img227I can’t remember why I first visited Margate img232back in 1983 – I think I’d come across a photo of its art deco cinema entrance tower and been captivated by the thought of a fun fair that dated back to the 1920s. In any case, after that I went back pretty regularly throughout the 1980s, during what I now know to be the Benbom Brothers era, usually with some poor unsuspecting girl in tow, so it’s always had that nostalgic glow of youth, sunny weekend days, and the faint (and inevitably totally misplaced)prospect of romance. Thus it was with a heavy heart that I read reports of its gradual decline, culminating in the catastrophic fire in 2008 that virtually destroyed the iconic Scenic Railway ride – the first of its kind when it was built in 1920 and provided the centrepiece for the newly-renamed Dreamland, which took its name from one of the amusement parks in Coney Island.

 

DSC03525Having spent her childhood in Kent, Mrs M had much earlier memories of Dreamland, with regular family visits there throughout the 1970s and a much closer exposure to its gradual descent into seediness. Hence, neither of us could quite believe it when we started to come across stories that plans to wipe the park from the map and replace it with the inevitable housing and shopping complex were being challenged by an audacious plan to rescue the site and revive it as a magnet for vintage fairground attractions. Even the appearance of Wayne Hemingway’s name amongst those behind the scheme couldn’t quite persuade us that this was a genuine prospect. We’d seen what he’d done with the vintage festival on the South Bank, but a whole, permanent, going concern out of a derelict site where the sole remaining attraction was a pile of charred wood? Surely big business would triumph.

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Well, our lack of faith was deliciously thrown back in our faces in August as we stepped into the famous tunnel from the promenade under the old cinema building to emerge into a reborn Dreamland. Sure, it’s a work in progress and no, the Scenic Railway isn’t open again yet (though the soaring framework of new wooden supports and trackbed is enough to show that its return can’t be far away from realisation), but already the park is regaining its old magic. The rides can’t – and aren’t intended to – compete with the likes of Alton Towers (and in that respect, it’s ironically probably been a good year for Dreamland to re-open), but for those of us who like to emulate those wonderful 1930s and 50s pictures of laughing crowds in jackets and ties, or Horrocks print frocks, it’s a fantastic place to be.
DSC03506 - CopyI won’t attempt to list down the rides as the selection is under constant development (and the challenges of keeping veteran fairground rides in full and safe working order means that one might obstinately refuse to play on a given day). Particular favourites for us were the Kiss Me Quick (the original 1930s Caterpillar ride recreated), and the Barrel of Fun – the nearest thing possible to a Wall of Death experience for pedestrians! Revolving at 33 rpm (very appropriate, but 45 rpm would have been better, if a bit scary), it induces 3G – not quite fighter jet but enough to stick you firmly to the wall). The organisers have wisely adopted the former charging regime of a single entrance fee, meaning that one can ride whatever’s on offer however many times you want.

20150825 Dreamland 37Inside one of the original buildings, a roller rink (another echo of the original 1930s Dreamland) sits where ice skaters once pirouetted. There’s an additional (and very reasonable charge) for the rink, but it’s also accessible without having to buy a ticket for the rides themselves, so provides an option for a separate visit. Likewise, there are food outlets on both sides of the ticket barriers. Following a general theme of aiming to do things well, all the food and drink on offer was both tasty and fairly priced – indeed, a single child’s portion of fish and chips for £3.50 was enough to keep both Mrs M and me happy, but maybe we’d been on too many rides by then!

img226On top of the permanent attractions, there’s a growing programme of events in keeping with the theme. On the day we visited, we were treated to a performance by a team of high divers, plummeting from tiny platforms high on something no wider than a mobile phone mast into a tank with a circumference no bigger than a decent backyard paddling pool. Future phases of work will see more of the original buildings brought back into commission, including the Dance Hall and cinema, which will open up opportunities for all-year round opening, serving not only visitors but also the local community who fought fiercely and tirelessly against the relentless pressure for commercial redevelopment.

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To mark the re-opening this year, amongst the attractive Hemingway-designed souvenirs in the shop is an excellent book by Nick Evans chronicling the story of Dreamland, lavishly illustrated with original photos that put my 1983 snaps to shame. It’s also available on Amazon. If you get there soon, you can pick up a range of gifts made from the remaining bits of the original Scenic Railway, but Mrs M was much more excited by her plastic Dreamland umbrella which she now carries at every opportunity.

Keep up to date with developments at Dreamland through their website and, if you care about preserving our low cultural heritage, please pay them a visit.img233