What do you mean a wet weekend in Margate doesn't sound like your idea of heaven? Perhaps you haven’t heard about the Reading Rooms. And if there’s a more romantic afternoon than sitting in a seaside café eating scones and drinking tea while the rain pours down outside, we’d like to know what it is...
Arriving by train in this Kent seaside town on a stormy Friday night, we hopped in a taxi to the nearby Reading Rooms. A boutique bed and breakfast with just three rooms, each has a large ensuite and a bed big enough to sleep a family of eight. Louise and Liam, the owners of this luxury guesthouse – who viewers of the Hotel Inspector may recognise them from their telly debut – were there to show us to our top-floor room (room 3, considered to be the best, don’t you know).
Ruth Watson was originally on hand to help and harangue the couple as they embarked on the Georgian building’s renovation – stripping back the layers to highlight the original plasterwork, uncovering centuries-old cornicing, stocking the rooms with antique finds – and even Smith's very own James Lohan jetted in to Margate (by train) to road test one of the brand-new bedrooms. Luckily for all, including Mr Smith, the end result was very much to his liking: the couple’s distinctive blend of east London cool successfully transplanted into its Margate setting.
The idea of a boutique retreat in Margate might seem surprising but, as the programme showed, this Kent coastal town is undergoing a revival. Turner Contemporary is opening a new gallery on the seafront in 2011, backed by arty Margate native, Tracey Emin – plans and models of it can be pored over in Droit House, on the Harbour Arm. Factor in the more established (occasionally weird and wonderful) attractions such as the Shell Grotto and the museums, shops and cafés – not forgetting the Kent countryside and coast. Helpfully, Louise and Liam were there to talk us through the local area. And the extensive breakfast menu.
As all the tasty fare here is bought in from outside, it’s very fresh and ridiculously tempting. While my other half gleefully got stuck into circling half the menu (I had to take the pencil away from him in the end – it was getting embarrassing), I checked out the enormous bathroom. While perched on the edge of the freestanding tub I pondered which of the lovely Ren products I’d be snaffling.
Local pubs abeckoning, before we’d even unpacked we were out the door, mentally clutching a list of local recommendations. Both of us having forgotten to bring an umbrella, we arrived at the Lifeboat bar drenched and gagging for a warming drink. Small but perfectly formed, this watering hole boasts real ales and ciders so strong they’d probably give you an ulcer – but who cares, they taste great. And, of course, there's a lovely open fire.
The owner is a comedy character who talks to everyone like he knows them, then forgets them entirely by the next time he sees them. Pouncing on us for a chat, he offered to cook us something ‘hearty in the kitchen’. But we already had reservations at the nearby Indian restaurant, the Ambrette, and had to decline his kind offer. Not that we escaped taking part in the fish raffle. Quite what we were going to do with a large plaice is anyone’s guess.
The Ambrette and its Modern English cuisine from a celebrated chef lived up to brilliant reviews and everything we ordered from its eclectic menu was full of flavour, including a chocolate samosa, which tasted better than it may sound. Dinner done, it was back to the Lifeboat for a snifter before we collapsed full and happy into the most comfortable bed of all time.
Bacon and sausage sandwiches, croissants, toast, juice and fresh coffee wolfed (told you we circled a lot), we kicked off Saturday with a visit to the Shell Grotto, an underground cavern decorated entirely in, well, shells. No one quite knows why or when it was created, but for £3 it’s well worth a gander, if only to try and spot the phallic symbols apparently hidden in the design. Scott’s Furniture Emporium was next, a second-hand shop around the corner set in a series of jumbled rooms. Kitsch overload, but there are some genuine gems to be found among the retro toys and floral fireguards.
Still full from our enormous breakfast we headed to the Mad Hatters Tea Rooms in the old town. It’s Christmas all year round in this old-fashioned café, and decorations hang from every corner. Even the mad hatter himself, Peter, wears a tinsel top hat as he serves you cakes and sandwiches, all of which gives the two-floor building a warm and delightfully surreal feel.
Of course these Smiths couldn’t visit the seaside without throwing some cash at the amusement arcades, of which there are plenty to choose from in Margate. After spending £8 trying to win a roulette-chip key-ring on the 2p falls machines – in the end the owner felt so sorry for me he just opened it up and gave it to me – we embarked on a mini pub crawl along this swathe of Kent's seafront.
The Lighthouse Bar at the Margate Harbour Arm is just down from Tracy Emin’s famous pink-neon 'I Never Stopped Loving You' sign on Droit House. With bar staff who aim to please and candles that flatter, here they’ll whip you up any kind of cocktail while you take in the English Channel views. Just along the arm is BeBeached, an intimate 'real food' restaurant festooned with fairy lights and bunting. Its owner, Jean Beswick, is well known locally for her home-made delights, and the menu changes constantly. The highlights for us were the grilled halloumi, meatloaf with blue cheese sauce and sticky toffee pudding with chocolate custard. With wine and bottled water the bill came to a respectable £30 each, and we left feeling like we never needed to eat again. At least not until breakfast the next morning at our guesthouse-with-gusto, anyway.
Anyone looking to get away for the weekend to do as little as possible will love Margate. Partly because, erm, there isn’t a whole lot to do. But it’s rather relaxing not feeling under pressure to run from one place to the next, and in one day we pretty much covered all there was to see. It’s quintessentially English, a little run-down (let’s be kind and call it shabby chic) and very, very charming. The council's pumping lots of money into this East Kent town and some great restaurants have popped up recently. When the brand new hi-tech Turner Contemporary art gallery is completed in 2011, that’s sure to have people flocking. I'm pretty sure we’ll be back. Partly for the culture, and partly because we can’t stop thinking about those breakfast sandwiches at the Reading Rooms.