Margate in Kent has an essential place in the story of seaside holidays.
It vies with Scarborough and Whitby in North Yorkshire and Brighton in East Sussex for the title of England’s first seaside resort, and it was the first to offer sea-water baths to visitors.
Margate can also claim other firsts, including the first Georgian square built at a seaside resort, the world’s first sea-bathing hospital site, and the first popular resort frequented by middle-class holidaymakers.
Here are 10 sites you shouldn’t miss when visiting this famous seaside town.
1. Dreamland Cinema
Dreamland amusement park was opened in 1920 by promoter John Henry Iles. It drew some 1.5 million visitors during the first year of operation.
Iles named the park to reflect the glamour of Coney Island in New York City, the world’s leading amusement park, which, between 1904 and 1911, included a park named Dreamland.
The Dreamland Cinema was built between 1933 and 1935. It was influenced by German cinema design and was the earliest English Art Deco cinema in an Expressionist style.
Dreamland cinema featured in the 2022 film ‘Empire of Light’, starring Olivia Colman.
2. The Scenic Railway at Dreamland
The Scenic Railway at Dreamland opened on 3 July 1920, two months after the park. It was among the earliest types of roller coaster and was advertised as the largest in Europe.
In its first season in 1921, nearly one million people took the ride.
Dreamland was closed during the Second World War, and while the Railway escaped significant bomb damage, much of the structure was destroyed by a fire in 1949 and again in 1957.
Dreamland’s Scenic Railway is the oldest of only two remaining in England. The other, at Great Yarmouth, dates from 1932.
3. The Shell Grotto
The Shell Grotto was discovered in 1835 by a schoolmaster and his sons digging their back garden.
Many theories have been advanced for the origin of the Grotto, including Phoenician origin or a Roman Mithraic Temple. However, it’s most likely from the early 19th century, as there are traces of modern brick in one of the arches.
The Grotto has about 2000 square yards of shell mosaic consisting of 28 different types of shells, many of which are from abroad.
4. The Former Royal Sea Bathing Hospital
In the 18th century, Margate was chosen as the location for a sea-bathing hospital to treat people suffering from scrofula. It was the first hospital of its kind in the world.
Patients were taken to the sea and fully immersed using the hospital’s bathing machine.
The hospital grew during the 19th century, and indoor salt-water baths were established for year-round treatment.
The hospital became part of the NHS in 1948 but closed in 1996. It has been converted into apartments.
5. The Old Town and the Tudor House
A handful of 16th and 17th-century buildings survive in Margate’s ‘Old Town’, providing a glimpse of the town before it became a seaside resort.
The earliest buildings in Margate survive in the streets around the Market Place, the heart of the historic town.
The Tudor House on King Street is a 16th-century timber-framed house that was likely the home of a wealthy citizen.
6. India House
India House is an eccentric 18th-century seaside villa built by Captain John Gould in the mid-18th century.
Gould was a tea planter who made his fortune in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in India, following colonisation by Britain’s East India Company in the 17th century.
The Captain returned to England in 1766 and settled in Margate, which might be the earliest recorded example of retirement to the seaside.
After his death, the East India Company used the house as offices. Between 1897 and 1927, it was the home of Phyllis Broughton, a celebrated music hall actress and ‘Gaiety Girl’.
7. Cecil Square
As more visitors were arriving in the 18th century, the construction of Cecil Square marked a new phase in Margate’s history.
Cecil Square was the first new square of its kind to be built at an English seaside resort. It’s also the earliest example of a Georgian development outside the main area of a historic town.
Laid out in 1769 by ‘Mr Cecil’ and others, the square contained large houses, a row of shops, Assembly Rooms and a library.
None of these sites remain; a car park and the main road now occupy the square.
8. The Theatre Royal
Vying for visitor’s attention with Cecil Square, the Georgian Theatre Royal in Hawley Square opened in 1787.
The theatre’s appearance was reconstructed in 1874, but the core of the original building survives.
9. The Winter Gardens
The Winter Gardens opened in 1911 and are the only known example constructed within a chalk cliff.
The main hall was originally a concert and dance hall with a resident orchestra. Artists who appeared here included Dame Nellie Melba and Anna Pavlova.
During the Second World War, the Winter Gardens acted as a receiving station for some of the 40,000 troops that landed at Margate during the Dunkirk evacuation.
The Beatles played here on 8 July 1963.
10. Walpole Bay Tidal Pool and the Cliff Lift
Walpole Bay Tidal Pool and Cliftonville Lido were built in the 1920s so that large numbers of people could bathe in the sea at all states of the tide.
At Walpole Bay, the wall is designed to completely submerge the pool at every tide, ensuring a change-over of sea water twice daily. Originally two diving boards were provided.
The Cliff Lift was built in 1934 to provide easier access from the top cliffs to the beach at Walpole Bay below.
Before then, access to the beach had been through the nearby Newgate Gap or the 1911 Cliftonville Cliff Railway, which initially adjoined the Cliff Lift but was demolished in 1978.
Closer to town, Cliftonville Lido was built on top of the earlier Clifton Baths, originally constructed between 1824 and 1828.
In the 1920s, they were re-modelled under John Henry Iles (who also owned Dreamland) into a large complex with several levels of bars, cafes and restaurants.