Residents backed by council hope to stop site of UK’s oldest rollercoaster becoming another soulless block of flats
There can be few sights as desolate as Margate’s Dreamland. The rollercoaster, once the jewel in the amusement park’s crown and the oldest in the UK, lies broken behind a fence. The site of its celebrated big wheel, dismantled and shipped overseas years ago, has been turned into a car park.
This pleasure park turned wasteland looked destined to become another soulless block of flats, but after a 10-year campaign by residents supported by the council, there are hopes it can once again become – as the hoarding that cordons off the site still promises – a place where dreams come true.
After a long legal battle with the site’s owners, the town is waiting for a decision that could lead to work starting on what developers describe as the world’s first heritage amusement park.
Developers – with £10m of funds from the National Lottery, among others – hope to transform the site with historic rides, sideshows and gardens designed by the Red or Dead founder Wayne Hemingway. Rob Hetherington from Thanet council said: “Dreamland is Margate; it is integral to the town.”
The site’s owner, Margate Town Centre Regeneration Company Ltd, lodged an appeal against Thanet district council’s compulsory purchase order after it was approved by the secretary of state six months ago. A date for the final hearing is expected any day.
“We ran out of patience,” said Hetherington, adding that an original joint plan to create new flats and a reduced leisure park with the site owners after Dreamland closed in 2003 never got off the ground. “Flats are great – the council gets a new homes bonus and council tax – but if you look at what makes a community it has to be more than that. As long as there was a prosperous Margate there was Dreamland.”
Hope seemed to perish in 2008 after a fire tore through the Scenic Railway, Dreamland’s grade II* listed rollercoaster. Looking at the forlorn wreckage of the 92-year-old structure, the former driver Dave Collard described the moment he saw the fire destroy the part of the track and its original 1920s carriages. “I don’t want to sound soppy, but I cried,” said the 38-year-old, who started working in Dreamland when he was 16. But English Heritage retained the railway’s listed status, alongside the 2,200-seat grade II* listed cinema building on the nearby seafront, which is set to be developed into an entertainment complex in the second phrase of the project. “I do get emotional – I know it’s only a bloody rollercoaster,” said Collard. “But this has been a major attraction in Margate since 1920, and there’s no reason it can’t open again and give new life to the town.”
But some people in the town believe the biggest threat to Dreamland’s future lies in the proposed development of a 24-hour Tesco superstore next to the site. The landlord, Freshwater, argues that the store will pay for the renovation of the rundown brutalist 60s towerblock Arlington House, which looms over Dreamland. Critics, including Mary Portas, who chose the town as a pilot to boost the UK’s high streets, claim the store will dominate the town centre, cause gridlock, and damage the artistic vision led by the opening of the £17.5m Turner contemporary art gallery.
Following a four-day public inquiry, the local government secretary, Eric Pickles, is to decide the fate of the site on 28 February.
Sitting in the gently hipster Fort’s cafe in Cliftonville, where residents insist “organic” regeneration is already taking hold, the business owner Louise Oldfield said the superstore “would wreck the seafront and what is left of the high street. It is going to be next to Dreamland, and whatever they put on the side of this massive shed is going to be imposing and not very dreamlike.”
Asked about the council’s support of the project – which seems to sit uneasily with the heritage-focused development of Dreamland – Hetherington said it was a difficult situation. “If it is a choice between a supermarket or leaving it as it is, I chose the supermarket,” he said. “I would prefer something else, but there isn’t anything else or the prospect of anything else.”
To the surprise of some, Rough Guide editors recently declared Margate one of the top places to visit in 2013 thanks to the Turner and its “indie art spaces”, vintage shops, cafes, new hipster hangouts, boutique B&Bs and chichi independent shops. But parts of the seafront, with its boarded-up Victorian guesthouses and bleak amusement arcades from another era, suggest there is some way to go.
According to research conducted last year, 36.5% of all shops in Margate are empty and more than 800 properties are vacant. Unemployment stands at about 20% and the town has one of the highest numbers of people dependent on benefits in the country.
Many insist the town needs jobs and investment, and soon. “Margate is a ghost town. People are just struggling to survive,” said 21-year-old arcade supervisor Josh Hardy, gesturing at the empty seafront promenade. “Look at it. This place needs Dreamland – it needs something.”