With quaint tearooms, beach huts as colourful as India’s Holi festival and new art sculptures courtesy of England's Creative Coast, south England’s seaside towns have never been so tempting
Once down at heel, Margate has morphed into a hip seaside town thanks to the Turner Contemporary, which opened on the edge of the beach in 2011. Art fans should look out for Michael Rakowitz’s April is the Cruellest Month sculpture, which is modelled after a soldier who served in Iraq in 2003 – one of seven new outdoor artworks by top artists that are strung along the south coast.
Once you’ve explored Margate’s art scene, stroll around Old Town, a knot of streets that’s as on-trend as New York’s Bushwick neighbourhood. It’s lined with photography galleries, independent shops and vegan-friendly cafes such as The Greedy Cow. Don’t miss the The Shell Grotto nearby – the 21m-long tunnel is adorned with 4.6 million shells and dates back to the early 1800s.
Broadstairs may be just 5km from Margate – as the crow flies – but it has a much more laidback feel. Like Margate, the town is set around an arc of sand, and the beach is a popular spot for surfers, kayakers and paddleboarders. Victoria Gardens looms over the beach. Buy an ice cream at the 1950s parlour Morelli’s Gelato and eat it in the bandstand in the gardens or stroll 2km along the cliff tops towards Ramsgate.
If you’re arriving in Ramsgate on foot from Broadstairs, have a pit stop in the Italianate Glasshouse in King George VI Park, or a picnic in Victoria Gardens. Ramsgate Tunnels are at the southern end of the gardens. Once part of a railway network, the tunnels opened in 1863 before being used as air raid shelters during the Second World War. You can join a guided 1.5-hour tour. The tunnels are a short walk from Ramsgate’s picturesque harbour, which is filled with yachts and a ship dating back to 1912 – the Sundowner. Ramsgate Maritime Museum is next door.
Halfway between Ramsgate and Dover, Deal is a delightful seaside town with an old port, castle and independent galleries and boutiques. Once you’ve taken in the views from the pier, explore Middle Street, which is within a conservation area and home to pastel-coloured terraced cottages. You can also join a walking tour with a local guide.
Like Margate, Folkestone has had a renaissance in recent years and now it has a lively creative quarter. The quarter is really just a single steep cobbled lane, but it’s pretty none the less, with cafes, bookshops and galleries. The beach is at the bottom of the street. A path made from repurposed wooden beams winds its way across the sand to a garden at the bottom of a cliff. Look out for Pilar Quinteros’ Janus Fortress Folkestone on top of the cliffs, which is a nod to Janus – the Roman god of beginnings – which is usually depicted with two faces. The sculptures gaze inland and towards the sea.
Hastings has everything you want from a British seaside town: fish and chips, stripy beach huts on a pier and a funicular – with the added bonus of castle ruins set on West Hill and a network of caves nearby. Hastings Old Town meanwhile is lined with Tudor and Georgian buildings, while George Street is home to antique shops, a bakery and friendly pubs. Hastings Contemporary is nearby. Look out for Andreas Angelidakis’ Seawall sculpture outside, which resembles the concrete blocks used as flood defences along the coast.
If you’re up for a long walk, base yourself in Eastbourne and explore Beachy Head, Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters nearby. Back in the town you can circle the marina, stroll along the pier and traipse along its pebble beach. The town is home to a number of galleries – Towner Eastbourne is the best known thanks to its distinctive rainbow-hued exterior. The gallery has collaborated with Mariana Castillo Deball to create the interactive artwork, Walking Through the Town I Followed a Pattern on the Pavement that Became the Magnified Silhouette of a Woman’s Profile.
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