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Travel

Portraits of the Diverse People Living in Britain's Run-Down Seaside Towns

They’re simultaneously places where people long to be and long to leave.
September 11, 2014, 10:42pm

All photos by Alex Sturrock

The British coast is littered with many things, but it's those grand old seaside towns that define our images of the place. Designed so that the Victorians could flee to the edges of the nation to escape the poverty, smog, and incest prominent in the cities, they quickly became our strange, salty Shangri-Las: Brighton, Hove, Hastings, and Bournemouth in the south; Great Yarmouth in the east; Rhyl in the west; Blackpool and Scarborough further north. Originally conceived as places to visit rather than live in, they soon became permanent homes for the working class bombed out by the Nazis and alienated by the demands of city living. Some called it white flight, others called it following your dreams.

But fast forward to the infancy of a new millennium, and these places exist in a strange purgatory, fluctuating between periods of disarray and regeneration: closed-down pubs and gastronomic renaissances, arts council initiatives and heroin epidemics. They're a camp, fantastical mix of white working-class refugees, Grand Designs holiday homes, drunk day-trippers, artists in search of inspiration, and people just waiting to die. They're simultaneously places where people long to be and long to leave.

Margate, on the furthest reaches of the Kent coast, is probably the most confused of them all. In recent years it has seen both a multimillion-dollar art gallery—Turner Contemporary—and a slew of beach-hut arson attacks. It's a quaint coastal town with brutalist tower blocks, fish and chip shops, and gang violence. In many ways, it's what London used to be.

I first went to Margate about ten years ago, when my nan moved down to nearby Herne Bay after selling her Camberwell council flat. She came to the area for the peace, whereas most people came to get drunk. My first impression of the town was that it was an odd mix of vintage clothing shops, plasma-screen pubs, and ice cream vans. There were trampolines and oxygen masks on the beach, and bandages in the sea. It was your typical Kentish seaside resort.

But among all the seaside tropes, there's something less festive about Margate: the thousands of rehoused, under-the-radar people currently making their homes there, by choice or by force. The place is often referred to as a "dumping ground" (even by locals), as many of the local B&Bs have started to take in the bulk of their custom from social services and the like, meaning that many people working their way back into society from homelessness, drug abuse, alcoholism, prison, or even sex crimes are often put up in the town. While it's hard to begrudge both the councils and the people who use Margate for such a purpose, they certainly contribute to an air of dispossession that permeates the town, as if Margate is the kind of place where people simply "end up," clinging to the last reaches of London before its sprawl reaches the sea.

More controversial, perhaps, than Margate's homeless and drug addicts are its Eastern Europeans, mostly Polish and Roma who have for one reason or another flocked to the town. Of course, in a place that prides itself on being quintessentially British, this is a point of contention for some people. The anti-immigration UK Independence Party campaigned long and hard in Margate, and did well. But when party leader Nigel Farage showed his face, he was hit over the head with a placard—a modern take on the battle of Cable Street of 1936 that some of the residents probably remember.

Still, Margate is not a place without a future, and the irony is that the diversity of cultures has created a fascinating new kind of town, all played out on the antiquated grandeur of the southeast coast of Britain. The new Margate isn't just about seeing the sand and the sea; it's a place where the residents come from every corner of the earth, from Krakow, Kashmir, and Catford, a place where people come chasing the dream of the British seaside.

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