22 May 2007

O Dreamland, Lindsay Anderson’s Free Cinema short film, is a cynical look at Margate’s amusement park at its heyday. Anderson ushers us in with the coach loads of day trippers, and gives us a 12-minute glimpse of the Dreamland of 1953.

On offer are such attractions as Torture Through the Ages: a display of animatronic dummies burning, boiling and electrocuting one another. “This is history portayed by life-size working models,” spectators are told. “Your children will love it!” Elsewhere bemused visitors are seen staring at caged animals and cackling puppets, before shuffling across the rubbish-strewn tarmac to go and slurp tea and tuck into sausages and beans.1

More recently, an increasingly run-down Dreamland became the grim and slightly surreal backdrop for a film by the Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski. Last Resort tells the story of a Russian woman who becomes “a refugee by accident”, after her English fiance fails to collect her and her 10-year-old son from Gatwick. Not allowed to leave Stonehaven (as Margate is renamed for the movie), they find themselves having to live in a grotty flat overlooking the desolate theme park.

With its seafront arcade of slot machines and toy grabbers, Dreamland provides precious little relief from the inhospitality of a town that the boy describes as “the armpit of the universe”. Its weathered old sign reads “DREAMLAND WELCOMES YOU”, but the mother and son try their damnedest to escape.2

Dreamland was converted from a Victorian pleasure garden in 1919. Although considerably changed, it remained successful right through into the 1980s, when it was operating as the Bembom Brothers Theme Park. Since then it has seen a steady decline and today all that remains of the amusement park is its original and now Grade II-listed wooden scenic railway: one of only two scenic railways left in the UK and, after rides in Melbourne and Copenhagen, the third oldest rollercoaster in the world.3

Its previous owner, Jimmy Godden, decided in November 2003 that the park was no longer economically viable and sold it to the developer the Margate Town Centre Regeneration Company (MTCRC) for a reported £20m.4 Now almost entirely barren, Dreamland could only open during the following three summers, thanks to a handful of fairground rides and a temporary ferris wheel.

Save Dreamland, led by planning consultant and amusement historian Nick Laister, has been running a campaign to keep the site as a funfair since its closure. The pressure group criticised Godden for selling the park for redevelopment, accusing him of allowing its demise by gradually removing rides over the seven years he operated the park. It argued that people do still want to come to Dreamland, quoting Visit Britain’s figures from 2002, when it was the UK’s fifth most visited free theme park, pulling in 680,000 visitors.5

The campaigners have tried to encourage fun park operators, such as Philip Miller of Southend’s Adventure Island, to take on and revive Dreamland. In 2005, they drew up a plan for an improved park with France’s Parc Asterix-designer, Jean-Marc Toussaint, entitled I Dream of Dreamland. The group has consistently lobbied Thanet district council and in 2006 convinced 350 people to submit objections to plans to redevelop the site.6

Save Dreamland objected to the council’s Margate Masterplan, which stated that they would be willing for Dreamland to be replaced with a mix of leisure, retail and housing. Despite a government planning inspector’s recommendation that the site remain a funfair, the council are looking for a development that would offer year-round business, whether this includes a theme park or not.

In February 2007, a public consultation was started on the future of the site. MTCRC has put forward two proposals for its redevelopment, both involving the refurbishment of the cinema and the introduction of a permanent ferris wheel. The so-called King Cobb scheme would be predominantly housing (around 800 flats) and move the listed Scenic Railway, whereas the Duke of York plan would include the rollercoaster as part of a “heritage park” of vintage rides, surrounded by a much smaller residential development.

Save Dreamland is, of course, backing the Duke of York scheme and is once again working with Toussaint on its own plans for the heritage park.

Criticism of MTCRC has also come from one of Margate’s most famous daughters, the Britartist Tracey Emin. Speaking to the BBC in February 2007, she objected to the proposal to remove the fun park from the site.

The whole area of Thanet, especially Margate, needs regeneration. The tragedy is just when fun fairs and good, old-fashioned seaside resorts are making a revival, it seems Margate is going completely in the wrong direction.7

Margate’s regeneration has indeed shown few signs of progress in recent years. The long-awaited Turner Contemporary art gallery, for example, is still in the design process. David Chipperfield was brought in to redesign the gallery, after the previously chosen scheme, by the Norwegian/British architects Snøhetta and Spence, was deemed too expensive.

With its future unclear, Dreamland and its only remaining attraction — the rickety scenic railway — will remain closed for the 2007 summer season. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

Update 20 May 2008:

Dreamland remains closed. On 7 April 2008, an arson attack destroyed 40% of the scenic railway. Save Dreamland and Thanet council are convinced, however, that the rollercoaster can be rebuilt and the redevelopment of the fun park will go ahead.

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