Dreamland, Margate: “We didn’t think a heritage theme park would work long term” – ICON

Twenty, even ten years ago, you’d associate Margate most with coastal siblings like Bognor Regis, or that matriarch of British seaside resort towns, Blackpool. The most even-handed assessment would be to describe these destinations as revelling in a certain tackiness, a good-natured pastiche of the era that pre-dated the package holiday but whose brave face was now starting to slip.

But it would only have been possible to talk about Margate in those terms ten years ago if you hadn’t actually visited. By then the mask had truly fallen, the town beset by unemployment and low investment, with its main lure, the Dreamland theme park finally mothballed in 2003. This traditional fairground, opened in 1920, was the epicentre of the community; when its feature attraction, a historic wooden rollercoaster (the oldest in Britain), was partially destroyed by an arson attack in 2008, there was a sense of grief.

The start of Margate’s renaissance was signalled in 2011 with the opening of the David Chipperfield-designed Turner Contemporary. Even before this, there had been a notable bloom of independent shops, artists’ studios and boutique hotels. This was a different scene to that which the pre-existing community were accustomed to attracting and now the town had unexpectedly begun to feel closer to a different type of British seaside retreat: to the Whitstables, Aldboroughs and Southwolds, with their arts and music festivals.

Then came the news that Dreamland, bought by the council in 2005 to save it from the developers, was to be restored. But how would the park respond to its changing surroundings? The task of guiding that transformation was left to designer Wayne Hemingway, formerly of fashion label Red or Dead and now head of Hemingway Design, a multidisciplinary practice that covers everything from marketing to housing schemes. For Hemingway the process centred on identifying the park’s potential audience, a group he unashamedly describes as “hipster”.

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Strategist, Journalist and Design Writer