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Step Back in Time at Dreamland, Margate – Season Starts Soon

Last weekend I watched a film – and I say film rather than movie because it was a true British film – called Last Orders.  The premise was that four blokes travel from London to Margate to fulfil their dead mate’s last wish to have his ashes scattered off Margate Pier.

As you may know, I have rather a soft spot for all things Margate and as the film was set in 1989 I anticipated some nostalgia – old vehicles of the time, shop fronts, etc.

Made in 2001, the film boasted a strong cast in Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay, Helen Mirren, Ray Winstone and Michael Caine playing the dead man.  It might sound as if Caine got paid for not much but the relationships and the story evolved in flashbacks, so he was in the action a lot.  Based on Graham Swift’s 1996 Booker prize-winning novel of the same name, it’s funny, touching and thought-provoking.  I’d recommend it.

So, back to Margate… I was intrigued that Caine’s character, Jack, wanted to be scattered off the end of Margate Pier because Margate doesn’t have a pier.  It has a harbour wall, but that’s not what he meant.  It turns out Margate did have a pier once, built in 1824 and officially called Margate Jetty, that was made of wood.  The painter, J.M.W. Turner, synonymous with Margate due to his love of the skies there and now Margate’s Turner Gallery, painted the pier in 1840 since he could see it from the window of his lodgings.  Being wooden, it needed constant repair but it was rebuilt in iron in 1855.  However, it was closed for good in 1976 due to safety concerns and, just like Brighton’s Chain Pier, it succumbed to a storm in 1978.

Anyway, I digress, what I was really looking for as the group of friends, carrying Jack’s ashes, rolled into Margate was how much attention the film would give to Dreamland.  As I’ve previously said, Margate and Dreamland are so entwined that the park surely would be mentioned.  I wasn’t disappointed.  As Ray Winstone drove into town along Marine Terrace, there it was, and one of the characters commented that Dreamland was still there.  Well of course it was, and still is. In fact, in 1989, when the film was set Dreamland was thriving, it was among the top 10 of visitor attractions in the UK.  That year, it featured in the Only Fools & Horses Christmas Special where the Trotters & friends go on an outing to Margate, visit Dreamland and enjoy some of the rides.

Sadly, attendance declined throughout the 1990s and the then owner began selling off and relocating its rides.  Locals were concerned and a campaign to have its historic and iconic scenic railway listed was successful, making it the first amusement ride to achieve such status in 2002.  The campaign changed into one to Save Dreamland in 2003. It seemed clear that the owners, seeing pound signs, hoped to build on the site but the locals were having none of it.  Over the next five years, while the campaign fought, the site was cleared of all rides with the exception of the now listed, wooden scenic railway which suffered from an arson attack in 2008.

So began the saddest period of Dreamland’s long and chequered history with aerial images showing the fire-damaged scenic railway, huge sections missing and parts covered in foliage.  The Dreamland Trust Group received £18m to restore the park and a further £10m was donated by well-wishers.  Some other parks donated retro rides which were placed in storage ready for a relaunch. The park reopened to visitors in July 2015 but without the scenic railway which was still undergoing restoration.  Without this huge draw, the park operated at a large loss for the year and entered into administration in 2016.  Thankfully, a deal was worked out and since 2017, the park has operated successfully.  This has been achieved through a number of means like catering to modern expectations by putting on seasonal events like their terrific Screamland scariness around Halloween and hosting theme weekends, festivals and concerts, as it did in the 1960s when bands like The Rolling Stones played.  In fact, Sussex’s own Rag’n’Bone man played there in Summer 2023.

 

But the heart of Dreamland has to be its status as a heritage site and a retro theme park.  Today, the scenic railway is the oldest rollercoaster in the UK and is, naturally, a huge draw.  It’s a real thrill to ride and you’ll feel part of history.  Prepare to step back in time as you go through the Hall of Mirrors, get lost in the Maze, squeal your way through the Ghost Train, slide round the Helter-Skelter and play Crazy Golf.  You can spend an hour or so in the retro arcade playing Pinball and other games that’ll take you right back.