I’ve been ‘up north’ this week in Manchester as part of my new job (our head offices are there), and in between a shed load of intros and meetings I managed to find time to wander around the Northern Quarter, the city’s bohemian hub.
While in Belfast earlier this year, I noticed that only a small minority of tourists in the region were British. It’s easy to understand why – growing up in the 1990s I have vague childhood memories of ‘The Troubles’ on the news, of the bombings by the IRA and its fractions in England, and Gerry Adams’ pre-hipster beard – none of which screamed travel hotspot. But it’s actually this rich, if complicated, political history that makes Northern Ireland such a surprisingly fascinating destination. This is most apparent when exploring West Belfast, an area divided by Protestant and Catholic quite literally by the ‘Peace lines’ walls. Up to 25 feet in places and collectively miles long, since The Good Friday Agreement these have been used as a place for artists to express local and international political discourse and human rights.
When it opened to a surprised public in late August, Banksy’s Dismaland was all over the British news. Some said the artist had become the gimmick themselves by harpooning the commercial world of theme parks in a way that arguably lacked depth and integrity. While Banksy’s work has always appealed to me (like most) it was more the appeal of the kitsch element of amusement parks that pulled me in. I am a massive fan of anything that if highly thematic, the most synthetic the better, With that in mind, an immersive sculpture art experience skewing the characteristics of the traditional British seaside experience in my old stomping ground of Somerset was hard to resist.
On a suburban street away from the seafront in Margate is a mysterious place of unknown age and origin. The Shell Grotto, on Grotto Hill, is a subterranean passageway discovered in 1835 decorated in 4.6 millions seashells. These shells are arranged in ornate mosaics combining floral motifs within the walkways and more geometrical patterns within the ‘alter room’ at the end of the tunnels. The mosaics are made from a variety of different shells including locally occurring mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops and oysters. The bulk of the ‘background to the design is however made of flat winkle, rarely found locally and in closest abundance near Southampton. This adds to the intrigue of the origins of the grotto – multiple theories circle from being a pet project of a Victorian dandy to millennia old religious site, with Freemasonry in between.
The passageway meets centrally as a circular portal to the sky, lined with layers of shells spiralling to the light.
The passageways end in the rectangular ‘alter room’ where shrine like plinths are decorated in geometric and star shaped mosaic designs.
Along with the Grotto itself, the adjoining gift shop is well worth a visit. Shells of all kinds are available, along with sea themed gifts, jewellery and homeware.
The Shell Grotto is one of the most serene and magical places I’ve been to; the intricacies of the mosaics would make this a top tourist attraction if it was in one of the country’s major cities – it’s existence is almost unbelieveable. I can’t think of a better way to spend £3.50!
If you mention ‘Margate’ or ‘Dreamland’ to any English person over the age of 50 you will see their eyes light up like a small child on Christmas Day morning. The seaside town and it’s amusement park is the epitome of the traditional british summer holiday, full of yellow sand, cold waters, rickety roller coasters and fish’n’chips. Dreamland has been the location of seaside amusements since the late 20th century, with the park officially existing from the 1920s. Popularity peaked in the 1960s and 70s, with new thrills drawing the attention of holidaymakers nationwide. By the 200s times had changed with most Brits going abroad for a week of guaranteed cheap sun rather than staying closer to home, and Margate fell out of favour and became a little worse for wear. Due to low attendance the park was closed for several years before a local trust purchased the site for renovation.
I visited Margate last year for the first time and discovered what an underrated gem is it. Despite it’s hipster cred of vintage shops, cafes and being in Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Places to Visit in 2013 it still remains firmly off the radar for most.When we saw that the re-opening of Dreamland included promises of late night funfair fun, live music and djs it seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit my favourite little seaside town.
We rushed to Margate on the first train after work on Friday afternoon – dropped our bags at the hotels and clamoured to the shorefront and the entrance of Dreamland. I think it was just obliviousness that caused us to not really think about how busy it would be, but the queues to get into the site snaked from the park around sides streets and down the seafront – the whole town and more were there to see this iconic giants come back to life.
The ferris wheel and wooden rollercoaster creates a strong skyline for the amusement park, although these and a few other rides were unfortunately not open yet (Dreamland provided tickets to revisit at a later date as compensation). The attractions were imported from across the UK and underwent refurbishment along with the site itself – now full of modern but retro inspired graphics, infrastructure and seating areas. Other attractions include a Helter Skelter, Crazy Mouse, Carousel and Monorail.
Due to the retro theme of the park I opted for one of my favourite outfits from Collectif – three piece (cardigan, top and skorts) co-ords set covered in tropical birds, along with bright pink wedges. Luckily the evening stayed mild enough, although the sun didn’t shine quite as much as I wanted.
We only managed to get on one ride while we were there – the chair swing ride – which got up to surprising velocities. while we were soaring through the air Chas & Dave took the stage. Later on I caught Marina and the Diamonds on the main stage, while a swing band played through the evening at the pavilion.
Along with the rides outside, Margate Dreamland also have a renovated arcade hall and roller disco. Retro games were sourced providing an eclectic mix of weird and wonderful games.
Dreamland is a great addition to Margate, although there were a few disappointments on the night – long queues for drinks, limited capacity inside after 11, and of course a few rides being out of service. Despite these setbacks I’m looking forward to revisiting, hopefully for one of the upcoming club nights – as the park at night is truly magical.