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There was considerable publicity heralding the re-opening of Dreamland on 19th June ten years after it had closed. The long campaign to save the amusement park, which claims to be Britain’s oldest dating back to the 1920s, was magnificent. It managed to see off property developers, Tesco’s plans for a superstore on the adjacent site and arson attacks that damaged the Grade 11 listed scenic railway.
The fine Georgian architecture around Margate’s Hawley Square, built for the gentry in 1762, reveal its wealthy past. In the post war period it became a popular holiday resort and day trip destination for the workers from London. Margate’s heyday was the 1950s when only the extremely wealthy could afford a foreign holiday. The restoration of Dreamland is an evocation of that period. My 1950 copy of Ward Lock’s guide to North East Kent only has a short description:
“Dreamland Park, where Margate is at its merriest. From skating rink, to skittle alley and from “joy wheel” to miniature and scenic railways, all the fun of the fair is found here.”
I visited on the 26th June and from across the bay I could see that the “joy wheel” was not turning. Undeterred I carried on with my quest to visit Dreamland. The banners flying from the lamp posts in the new corporate colours lead you along the wide sandy bay to the fun palace.
Impressive retro branding for the latest attraction. The outside of the distinctive entrance still needs quite a lot of work. Posters of images from the 50s and 60s illustrate good old vintage fun.
A small notice on the door confirmed that Dreamland was closed but would be open again at the weekend. Close by me were a group of disappointed teenagers who had come on a day trip from London and were not happy. Armed with my camera I walked around the perimeter trying to get a glimpse of the rides.
My day wasn’t a complete waste as there was a very good Grayson Perry exhibition at the Turner Contemporary. Margate still has that down at heel feel once you get out of the old town but I hope that Dreamland will be another attraction that contributes to its transformation.
You may be thinking “What’s Bilbao got to do with the Thames?” Well, the development of the Guggenheim has become the blue print for regeneration schemes. Just think of the Turner Contemporary at Margate. It doesn’t need to be an art gallery it just needs to be an iconic photogenic building; think of The Millennium Dome (now the 02). So, during my recent holiday in Spain I paid a visit.
I arrived in Bilbao on the last night of the Aste Nagusia (Big Week) festival which is a nine day event celebrating the Basque culture, held at the end of August. All along the banks of the Nervion River there were arcades, fun fairs and street theatre. Even the rain couldn’t deter the promenaders, the place was heaving. The scene was reminiscent of those films of Blackpool’s Golden Mile in its heyday. The transformation of Bilbao from an industrial port to a tourist destination was made possible by the building of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum.
The museum is sited on the banks of the Nevrion and close to La Salve Bridge. The bridge appears to be an integral part of the structure although it was built earlier in the 1970s. Lauded as one of the greatest architectural achievements of our time it would take a brave soul to blaspheme about it. There is much, such as the atrium, that holds the viewer in awe. However, with only one third of the space given over to galleries, it’s style over function. Traditional conventions such as the width of steps have been abandoned. They may look aesthetically pleasing but most people found their navigation treacherous. The function is neither public space nor art gallery but this doesn’t appear to matter as it has been a remarkable success.
Walking through Bilbao you can see some vibrant public spaces and an elegant mix of buildings. The refurbished market hall is well worth visiting and on display is a range of produce that we normally only see in Harrod’s Food Hall. The Guggenheim largely ignores this context and is not a magnate for the local community. In fact, there were relatively few tourists inside the building. It is, however, not without influence and has spawned some new buildings that have a similar aversion to the right angle.
I was despondent when I heard that charabanc was being removed from the Oxford English Dictionary. Charabanc or its more common form “chara” is so evocative. I came across this photograph, of an outing from the Lord Wolseley in Brockley, south east London. The pub is no longer there but was opposite The Wickham Arms pub. Although this was taken some time in the 1920s day trips organised by works, pubs or clubs continued up until the 1970s. “A charabanc trip that people went on from Liverpool to see Blackpool Lights” is how George Harrison described Magical Mystery Tour. It’s this tradition that shaped the coastal towns along the Thames. A fitting destination and well deserved treat for hard working Londoners.
During a recent visit to Margate I was pleased to hear that there has been a resurgence of the day trip. One of the shop keepers in the Old Town explained that the opening of the Turner Contemporary has increased the number of day and weekend visitors. Now I did expect that the Turner Contemporary would contain paintings by the artist. On my visit there wasn’t one, only some of his drawings about perspective. Apparently, there was an exhibition of his painting last autumn. Notwithstanding this the gallery is impressive but mainly because of its position on the beach.
Margate has fine Georgian architecture Hawley Square is particularly impressive. Sir Henry Hawley built elegant town houses for gentry in 1762. John Wesley preached his first sermon in the chapel that edges the square. Just off the square is the pub Quart in a Pint Pot which has a most unusual folly on the lower roof.
With the increased popularity of day trips leisure palaces were built. I parked close to the Lido which was originally Clifton Baths. There is a lot of hard surface mainly concrete and paving stones along this part of the front. Not a blade of grass to soften this cold and desolate area. On the other side of the bay is Dreamland, which has been the focus of a recent campaign. The pleasure park looked destined to become yet another block of flats but after a long campaign, supported by the council, it is awaiting a new purpose in the regeneration of the town.
Margate was one of the twelve towns to receive funding from Mary Portas’ High Street Review. Figures released through a Freedom of Information request in December 2012 revealed that only £111.47 of the £100,000 had been spent. It spent less than all the other schemes purchasing stationery and fees to the Land Registry. I’m afraid the lack of investment showed on the forsaken High Street. In contrast the shops and galleries in the Old Town were vibrant, unique and busy. There is a good range of antique, craft and vintage clothes shops. Qing works with designers from Beijing and has some interesting furniture and soft furnishings. The Pie Factory is the centre for local artists. Margate is in transition with some very interesting developments. Would I visit again? Most definitely yes.