Creating a scene

English seaside town Margate is built on a heritage of seaside attractions, and E&T finds that its future may rest in providing a home for retired rides.

Like many British seaside towns threatened by the irreversible decline of their traditional attractions, Margate, on the south east coast, is attempting to reinvent itself. With much of its hope for revival pinned on regeneration through the arts, some people are looking forward to a multi-million pound art gallery to be built in celebration of the artist JMW Turner, for whom Margate's sunsets provided inspiration.

However, nostalgia buffs believe that the town's existing heritage can prove an attraction, and are hoping to preserve some of its assets. One of these is the Dreamland Amusement Park, which achieved national prominence on 1 October 2006 when the artist Anthony Gormley, creator of Gateshead's 20m tall Angel of the North, used some of its now empty space in which to build the 25m Waste Man out of discarded rubbish and then deliberately set it ablaze.

Eighteen months later, on 7 April 2008, there was a less welcome conflagration when the Scenic Railway Roller Coaster, the oldest remaining ride in the park, was targeted by arsonists.

Local people told of a heartbreaking sight with flames rising over 15m above the top of the ride. Although 12 fire appliances quickly brought the fire under control, some 20 per cent of the structure was lost. Even more disheartening was the loss of the two original 1920s trains, together with the workshops.

Despite the setback, many Margate people were determined that it would not be the end. "It does not look a difficult structure to repair," says Nick Evans, author of 'Dreamland Remembered'. "The first impressions are that it can be rebuilt and the local council is insisting it will be rebuilt." We are talking in a disused electricity substation where last summer members of the Save Dreamland Campaign built a scaled-down replica of the Scenic Railway.

The horror at the loss of the Scenic Railway and the fascination that many people have for these older, more rudimentary fairground rides is shown in the notes written by visitors. Some simply record their visit: "I remember riding the Scenic Railway and being terrified. There were no safety bars in those days." But others show a deeper attachment: "This was the first rollercoaster I rode as a child. It started my life-long obsession with coasters that has taken me all over the world and on over 400 coasters. The Scenic is still my favourite ride, though. Let's hope we can all ride it again soon".

The hall by the sea

Now the oldest in the country and the third-oldest in the world, the Scenic Railway was first opened in 1920 on a site just across the road from Margate's main beach, that had been used for entertainment since the 1860s. Cheaper transport and more holidays saw people flood to Margate, and the grand structure first known as the Hall by the Sea housed at various times a ballroom, restaurant, music hall and roller skating rink. The land behind was transformed into a pleasure garden with part of it given over to a zoo.

It was the idea of John Henry Iles, who bought the site in 1920, to turn it into an American-style amusement park, called Dreamland, with the Scenic Railway as the central attraction. Also a promoter of brass bands and greyhound racing, Iles had the European rights to build and sell scenic railways, and he had done so in places as far apart as Aberdeen, Petrograd and Cairo. Dreamland, however, was to be his own permanent amusement park. The 1.6km ride that he had built was one of the largest of its type and an immediate success, carrying half a million passengers in the first 13 weeks of its opening season and almost a million in 1921.

From that time, it remained the most prominent attraction in Dreamland. Though it caught fire in August 1949 - with the destruction of half its structure - it was successfully rebuilt using timbers salvaged from Lowestoft Pier, which had been destroyed during the Second World War. In 1995, with the closure of many seaside amusement parks, it entered the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest roller coaster in the country and in March 2002 it became the first fairground ride to achieve grade II listed status.

But inevitably its survival as a working fairground ride depended on the fortunes of Dreamland and Margate as a whole. The town had flourished until the Second World War brought temporary closure of all its attractions and the post-war years saw the crowds return until the advent of cheap package holidays abroad in the 1960s. However the 1980s brought new ownership and with it gleaming new thrill rides so that, by the end of the decade, it was one of the ten most visited tourist attractions in Britain.

Save Dreamland

It was predictable that the potential of the site would be spotted, and conflict between the conservationists and developers would emerge. Soon after its 1995 sale to local amusement park and property owner Jimmy Godden, dark murmurings about the sale of part of the site to a supermarket began, and in 2003 it was announced that the entire park might be closed and redeveloped.

To begin with the local council and MP tended to agree with the development of the Dreamland site for leisure, retail or residential use, perhaps convinced that the revival of the existing Dreamland was not possible and that Margate's future lay with creative arts.

However, doubts were quickly voiced about the design of the Turner Contemporary art gallery. At first destined to be built in the sea next to the Harbour arm, estimated building costs had spiralled from £20m to £48m and there was some concern that it would not withstand the pounding of the waves. It was also clear that the public did not see art as the town's sole saviour and so were not prepared to abandon to shops, leisure units and flats what they still saw as the town's main attraction. So when the Save Dreamland Campaign was founded soon after the threatened closure it quickly attracted 13,000 members.

From 2004 Dreamland opened only sporadically. However, the Scenic Railway was kept in good order and retained its popularity with devoted fans returning each year, and taking what they thought might be a last ride at the end of the 2006 season.

However, Thanet District Council was about to have its hand forced. A 2005 government inspectors' report stated that Dreamland and the Scenic Railway should be protected, and public pressure also came to bear, with a survey finding that 92 per cent wanted the Scenic Railway to remain while 97 per cent want an amusement park around it.

In 2007 the idea of a Heritage amusement park emerged: Dreamland could become the last resting place for retired rides from closed down amusement parks.

With the way forward mapped out, the fire in 2008 put everything on hold. Nick Laister of the Save Dreamland campaign says: "it shocked everyone. We had more people joining our organisation than since the day it was formed. The town has come together and it has turned into a very big issue because Margate has realised that if they lose the Scenic Railway they will lose one of its major symbols and one of its claims to fame."

Support has also come from others: Ros Kerslake, chief executive of The Prince's Regeneration Trust said: "Dreamland is a key site for Margate, occupying a key location and having a central place in the public's perception of Margate as a seaside town. There is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the heritage of Margate while renewing its visitor economy."

There is in the town a determination that the Scenic Railway will be rebuilt to become the centrepiece of what could be called a museum of vintage amusement park and fairground rides, but one in which the rides still operate and can be enjoyed by all. As Nick Laister says ,"We have already begun collecting rides from Southport, Blackpool and Ryhl to build what will be the world's first heritage amusement park."

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