A Postcard from Margate
One of the great English language poems was written in a shelter next to a roundabout by Margate beach 100 years ago. T.S. Eliot was recovering from a nervous breakdown, so he decided to convalesce by the Kent coast. It’s not quite Tahiti, but something about the visit sparked inspiration. Part III of The Waste Land was written staring out towards a grey North Sea.
"On Margate Sands./I can connect/Nothing with nothing./The broken fingernails of dirty hands./My people humble people who expect/Nothing.”
None of us are in the midst of a nervous breakdown… yet, but we are in Margate. A short train ride from St Pancras, a small coastal stretch of gently faded bucket and spade Britain, plus some really lovely restaurants. There are still the penny arcades, tightly packed Victorian houses beaten wonky by weather and salt and time, and Dreamland, that odd Ballardian brutalist funfair that looms over it all. There’s something about being by the sea when the tourists have left, isn’t there? Sea gulls, empty chip shops and lonely dog walkers in the distance.
At Forts, a capital B Buzzing breakfast spot right by the water, a short walk from both the Turner Contemporary and Bugsy’s Tenpin Bowling (life is all about balance), we order scrambled eggs and filter coffee and stare out towards the water. If it wasn’t for the distinctively English landscape — flat winter light, the old Art Deco Lido sign and the proliferation of carparks — we could be in Melbourne. On our second day we meet Bruno: forager, oyster shucker, hirsute local legend, with a fistful of silver jewellery and plenty of stories to tell. He inhales flat whites and greets everyone he sees. On nearby Broadstairs we stand in the shadow of the chalk cliffs and driving rain and watch a whippet hit top speed, sprinting towards nowhere in particular.
Margate has been wryly dubbed ‘Shoreditch-by-Sea,’ which, yeah, fair enough, but this is still a proper place, it’s just one where you can order a negroni sour and a bottle of Pét nat from Catalonia at the cocktail bar Little Swift, then stroll to a 7.30 reservation at Angela’s, the kind of restaurant that will make you consider packing it all in and moving to Kent, just so you can eat there as much as possible. A plain facade, a scattering of narrow wooden tables, white walls, a chalkboard menu and no-nonsense staff. Two chefs silently working their stations in a space no bigger than a broom cupboard. Rock oysters, scallops, monkfish, clams and some kind of magical bisque. Turbot, the deep sea fish that our friend, the chef Marcelo Rodrigues, calls the king of the sea. Poseidon wept. What a meal.
Bob is 84 and is still fishing and working on the boats down by the harbour. “See that one down there,” he says, pointing towards an upturned vessel during high tide, I’m fixing that one up right now.” It’s too windy to fish today, but when the weather is fair Bob still likes to head out and cast for spiny dogfish, whiting and the occasional sole. “Used to be plenty, but not as much anymore,” says Bob. “Not as much.” He takes a sip from his coffee (black, two sugars) and stares out to sea for a bit. “You’re not a fisherman, are you?” How could he tell…
We settle in for lunch at Sargasso, a squat brick slab of a building against the sea wall of Margate’s harbour. A sister venue to Brawn on Columbia Road, it’s the work of chef Ed Wilson and the musician Matthew Herbert. The word comes from a sea bounded by four currents in the Atlantic, which all seems very far away as we’re presented with a simple and immaculate plate of Cantabrian anchovies in rosemary oil with a hint of lemon, squid and black pudding and wild mushrooms with warm egg. Bruno joins us for a couple of Palomas and a side of stories. The restaurant is so close to the sea that on a stormy day the waves can crash right up agains the restaurant. An elemental spot to enjoy a long lunch. The sun appears and casts a pale glow across the harbour, the weather-beaten white houses and unmoored boats.
After a couple of days by sea it’s time for home. The 16:32 to St Pancras. Rush hour and a distinct lack of monkfish and clams with a rich crab bisque surrounded by friends and soft ambient lighting. Not a single Cantabrian anchovy in sight.
Margate might not be Tahiti, but it’s a pretty lovely spot to convalesce for a while.