Johanna Payton took a day trip to Dreamland Margate from London and discovered a thriving seaside destination on the up
You can’t beat the British seaside. We usually head to Brighton when we’re craving coastal fun, but after a friend raved about marvellous Margate and all its quirky, beachy charms, my 11-year-old son and I decided to give it a whirl.
Taking a day trip to Dreamland Margate from London is easy-peasy. We booked return tickets from Tooting, our local British Rail station, and the service – via St. Pancras – is swift and regular. Margate station overlooks the beach and, in just a few minutes on foot, you’ll find the entrance to Dreamland off the promenade.
My son recommends the Barrel of Laughs – he talked all day about how much he loved it
Dreamland isn’t a huge theme park – it doesn’t rival Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach in terms of thrills and scope – but it has buckets (and spades) of charm. There’s no charge for wandering into the arcade area at the front of the attraction, where you’ll find plenty of penny falls-style games and vintage pinball machines, as well as a roller rink and cafe. The ballroom is worth a peep and there’s an indoor play area (charged separately) for little ones, too.
If you buy tickets for the main park (£14.95 for adults and £12.95 for children if you book in advance, online), you’ll have a host of traditional fairground rides at your disposal, from a merry-go-round to the fully refurbished Scenic Railway, a Grade II listed rollercoaster that was first ridden by Margate fun-seekers 96-years-ago.
What makes this cool coaster – the UK’s oldest – even more enjoyable is the presence of a brakeman in the centre of the carriage. We were taken for a spin by Pirate Pete who kept the carriage laughing all the way around and gave the phrase “scream if you want to go faster” a special pirate twist.
My son also recommends the maze and the Barrel of Laughs – a ride we mistook for a fun house until he was locked in and we realised he was in for a classic 1980s rotor ride, safely stuck to the wall… He talked all day (and night) about how much he loved it.
In addition to the rides, there are also sideshows and a bandstand in the park. Sadly, the rain did not stay away during our visit, but when the sun is out, we could easily while away a good few hours seeking thrills and soaking up the jolly Dreamland atmosphere.
As Dreamland isn’t huge, it’s totally feasible to spend half a day there and then see a bit more of Margate.
We’d been told about the (frankly, bizarre) Shell Grotto, a 20-minute walk away through town. In an unassuming street, we walked through a shop (selling shells, of course) , paid a small entrance fee and then descended into a very odd “cave” (some might say glorified cellar) decorated throughout with shells. Shells in shapes and patterns that really are breathtaking.
The best bit: no one knows exactly how long the grotto has been there, who built it or why. If you love British eccentricity, there’s a pretty big helping of it here.
From the grotto we walked downhill to the old town.
Now, if you’ve heard about Margate’s regeneration and emergence as a hip, vibrant hangout, the old town is where it’s at: the newer side of town is full of slightly jaded shops (and slightly jaded characters), so don’t rock up there and expect to find a middle class nirvana. In the old town, however, there is enough vintage, coffee, quirky cafe culture and independent boutique shopping to keep any hipster happy. I certainly had a rewarding rummage in the largely midcentury-focused second hand stores and a good-old chinwag with the friendly proprietors of Madam Popoff Vintage (where my son was offered a seat and a cupcake to keep him amused while I drooled over 1960s dresses) and the Rat Race mod shop.
The old town also provides a gateway to the Turner Contemporary, a beautiful, five-year-old museum right on the beach. Admission is free and, even if you’re not an art buff, it’s worth a visit for the spellbinding sea views, said to be the same vistas that inspired Turner on his many Margate jaunts: the museum sits on the site of the guest house Turner used to stay in when visiting the town.
And, across the road from the museum, don’t miss the Old Kent Market, a bright red building on the promenade that hosts a bevvy of artisan stalls selling cheese, craft beer, bread, local veggies and some second-hand clothes.
After so much sea air and excitement, we had raging appetites. My boy was after fish and chips, but once we caught sight of The Diner on Duke Street, a 50s-style restaurant with a delicious selection of burgers, hot dogs and shakes, we were sold. As well as juicy burgers and generous portions of fries, we enjoyed playing the games on the table and singing along to the 50s and 60s soundtrack (why my son knows all the words to Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps is beyond me).
As we walked back along the prom towards the train station (via a couple of arcades for some penny falls fun) the sun finally shone and the beach glowed golden. My son, a boy who has flown in a helicopter over the Grand Canyon, climbed the Empire State and cruised the Med on a luxury ship, hugged (yes, hugged) me spontaneously and said “that was such a brilliant day, mum”.
This is high praise indeed.
Margate, clearly, rules.
How to get to Dreamland Margate without flying:
The Dreamland entrance is just off Marine Terrace on the seafront, a few minutes walk from the train station. High speed trains take you to London in just 80-minutes.
If you’re driving, the M20 and M2 provide easy links to Margate.
Words: Johanna Payton for Feet on the Ground
Images: Johanna Payton / Dreamland / Paul Webb