The moment you pull up outside the Walpole Bay Hotel in Margate’s Cliftonville area you know you’re about to enter somewhere special. We’re only at the other end of town but we’re a whole world away from the Premier Inn. When you visit Margate there really is only one place that outdoes the town’s own eccentricity. Ergo, there’s only one place to stay, and here we are.
Hub and I arrived at lunchtime on a Wednesday and found easy parking on the street right outside. This was the case whenever we left and returned to our hotel, day or night, regardless of the time.
The hotel covers an entire block, imposing, majestic and ornate. On arrival, it’s not somewhere you just walk into without pausing. The hotel’s façade demands to be viewed and admired. Following this, be careful walking up the beautiful marble steps to the glass canopied entrance as you certainly won’t be watching your step. There’s just too much beauty to absorb at either side and above. The double, glass front entrance doors are flanked on either side by a long, tiled conservatory simply brimming with greenery.
The wisteria over the entrance had finished its summer bloom cycle but other blossoms had taken up its mantle to provide a fresh, floral scent. Even being outside the Walpole is a sensory experience whilst stimulating the taste buds since the conservatory screams “afternoon tea venue.” Sure enough, there’s a board offering their famous Walpole Cream Teas.
Walking into the lobby is like stepping back in time and this is where one begins to understand the Walpole’s title as a ‘Living Museum.’ One has the sense that nothing’s been changed very much since it was built in 1914, and even less since it was extended in 1927. It’s the 1920s era that came to my mind as we walked over to the long, wooden reception desk where we were greeted with friendly smiles.
Although we’d arrived earlier than a usual hotel check-in time, I was delighted to find our room already available. It was with some difficulty that we focused on the registration process with so many interesting items commanding attention in the lobby.
Our allocated room is no. 203 on the second floor which, we’re told, is the museum floor. I must point out that there are historical treasures and artworks to be found on every floor and in all manner of nooks and crannies, as we discovered when given the grand tour by the hotel’s glamorous owner, Jane Bishop.
Being on the second floor gave us an excuse to use the beautiful 1927 Otis trellis-gated lift, one of only two remaining in operation in the UK – the other being in Claridges, London. Using it was a pleasure in itself, wondering what distinguished luminaries might have been behind its trellis gates whilst enjoying a quieter and smoother ride than we ever get in today’s elevators. Apparently, Otis have kept parts from various dismantled gated lifts in case the Walpole’s feature needs parts. They must be quite proud to know it’s still going strong as it says a lot for their product. The cage spans all five storeys and you can watch the mechanical wheels at the top working smoothly as it purrs through the floors. Just remember to close both gates on exiting or it won’t be able to move on.
Our room is quite charming, one of 41 guest rooms – actually, it’s a mini-suite with a living area and separate sleeping quarters – each with a sea view. There are west-facing rooms overlooking the front of the hotel and east-facing overlooking the rear, some with four-poster beds. Ours faces west so we can enjoy one of Margate’s legendary sunsets from our balcony and, looking to the right, Margate’s tidal pool – although it was obscured at the time since the tide was in. The furniture is authentically period, much of it having been in the hotel since the building opened. Of course, in addition to the old features like the fireplace, we have all the mod cons every traveller needs including digital TV, an excellent shower in the en suite and free internet access.
We’re keen to get out exploring, so we avail ourselves of a quick cuppa using the supplied kettle and complimentary tea and coffee before using the lovely staircase to descend. This gives us a further opportunity to admire the birdcage assembly containing the elevator as the stairway wraps around it.
The following morning we’re able to partake of the Walpole’s legendary breakfast buffet. The chef has made me some vegetarian sausages specially for me and I introduce them to beans, mushrooms, tomatoes and some truly delicious hash browns from the buffet. We’re in the very elegant Edwardian dining room where the walls are adorned with some of the hotel’s distinctive napery artwork (more on this later).
Throughout breakfast the hotel’s owner, the enigmatic Jane Bishop, wafts from table to table exuding an air of gracious cordiality, greeting diners warmly as old or new friends. We hear snatches of conversations that make it clear Jane’s taken an interest in and remembers what her guests had planned, continuing a dialogue that started days earlier. Even if her charismatic presence hadn’t singled her out as our hostess, the large display of photos featuring her with a myriad of celebrity guests give it away. Naturally, these photos reside on top of a beautiful grand piano situated near the entrance which is still used for jazz recitals.
Eventually, Jane makes it to our table. We are honoured to be regaled with a candid telling of her and husband’s long association with the Walpole Bay Hotel, beginning with their role as arms-length admirers of the building while she and her husband, Peter, were courting and visiting the beach and tidal pool situated a few yards from the hotel. Like third class passengers gazing upon the posh folks in the first class dining carriage, Jane paints a picture of the pair of them as extremely poor, convincing the kids that collecting sea coal on the beach is a fun activity, not just a necessary one to keep themselves warm.
Despite this, when the Bishops heard that the hotel had deteriorated to the point of being scheduled for demolition, they knew they had to act. This they did instinctively – I suspect that if they’d hesitated and thought things through sensibly they never would have gone ahead. They gathered every penny they could muster, sold anything of value, became the original ‘crowd funders,’ taking donations or borrowing from anyone who caught their passion and scraped together the deposit they needed to begin buying the hotel.
But how to fund the balance? With no trading figures, a structure that was, according to their survey, “beyond economical repair” with demolition recommended and buyers with no business experience, Jane and Peter were rejected by every lender they approached. There followed a journey of highs, lows, incredible coincidences and acts of faith that you simply couldn’t make up. It’s almost as if the hotel has a magical quality that somehow attracts the right people and makes things happen. Well, I think I already mentioned that it’s a magical place.
Because the Bishops couldn’t raise the funds to complete, the Budge family, who originally built the hotel, agreed to give Jane and Peter a 5 year period to run the place and build up a trading history before requiring payment of the balance. Still, at the eleventh hour (in fact, more like the 13th) when it looked like they weren’t going to be able to raise the balance after the 5 years, a visionary bank manager came through for them. It’s fortunate that this all happened in the days when bank managers could make decisions based on their hunches/beliefs/experience. Faced with this situation now, Jane and Peter would undoubtedly have been delivered a “computer says no” verdict.
Even today, restoration work continues, as does the gathering of memorabilia and curiosities that began under the previously-mentioned dedicated owners, the Budge family. The goal is to retain and preserve as much as possible – the aim of every good museum. Jane sees herself as a custodian charged with protecting the Walpole for future generations. Of course, she’s not on her own in this endeavour. Her husband, Pete, son, Justin and his wife Gemma are all fellow travellers on HMS Walpole Bay. Just as it was when owned by the Budges, it’s still a family affair. Well, the grandchildren don’t quite get it yet but give them time.
Jane graciously takes time out of her busy schedule to show us round. Our tour takes in both the fabric of the building as well as items gathered from through the ages, many donated by well-wishers. I send Hub into the Gents to photograph the 1927 gentlemen’s urinals complete with marble floor and tiling. We see copper boilers, lovingly-preserved sculleries, original 1914 Lincrusta panelling and peak into one of the four-poster bedded rooms on offer for guests.
There are rooms full of period clothing, typewriters from through the ages, ditto a roomful of hats. A collection of dolls at the end of one corridor both delights and disturbs as only dolls can. There are old metal signs and ancient tins that once contained consumables such as Oxo granules, whisky and tea. It’s no surprise that the Walpole has a side business as a backdrop for period photo-shoots and television.
Its guests are as diverse as can be, proving that the Walpole’s appeal spans more than just the generations. You might expect to see photos of our more genteel celebrities adorning the grand piano, but the hotel’s also hosted singer Paloma Faith, controversial artist Tracey Emin and The Libertines & Babyshambles frontman, Pete Doherty. Jane shares an amusing story of Doherty seated on the floor in the basement leisure room. Rather than listening to any of the Walpole’s collection of vintage vinyl on the record player in its wooden gramophone cabinet, Doherty was writing his own songs. He even demanded that Jane download an App on her smartphone so he could tune his guitar. Jane was pretty amused, until she later discovered Pete had been playing with his two dogs on her beautiful full-sized snooker table – said table covered in pink baize. Well, this IS the Walpole Bay Hotel.
Perhaps the guest who’s most impressed me is the celebrity who visited just this week and that’s the inimitable and wonderful Johnny Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and PiL). He turned up for breakfast, was utterly charming, claimed the hotel was far too posh for him and retired to his room to relax before his evening concert at Dreamland. I asked Jane whether she’d given him a napkin to paint but she said she hadn’t the temerity to ask. This comment from a lady who’s done things that would induce cardiac arrest in lesser mortals perfectly illustrates the contrariness of human nature!
Before our tour ends we have a chance to admire the gorgeous 1920s sprung maple dance floor that’s a big attraction for the Lindy Hoppers who come to the hotel for weekend events. It’s also seen many a bride and groom enjoying their first dance as a married couple… and probably its fair share of “Dad dancing.”
Finally, I can’t write about the Walpole without mentioning its Napery Art Gallery. What’s a Napery, you might ask (I did). Well, napery is the collective term for table linen, and that’s exactly what the gallery is comprised of – framed linen napkins that have been customised by hotel guests – some famous, some not – over the years. These napkins are spread throughout the hotel, displayed on the walls of every corridor and public room. It would take hours and hours to admire them all but it’s fabulous fun viewing the variety and picking out those contributed by well-known figures. Some are elaborately painted, others little more than doodles, some embroidered, some bearing poems or portraits, ranging from quick sketches to many hours of work. It’s all quite fascinating. Jane tells us she has several more waiting to be framed. Goodness knows where she’s going to put them, but she’s overcome bigger challenges than that.
The napkins customised by Tracey Emin have a special place on her dedicated wall space in the dining room. A couple are covered with an “explicit content” warning which, of course, makes them ‘must see’ items. They’re part of a Tracey Emin display. Tracey has adored the Walpole, since first bringing her Mother for afternoon tea in 1995. She’s since held several birthday parties and a book-signing here and does all she can to support it. It’s a match that’s both unlikely and yet completely understandable. For this reason, Tracey was the perfect person to open the Walpole Bay Hotel Museum in 2001.
Let me finish with a word of recommendation and one of warning. You simply MUST stay at the Walpole Bay Hotel. However, it’s neither possible, nor advisable, to simply stay, you must also schedule time to explore the building as one of Margate’s historic and art attractions.
And make sure you meet its fabulous first lady Jane. Jane and Peter’s story is a mighty one. It tells us never to underestimate the power of a dream, no matter how impossible it may appear. The Walpole Bay Hotel and Living Museum already makes a great film location. I believe it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it could, one day, take the starring role in the story of its own existence and rescue. Jane is currently writing the book and I hope the hotel will attract another visionary at just the right moment to bring the movie to life. I’d pay good money to watch it.
The Walpole Bay Hotel, Fifth Avenue, Cliftonville, Margate, Kent, CT9 2JJ
Tel: +44(0)1843 221703