‘Artists are moving here from Brooklyn’: Empire of Light puts Margate’s magic in the picture

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“The skinheads had come to Margate to fight,” wrote Paul Theroux in The Kingdom by the Sea. His journey around the English coast in 1982 began in Margate, but he didn’t stay long. “They gathered across the promenade from an amusement arcade called Dreamland.” Theroux’s Eliot-inspired account is grim; a sad window into Thatcher’s Britain and the decay of its once-prospering littoral.

On the surface, Margate is unchanged: deco Dreamland and brutalist Arlington House still dominate the main strip; the old town’s Georgian muddle adds chipped charm. It was the location for the filming of Sam Mendes’ new, 1980s-set flick, Empire of Light (out this week). “Margate really lends itself to being a filmic piece,” says production designer Mark Tildesley. “It’s superbly contained – almost like the backlot of a film studio.”

Dreamland.
Dreamland.

Centred around a stately but struggling cinema (shot in Dreamland’s Grade II-listed auditorium), the film calls on Margate and its erstwhile skinheads to immerse us in the era’s recession and racism. But amid the grit, there are romantic scenes that flaunt the town’s lineaments. You can ride the nostalgia wave with a new, downloadable Empire of Light walking tour map, starting in Dreamland’s vintage-ride theme park and kitschy roller disco (both featured in the film).

The site’s £25m renovation in 2017 was confirmation that Margate’s rebirth would endure. Now, with the film’s help, 2023 looks set to be the town’s annus mirabilis. TimeOut has done its bit, too, declaring Cliftonville – which abuts the old town – the UK’s coolest neighbourhood. As a local, I see bookies and house-clearance shops being swapped for brunch pads, LGBTQ+ event spaces and bijou art galleries at a pace.

Sonia Boyce’s Feeling Her Way installation is coming to Margate.
Sonia Boyce’s Feeling Her Way installation is coming to Margate. Photograph: Andrea Merola/EPA

Matthew Slotover, founder of Frieze art fair and new chair of Turner Contemporary, says Margate is now one of the UK’s most important art destinations. Under new director Clarrie Wallis (ex-Tate curator), the Turner will be the first UK venue to host Sonia Boyce’s Feeling Her Way, from 4 February to 8 May. Boyce’s installation – which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale last year – will immerse visitors in the sound of five pioneering black female 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 is going international.”

The film makes use of Dreamland’s Grade-II listed cinema.
The film makes use of Dreamland’s Grade-II listed cinema. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

In February, the gallery will host abstract painter Daisy Parris, “who’s making waves in the States”. From April to June, photographer Ronan Mckenzie will curate the BMW-backed To be Held – interactive workshops, listening parties and one-off installations will come from her selection of budding black British and international artists.

Next, take a short walk up Cliftonville’s Northdown Road to artist Lindsey Mendick’s new not-for-profit gallery, Quench. “Turner’s naughty little sister”, as Mendick calls it, platforms ambitious work from emerging artists and is open Friday to Sunday. Nearby, Hotel Michele has taken over what was formerly a charity shop to offer a “shared space for individually organised exhibitions, workshops and events”. Tracey Emin’s art school will open in February, too. There’ll be gigs in its event space and 14 studios will host resident artists.

The Turner Contemporary.
The Turner Contemporary. Photograph: Phillip Roberts Photography/Alamy

Where art led, food followed. Olivia Colman, who stars in Empire of Light, complimented Margate on its “three amazing restaurants”. In my opinion there are at least six, starting with the one in box-fresh Fort Road Hotel, headed up by River Café alumnus Daisy Cecil. Traditional English dishes – inspired by “old-fashioned female food writers” like the Observer’s late Jane Grigson – come at reasonable prices, in a grown-up atmosphere (terracotta parquetry, sharp service). Diament swears by the breakfast, which “no one knows about yet”. There’s also a rooftop, for those famous Turneresque skies.

Fort Road Hotel.
Fort Road Hotel. Photograph: Ed Reeve

“I see Margate as a sort of Bruton-on-Sea; there’s such a high concentration of restaurants doing excellent food,” says Cecil. Her favourite place to eat is Dive, a tiny taqueria on the harbour arm with knock-out margaritas. A few doors down is Sargasso – a favourite of Mendes’ film crew – where “exquisitely good” Italian small plates are spun by the team behind Brawn. Also on the arm, newbie bakery Staple Stores is the spot for Insta-porn cruffins filled with coulis and crème pâtissière. Dive has more seats at new co-work hotel Selina in Cliftonville (Friday and Saturday nights only), right next to the Libertines-owned Albion Rooms. Both are welcome openings in a town with too few hotel beds.

Back on Northdown Road, Parisian-style wine bar and soon-to-be restaurant Sète has just opened, courtesy of the team behind beleaguered Barletta (formerly based in the Turner, it was forced to close after falling victim to a bank scam). English and Euro wines, primarily from female winemakers, pair with pretty (but pricey) small plates. Still hungry? Grab a bento box at Mori Mori. Or head to Dolma Bar, which is back with its Balkan bites after a stint at Shoreditch House.

Olivia Colman in Empire of Light.
Olivia Colman in Empire of Light. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

If you can get a table, Margate’s restaurant royalty – Angela’s, specialising in seafood; Italian Bottega Caruso – are reasons to travel here in their own right. You could rest your head at boutique No.42 (formerly Sands Hotel, opening in spring), just a few metres from both. But above all else, 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 not a skinhead in sight. Someone should let Paul know.