A major catalyst for the revival has been the opening of the brand new Turner Contemporary Centre and the plethora of new arts and cultural events that have come with it.
The master of light, artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) especially rated the Thames Estuary and the Isle of Thanet for their wide skies and spectacular sunrises and sunsets, which influenced so many of his finest paintings.
The stark glass and steel architecture of the new centre has been as controversial as some of the more notorious winning entries in the annual Turner Prize competition, but nobody disputes the fillip its opening has given to the burgeoning local arts community, while at the same time attracting MICE business to the town.
A little further along the road, in the genteel suburb of Cliftonville, stands the elegant Walpole Bay Hotel.
The vintage cars at the kerbside outside said it all: ‘Enter these portals and step back in time to an era of Edwardian style and grace’.
A regular guest here for nearly a decade has been Tracey Emin, the most controversial of all the Turner Prize recipients. Unlike her most famous piece of art, the beds here are most definitely made – immaculately so, with crisp sheets and plump pillows – but she routinely cites this well-ordered haven as her favourite in the whole wide world. The artist’s first visit to the property was in 1995 when she took her mother there for a cream tea on the flower-bedecked veranda and instantly fell in love with the place. The location in an upmarket Margate suburb, set atop a low bluff with uninterrupted views along the Thames Estuary and out over the English Channel, is enchanting. Even more enticing is what lies within an establishment that is not just a very comfortable hotel but a living museum with a strong theatrical bias.
With their amazing eclectic collection of artefacts and memorabilia – from stage costumes and aged dolls to manual typewriters, documents, locally found fossils, old magazines and artworks – Jane Bishop and her family have brilliantly captured the ambience of a bygone era, You could say that the Roaring Twenties are alive and well and living in Margate, with the Walpole Bay Hotel presenting corporate organisers with a wonderfully evocative setting for a period themed event.
In the huge dining room and the first floor art gallery, guests are surrounded by several hundred framed napkins – a collection that’s unique in the world, The Walpole Napery presents memories of creative guests, many of them world famous, inspired by their time at the hotel.
Oils, water colours, pastels, line drawings, photographs, songs, poems and even tea stains represent someone’s personal memories of their time at the Walpole, all depicted on crisp Walpole linen napkins. Afternoon teas, gourmet evenings and spectacular balls and other functions in the magnificent 150-capacity ballroom, with its sprung maple dance floor, are all on the round-the-seasons calendar.
Ride the clattering 1927 vintage Otis trellis-gated lift to any of the hotel’s five floors and it is like being whisked back in time, but the 37 letting rooms, all of them en-suite, have all the expected modern amenities. This is a venue that groups will savour and never forget.