Saturday, 30 August 2014

Two Nights in Two Towns

For the past two weekends Caroline and I have taken advantage of extended rest periods at my place of work to spend a couple of individual nights by the seaside – first at Cliftonville, near Margate, and then at Southend.

At Cliftonville we stayed at the iconic Walpole Bay Hotel on Fifth Avenue. The hotel is simultaneously a museum, with antique furniture and artefacts strategically placed throughout, along the corridors and outside each of the rooms. Particularly quaint was the wonderful trellis gate lift which services every floor from the heart of the Reception area.

Cliftonville has a special significance for me as it was the place we used to travel to as a family for our summer holidays when I was a child. In those days however it was much, much different. Then the coastal road was dominated by several hotels run by Butlin’s – Queen’s, St.George, the Norfolk and the Grand – and over many years we both stayed at and used all of these. The hotels operated as a boxed set so that residence in one allowed for full use of all of them, including bars and dance halls, amusements, shops, television rooms and a children’s cinema with doubled up as an entertainment theatre.


The mobility between TV rooms was particularly useful. In those days even the best hotel rooms did not have a television provided, and so by having three hotels with three televisions showing each of the three channels one was able to watch whichever side one wished at any time without there being any arguments. My particular penchant at the time was for Top of the Pops, so I would head to the Grand which, if memory serves me correctly, was the appointed venue for BBC1. There I and thirty or so others of a similar age would occupy the small viewing room and listen enthusiastically to the dulcet tones of Brian Connelly or Noddy Holder.

The Queen’s Hotel was on the opposite side of the road to the others and featured a large swimming pool, which later became a dolphinarium. It also hosted a spacious hall in which bingo was played and where I once (unlawfully) won the then immense sum of fifty pounds on the final, Friday night full-house.

Back on the “main” side and almost opposite the Queen’s was a really useful seaside shop, which sold all sorts of stuff from the usual beach paraphernalia and saucy postcards to Ghurkha knives and boxes of stink bombs (“Stinkbomben”, I seem to recall).

A short walk in the direction of Margate took one to the lido which boasted several amusement areas as well as a large entertainment bar where, during the later visits of my Margate period I would enjoy a refreshing (and again unlawful) Sunday afternoon pint of lager whilst listening to the liberating sound of the Wurlitzer. Oddly, my most abiding memory of this period was walking into the ladies’ lavatory by mistake and being observed by scores of puzzled people swiftly departing it again.

This all happened back in the 1970s. In those days Cliftonville was a popular and thriving holiday resort which complimented perfectly the brighter lights and seaside sounds and smells of Margate itself, a mile or so along the road. The Margate experience was epitomised by Dreamland, too grand to be labelled a funfair but too puny to be thought of as a theme park in the modern sense of the word. As well as providing amusements and rides Dreamland was also a zoo. Plus of course Margate had a pier.


By the time I visited Margate in the 1990s it had come to a sorry pass. Dreamland had been renamed Bembom Brothers – it was later to change back to Dreamland before closing entirely. The old seaside shop was derelict, the seafront was ghost-like due to the lack of any discernable activity at any of the adjoining buildings and the once proud Butlin’s hotels were no more. One of them seemed to be operating independently, still within the trade, but the character of Cliftonville had altered astonishingly. Whilst I happily acknowledge the duty we all possess towards those less fortunate that ourselves, the number of residents who were clearly living under the local authority’s duty of care, including by no means a few from various parts of Eastern Europe, had altered the demography of the town radically. This was no longer bucket and spade territory by any stretch of the imagination. All that seemed to remain was the sturdy old harbour and the hideous early 1960s tower block overlooking Dreamland – apparently called Arlington House – which can only have bypassed conventional planning procedures as no serious local authority anywhere, at any time, could seriously have considered it appropriate development in the surrounds in which it stood.

It is from this low ebb that Margate (and Cliftonville) needs to be considered today. Dreamland is still derelict, but its much anticipated relaunch is well under way (it is scheduled to open again next year). Plans are afoot for Arlington House, if not to demolish it at last then at least to make it somehow less of a slum. The fame and recognition achieved by local girl Tracey Emin and a local connection of some kind with the painter Turner seem to be in the process of transforming the town into some kind of oasis of art. A new building at the old pier head named the Turner Contemporary, observed not unreasonably by Caroline to resemble a large public convenience, opened in 2011 and has already attracted over a million visitors.

The harbour itself has more activity than of old too, with two excellent little bars and a café having been established. Here we enjoyed a couple of pints of Old Rosie cider at the folky Harbour Arms (which at 7.3% ABV meant at all times having to remain alert to the severe drop into the drink from the unfenced harbour wall).

Cliftonville had changed too. The magnificent buildings of my childhood holidays, once proud hotels and later hostels for those in need, are now smart flats. It’s becoming “nicer”, property prices are doubtless on the up, but the spirit and soul of Butlin’s (pre-Bognor megadump) are long departed.


Over in Southend I had less to ponder upon. I’d only been there, at most, four or five times, the most recent being in February 2013 when I had checked in for the night at the splendid Ilfracombe House Hotel in Wilson Road before flying to Portugal from the absurdly-named “London” Southend Airport the next morning. Having had a good experience at this modest but wonderfully well-run little hotel on that occasion I took the risk of taking Caroline along on Bank Holiday Monday, and I’m pleased to report that the experience was repeated. Immaculate rooms, friendly staff, a relaxing comfortable bar and unhurried “eat as much as you like” breakfast combined to make a perfect stay in spite of the horrible Bank Holiday weather.

During our stay we took a stroll up the 1.33-mile Southend Pier, the world’s longest leisure pier, and back – all in horrendous driving wind and rain. A nice and very popular café at the head of the pier breaks the mission up nicely, and we returned for fish and chips at one of the many such outlets along the seafront. Those of a less adventurous bent could always take the train, which travels to the pier head every half hour on the half hour, and returns exactly fifteen minutes later.

All in all we did a lot of driving for two nights in two seaside towns, but it’s nice to get away. Next stop, as normal, will be the Isle of Wight.

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