Seaside resorts across the UK have struggled in recent decades, but Folkestone, Hastings and Margate, once frequented by royalty, are deftly reinventing themselves through art.T
There is no mistake in Grand Burstin. This monstrous 550-bed hotel, shaped like an ocean liner, rickety and derelict, looms over Folkestone Harbor and the English Channel. Last November, part of the plaster from the facade above the main entrance fell without warning, and two hotel guests had to be taken to the hospital .
The dire state of Burstyn reflects the fate of this seaside town. By the time the hotel was completed in the 1980s, the British beach holiday was at its peak, with cheap flights and package tourism driving customers to sunnier locations abroad. When I first stayed at the hotel a couple of years ago, my room smelled of musty cigarettes and the upper floors were filled with seekers shelter, having just come from the Channel .
This time, scaffolding was erected there for much-needed maintenance. My room was clean, with a view of the promenade and was very good value for £34 a night. It was peaceful, more like a vacation.
Seaside resorts across the UK have struggled in recent decades. The likes of Folkestone and its close allies Hastings and Margate, once the main seats of the royal family – King Edward VII was a frequent visitor to Folkestone – fell on hard times. IN government study of 2021 of the poorest 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. ADVERTISEMENT
For decades, Hastings was one of England’s poorest towns (Image copyright larigan-Patricia Hamilton/Getty Images)
All three chose the same strategy to mitigate their misfortunes: the kiss of art. Two now have major galleries known as engines of regeneration, and the third has the largest open-air art collection in the country, turning the resort into a sort of cultural treasure hunt. And this latest destination – Folkestone – has just been described as a “cool example of the power of well-aimed regeneration” and “a younger, fresher and cheaper version of Brighton” in the Sunday Times guide to the best places to go life .
In the case of Margate, this renaissance all began with the opening of Modern in 2011 Turner Gallery , an attractive building located right on the embankment, in honor of the English romantic artist J.M.V. Turner, who had been a regular visitor here since the 1820s. Turner noted that the sky along this coast was “the most beautiful in all Europe,” and he also admired his seaside mistress, a certain Mrs. Booth. The couple lived here as Mr and Mrs Booth until his death.
After Turner, the seaside town flourished well into the 20th century, its strip of sand luring Londoners onto Margit-bound trains, but it didn’t last. Artist Tracey Emin, who grew up in Margate and recently moved her studio here, recalls how it became a “no-go zone” in the 1980s. Its theme park is closed and its shops are boarded up.
The Turner Contemporary Gallery helped turn Margate around (Image copyright Paul Lovichi Photography/Alamy)
Now, however, Margate’s new fans are coming more for the fine arts than the eels. Over the past 12 years, Turner Contemporary’s regular exhibitions have attracted 3.8 million visitors and generated more than £70 million for the community. Theme park “Dreamland” has reopened with vintage attractions, and the once gray old town square has been transformed into a hipster concoction of bookstores and beer halls. It may still be a weekend miracle, but it’s a start.
The same can be said for Hastings, Margate’s poor-listed neighbour. Here Hastings Contemporary Gallery is also a new building on the seafront, but this time nestled comfortably amongst the charivari of Britain’s largest sea fishing fleet, surrounded by hulls, canopies and distinctive wooden storage nets where the nets once dried. .
The gallery opened back in 2012, and since then its ever-changing lineup of exhibitions – some with a local focus and some with big international names in contemporary art – have attracted 500,000 visitors. And “for every £1 spent at the gallery, we believe £3 is contributed to the local economy,” said gallery director Liz Gilmore.
Margate Dreamland theme park reopens with vintage rides (Image credit: Jennika Argent/Alamy)
At the time of my visit, Gilmour was in the midst of one of the big changes of the year, showing Soutin/Kosoff , a topical exhibition that brings together two major figures in 20th-century painting: Chaim Soutin, a master of the School of Paris who grew up in Belarus; and Leon Kossoff, master of the London School, whose parents came from Ukraine.
This is a very poor city with 1,000 homeless people and we have a responsibility to the community
Gilmour stressed the importance of headline-grabbing exhibitions like these, both in attracting tourists to the city and in inspiring residents to connect with the culture. “This is a very poor city, with 1,000 homeless people, and we have a responsibility to the community. I want every school child in Hastings to come here as part of our outreach program.”
Like Margate, the gallery effect seems to be working. George Street, the main artery of Hastings’ old town, is home to cigars, vintage fashion and bookshops. Gilmour says the gallery has been a catalyst for creative people to settle in; and while dining at the Crown gastropub in the old town, which was also lined with modern art, I spotted the actress Gina Mackie tucking into linguine.
Folkestone’s creative quarter is home to galleries, art studios and venues offering music, theater and entertainment (Image credit: Andrew Eames)
And so along the coast to my last stop, Folkestone, where the watershed between the city center and the newly created Creative Quarter is clearly visible.
The first is a piece of concrete hastily rebuilt after all the damage caused by German bombs during World War II, during which the former ferry port became an obvious target. But slip downhill past the Town Hall and onto Old High Street and suddenly it’s all pastels and cobblestones, delicatessens and art galleries, where beautiful people drink lattes in the sun. And among the street food and quirky hair salons with names like Oh Sailor, you’ll find works by the likes of Banksy, Yoko Ono and Gilbert and George.
These and 70 or so other works scattered throughout the city are loosely connected in a series of artistic trails. Every three years this supply of outdoor art is boosted by the Folkestone Triennial, the most recent edition of which (in 2021) attracted over 220,000 visitors.
The Folkestone Art Trails series brings together artworks from over 40 international artists in a permanent exhibition (Image credit: Andrew Eames)
The triennial and the routes are the inspiration of Creative Folkestone, an organization that was funded back in 2002 by millionaire Sir Roger de Haan, former owner of the Saga group (headquartered in here ) to breathe new life into Folkestone. As well as the arts, Creative Folkestone has restored 90 buildings and operates more than 50 shops and 115 studios and offices in the Creative Quarter, located between the town center and the harbour.
It was the cheapest and most dangerous place to live. Now it’s a place where everyone wants to be
Rewind the clock 20 years and it was once a red light district, said Daniel Sangiuseppe, chairman of the Folkestone Hotel Association. “It was the cheapest and most dangerous place to live. Now it’s where everyone wants to be.” Sangiuseppe is delighted with the recent development of his city.
Regeneration is happening not only within the country. By the water, where the Grand Burstyn hides above the quayside, Roger de Haan’s charity has been working on the old ferry dock. A useless, windswept concrete branch that once sheltered ferries to France is now a gourmet, artistic sleeve Harbor Arm with approximately 36 food and beverage outlets along it. There is a statue of Anthony Gormley at the lower waterline, and a lighthouse at the end adorned with Ian Hamilton Finlay’s words: “Weather is a third of place and time.”
At the time when the poet’s words were first printed here for the 2014 Triennale, to walk along the then-abandoned pier would be to walk through the rusty dereliction and decay of the sea. But now the reward for getting past the craft beer and taco stands is that the lighthouse has been reborn as a champagne bar.