We all wanted to go to Dreamland

Margate’s seafront theme park is reopening to the public after years of legal battles, arson and dereliction. Caroline Crampton looks back on a fascinating, troubled history of darkness and fun.

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When I was a teenager, we all wanted to go to Dreamland. The outmoded, worn-down theme park that occupies much of Margate’s seafront was where we wanted to spend the school half term, and not just because there were carousels and bumper cars and candy floss so sickly you could feel the damage it was doing to your teeth before it had even dissolved on your tongue. The place carried a certain frisson – there were rumours about it. Everyone knew that the wooden rollercoaster was the oldest in the UK (it was built in 1919), but we believed other things about the Scenic Railway that are less reliably factual: it was said that someone had died on it, recently, and now haunted the biggest drop; that the man who travelled on the back of the cars to control the brakes (it was one of the few rides left in the world where the speed isn’t automated) would make it go faster if he fancied you; and that a Japanese businessman had once offered the park’s owners an undisclosed but extremely large sum of money to have it dismantled piece by piece and rebuilt in Tokyo.

The trip I recall most vividly took place when I was 13. I remember it mostly because the rollercoaster was closed, for “safety reasons”, the notice said. We wandered dejectedly around the park under a drab sky, eventually ending up in front of a strange sideshow that, for a small fee, would let you dip your hand in a cauldron of hot wax and make a slightly lumpy cast of it. I’m sure you can guess what the most popular hand-poses were. That row of petrified, multicoloured hands with the middle finger raised neatly ranged behind the stall proprietor is still one of the defining images of Margate, to my mind.

Needless to say, everyone in my little knot of teenagers parted with their five quid and took it in turns to stick a hand in the wax. I went for a two-fingers-raised peace sign myself, and afterwards watched the vendor dextrously dip the pale white replica of my hand in various pots of sticky colour until it was coated in a patriotic union jack design. When I took this strange artefact home and proudly showed it to my South African parents, they reacted with polite bewilderment. What are you supposed to say when your teenage daughter comes home and tells you that she’s spent several weeks’ pocket money on a twisted lump of wax that she has had dyed to look like your adopted nation’s flag? Disappointed by my hand’s lukewarm reception, I put it on the end of a shelf in my bedroom, where it stayed for the next several years, growing a patina of dust and discolouring in the weak sunlight.

 

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A couple of years after that visit, in 2003, Dreamland closed its gates. The rollercoaster kept clanking away on its own until 2005, but then it too was shuttered. In 2008, not long before I returned to Margate for a brief stint on the local paper as a trainee journalist, the rollercoaster caught fire. About a quarter of it was burnt away, it was estimated, including the iconic “big drop” that the brakeman loved to tease screaming teenagers with, holding you on the brink before accelerating suddenly into the stomach-somersaulting fall. Dreamland still had the power to generate rumours – before the fire had actually been started, it was common knowledge in the town that someone would try and burn the protected, listed Scenic Railway to clear the land for a seafront development with a different kind of view. When the arson attack did finally take place, it would have felt like an anti-climax compared to all the speculation if it hadn’t come at the same time as a supposed “hit” on a local businessman and the further, admittedly less dramatic, burning of some nearby slot machines. The historic rollercoaster might be mostly ash and twisted steel, but it felt like Margate’s history as the place the East End took its holidays was barely in the past at all.

The restored Scenic Railway and Big Wheel of Colour at Dreamland. Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Writing up this tangled story in 2008, the Guardian said that despite the inferno the council still had hopes that Margate could become “Hoxton-on-Sea”, a place where people with haircuts from London would go at the weekends to spend money on things that wouldn’t look like art anymore when they got them back to the city. And so it has proved, to an extent – once the Turner Contemporary opened in 2011, the coffee shops and boutique hotels did start to make an appearance. Journalists went down there on press trips, trying to believe in the seaside renaissance and not to see how many working age adults there were hanging around on the high street with nothing to do at 11am on a Wednesday. The gentrification was localised and only skin-deep – as local resident and food writer Marina O’Loughlin found when she tried to get involved by setting up her own cafe:

The introduction of one of the UK’s first lobster rolls was treated with as much suspicion as if I’d labelled them Bulgarian Homosexual Wedding Pies. A Pearly King from Ramsgate swore violently for a good 10 minutes because we couldn’t do him a fried egg sandwich.”

By the time this was happening, I had joined the New Statesman in London, and I remember doing a massive slop of Monday morning tea on my desk the first time I overheard someone in the office waxing lyrical about the weekend they had just spent in Margate – “like Whitstable, you know, but no oysters…”. I couldn’t recognise the place I had worked at all (nor Whitstable, for that matter, which is chiefly the place I go to the dentist, rather than to eat shellfish). Margate was a place where I’d worked on stories about burglars who targeted people with learning difficulties and Christmas toy deliveries that were cancelled because of icy roads, and where my editor would buy everyone egg and chips in the cafe on the corner whenever anything went wrong because he said he thought best with a fork in his hand.

 

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The rumours about Dreamland hung about, like the early morning fog that will sometimes drift in from the sea until lunchtime, because even when it was rubbish and grim and dilapidated, the park was still a place that existed for the pleasure of the many, not the few. Whether your pleasure was innocent and nostalgia-tinged or dubious and probably illegal, it was all you were supposed to think about when you were there. And, of course, it was the emblem of a better time, when Margate wasn’t known chiefly for terrible unemployment statistics and the rise of the BNP.

There are dozens of home videos on YouTube now, made in the 1960s or earlier, showing the place at its heyday. The grainy, jumpy picture quality and tinny sound on some of them can feel fake, like some kind of instagram-filtered mock-up with their whirling colourful rides and waist-down shots of women in daring miniskirts. But they’re real – this was Margate, and people upload their films now because they want to remember, or remind, or something.

Even in the decade before I got to know it in the 1990s, Margate was famous enough to appear in an episode of Only Fools and Horses. Apparently, it was one of the top ten most visited attractions in the UK, although aside from the park’s own shiny new website, it’s hard to find a precise source for that claim. But by the time I was old enough to start taking notice of these things, the town had started to feel remote, marginal, distanced from everything. Jobs went, the BNP arrived, and it became difficult to make it the length of the seafront without seeing someone hauling everything they owned along in a few bin bags as they made their way from one terrible short-term let bedsitter in Cliftonville to the next.

Ye Olde Town Laundrette, King Street, Margate. Photo: Chris Barber on Flickr via Creative Commons

New Labour’s bright globalised future didn’t shine there, as the council shoved asylum seekers and new immigrants alike into the crumbling, grim seafront properties. Quite literally marginalised, the influx of new people amplified the “them and us” rumblings in the town. “All them Bulgarians” became a bit of a catchphrase, even though the proportion of immigrants in Margate and the surrounding area is 3 per cent lower than the national average, and there are as many people from Belgium, France and Italy as from Poland and other eastern European countries, according to the latest Oxford University research.

I feel like the political establishment, and the proportion of the rest of the country that notices what it does, only really started to pay attention Thanet last year, once Nigel Farage started making noise there again. But in actual fact, the conditions that enabled him to do so were the result of a chain of events that connect up seamlessly with what happened to Dreamland. In 2011, Pfizer closed their Sandwich research centre, putting 3,000 skilled workers out of a job – the kind of middle class people who would patronise the coffee shops and the galleries on weekends. Then in 2014, Manston airport stopped operating, giving those with disposable income to spend on short haul flights yet another reason to head back to London.

The previous year, Conservative MP Laura Sandys announced she wouldn’t be seeking re-election, leaving a vacuum that Farage amply expanded to fill. Ukip gained 16 seats on Kent County Council that May, leapfrogging Labour and the Liberal Democrats to become the second largest party. Eight of those councillors came from the Thanet district. Although Farage failed to become the MP at the 2015 election (watching his concession speech was the one bright spot in my election night), Thanet became Ukip’s first district council.

 

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A couple of weekends ago, I went to visit my parents (and to go to the dentist in Whitstable, of course). As it happens, the castle in the east Kent village where they live is now owned by Stuart Wheeler, major Ukip donor and treasurer of the party between 2011 and 2014. There’s been little purple activism so far, though – apart from reopening the castle grounds for village events and granting permission for dressage events to be held on his land, everything is much the same as under the previous squire.

On the first evening of my visit, the local news lead with the breaking story that when Dreamland reopened in a few weeks’ time, the Scenic Railway would not be operating. Since the council took ownership of the site in 2013 (after a High Court battle with the previous owners, who were still determined to develop the land for other purposes) a lot of effort has gone into creating a hopeful story of renewal for Dreamland, but this was a blow, no doubt. After a triumphant eleven-year “Save Dreamland” campaign by dedicated locals, the park opens its gates again today, branded very heavily as a vintage experience (you only have to look at the design of its website to see that), but the historic heart won’t be beating. The second evening of my visit home, the story once again lead the BBC South East news, even though there were absolutely no new developments whatsoever to report. That’s how much people care about it.

A still from Lindsay Anderson’s 1953 documentary “O Dreamland”.

The official statement just says that the Scenic Railway restoration project “will not be finished in time” for today’s reopening, but that “17 other restored, up-cycled and retro-fitted rides” will be operating. As ever, Dreamland encapsulates exactly where the town now stands – part looking backwards, offering a nostalgic version of “the golden age of the British seaside” that probably never existed in the first place, part looking forward to a new kind of clientele that will come down from London to hear Marina and the Diamonds play the opening night. It speaks volumes, I feel, that the new park had to include “will it be like the Dreamland I remember?” as one of the frequently asked questions on its website. The answer?

We can’t promise that every detail that you remember will be there, but, every nook and cranny of the new Dreamland will be touched by the hand of a designer.  We do promise that there will be nowhere quite like Dreamland.”

So crucial is the Scenic Railway to the park’s success as a “heritage” attraction that if you booked your ticket before the announcement that it won’t be open today you get a second, free, ticket to come back once it is finally working again.

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When I heard that the park was to reopen this year, I went hunting for my teenage wax hand. It wasn’t in any of the cupboards in my childhood bedroom, or down behind the chest of drawers, or curled around the radiator pipes. I leafed through boxes in the attic, heavy with the detritus I’d discarded over the years, but found nothing.

Chances are, one of my parents will have found that sticky, pale lump of wax years ago and chucked it in the bin. After all, it didn’t look like anything special. If I had found it, I would probably only have posted it on instagram as the supreme act of performative nostalgia. “Look! This unrecognisable lump of mush gives me feelings about my childhood and coastal gentrification!,” it would have said, under an attractively-golden filter.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.