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Kent's most memorable attractions that no longer exist

By Chris Britcher

It is little wonder we become so attached to our leisure facilities - they are, after all, so frequently a landmark of our childhood and formative years.

From town centre cinemas to which we once all made such regular pilgrimages, or football grounds crushed beneath a bulldozer, we have attached both emotion and our own personal histories to such venues.

And over the years Kent has certainly had some memorable attractions which were once so popular but would fade and eventually die out.

Fantasea Water Park in Dartford
Fantasea Water Park in Dartford

Call it progress, call it a better grasp on health and safety, from dolphins splashing about in swimming pools to high streets thronged with trams; lions and tigers to rollercoasters, every town has a past which is so often forgotten.

We take a look back at just some of Kent's lost attractions which once pulled in crowds and now linger only in the history books.

Dolphinarium, Margate

If ever there is an indication of how times have changed, then surely it is this.

Holiday giant Butlins once ran several hotels in Cliftonville and in one, the Queen's Highcliffe, built a swimming pool with viewing panels built in for people to watch the swimmers from below in a bar area.

But when the firm sold the site in the late 1960s the hotel was taken over by local businessmen and the pool re-purposed for dolphins. And sea lions too.

As part of Margate's summer show season, spectators would pay to watch the creatures perform.

And in the winter, they would tour the country - performing in, you guessed it, public swimming pools around the UK with the water salted to the same density of seawater.

However, by the late 1970s the Queen's Dolphinarium was closed.

Explains John Dineley who worked at the facility training the dolphins before becoming a zoological consultant and a former manager of Chessington World of Adventures: "The dolphins lived in the pool in the hotel all year round.

"In fact, the pool was used as a housing for animals in the winter that may have gone to other satellite shows by this company in the summer.

"It was an old Butlins swimming pool which, interestingly, was about nine-feet deep with no shallow end.

Margate's Dolphinarium was hugely popular in the 1960s and 70s
Margate's Dolphinarium was hugely popular in the 1960s and 70s

"These facilities would no longer be legal in Britain under the terms of the Zoo Licensing Act 1981.

"There was an investigation into the welfare of dolphins by my colleague Dr Margaret Klinowska - commissioned under the then Department of Environment now Defra.

"After many months of investigation Dr Klinowska made it quite clear that there was no underlying problems with keeping dolphins in captivity as long as the animals are given an appropriate environment.

"She advised that, among other things, pools had to be considerably deeper than the one at Margate - and most of the other facilities in the UK.

"This ultimately led to no one being prepared to spend the money to build facilities that came to the standards."

Around the same time in Ramsgate, the Pleasurama site had a private pool where dolphins were temporarily kept and trained for use in the London Dolphinarium in Oxford Street.

Staying with the theme of unusual creatures - in the early 1950s a life-size mechanical elephant would give children rides along Margate seafront.

The remarkable creation, complete with trunk, was capable of speeds of up to 27mph, courtesy of a 10bhp petrol engine, and even had a special licence to use the roads.

A nod to it lies in the name given to the Wetherspoon pub on the seafront - the Mechanical Elephant.

Maidstone Zoo

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the closure of a zoo unknown by many in the county but which once pulled in crowds from across the region.

Sited where the Kent Life tourist attraction now operates in Sandling, Maidstone Zoo was once home to polar bears, elephants, camels and lions.

Petula Clark opening Maidstone zoo
Petula Clark opening Maidstone zoo

Owned and operated by Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, and based in the grounds of his Cobtree Manor estate, he was a man deeply influential in the county town's history.

A mayor on 12 occasions, and councillor for nearly half a century, he was also High Sheriff of Kent from 1956-57,

But it is the legacy of his zoo which is perhaps the most remarkable.

Opened in 1934 those who visited the zoo still speak fondly of it, recollecting the train which operated around the site, ferrying in visitors from the road to the attraction.

By the late 1940s it covered 10 acres, and also featured animals such as chimpanzees, kangaroos, wolves, reptiles and bears.

And in 1946 it hosted a visit by the then Princess Elizabeth - some seven years before her coronation as Queen - as well as a host of other celebrities.

It closed its doors for the final time in 1959 due to rising costs and Sir Garrard's deteriorating health - he died five years later.

Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, who ran Maidstone Zoo
Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, who ran Maidstone Zoo

The animals, kept in conditions acceptable at the time, but in a way that would be frowned upon today, were dispersed to other wildlife parks around the country.

Today, the old elephant house is now a DIY workshop, while memories of the zoo linger in the themed children's play park on the estate.

Fantaseas, Dartford

When Fantaseas opened in 1989 its reputation swiftly spread across the county.

This was no ordinary swimming pool, but a pleasure park with a whole host of flumes and all on a mere passing acquaintance with what we would consider sold health and safety rules today.

It looked like the sort of attraction only glimpsed at in brochures for Florida resorts.

From flumes with terrifying drops into deep water, to a lazy river ridden on inflatable rings where there was always a good chance of falling out and finding yourself momentarily trapped under water as other users swirled above you, it was must-visit territory for the younger generation.

However, despite being visible from the M25 and becoming something of a local landmark, failure to whip up sufficient crowds outside of school holidays and weekends would end up costing it dear - especially when subsidence was discovered on the site.

It closed in 1992 and lay dormant for many years before being pulled down and turned into a waste tip before it, in turn, was built on to form the Bow Arrow Lane development for 175 homes.

Rotunda, Folkestone

You don't have to be all that old to remember the Rotunda as a bustling mini theme park complete with rollercoasters, helter skelter, arcades, crazy golf and log flume.

But it was once even more remarkable, with a 50m open-air swimming pool and large boating lake sat alongside it.

The boating lake was opened in 1937 and the swimming pool a year later - all perched between the main Rotunda building and the Victoria Pier, which was ultimately demolished in 1954 after falling into disrepair during, and subsequently after, the Second World War.

The Rotunda, Folkestone
The Rotunda, Folkestone

While unable to match Dreamland in Margate for wider appeal, the Rotunda was a site which pulled in huge crowds and which would eventually host the popular Sunday market too.

By the time both the lake and pool were filled in, an additional dome building was built and the modern day Rotunda would continue until 15 years ago when it was sold. Demolition work saw most buildings gone by 2007 and only last year did work begin on clearing the site of its concrete base.

Development plans have been delayed for more than a decade, but homes are earmarked for the site as part of a major overhaul of the seafront.

Kingsmead Stadium, Canterbury

From football to speedway, athletics to greyhounds, the now demolished Kingsmead Stadium was once a-buzz with spectacle.

Built on the site of a former rubbish dump in 1958, it was home to Canterbury City Football Club - a non-league team who would soon rise to the heady heights (for them) of the Southern League. During the late 1960s they even reached the first round of the FA Cup.

But fans were always kept at arms length by the cinder running track which ran around the pitch.

In 1968 speedway arrived and the Canterbury Crusaders raced there until the late 1980s.

Speedway at Kingsmead stadium in 1968
Speedway at Kingsmead stadium in 1968

But for many, it will perhaps best be remembered for its well attended greyhound racing nights.

However, development would bring everything to a grinding halt in 1999. The stadium was demolished and housing built upon it.

Canterbury City FC continue to live a rather nomadic existence in the lower reaches of the non-league pyramid, while Sittingbourne now offers Kent's only greyhound track - as well as speedway racing - at Central Park.

Sheerness Pier

Back in the mid 19th century, Sheppey was a hugely popular resort, helped in no small part by the construction, in 1835, of the Sheerness Pier.

Designed to enable the scheduled steam ships which would carry passengers down the estuary from London and along the north Kent coast, the pier stood near the junction of West Street and Brielle Way.

The pier extended for close to 460 metres over the Medway.

Closed in 1955 it was finally demolished in 1971.

Today, the piermaster's house remains in Blue Town with the ramp leading off it revealing where the entrance to the pier once was.

Reclaimed land has meant the stretch covered by the pier has now been built on.

Also, on what is now the site of the Tesco supermarket car park, were the Zoological Gardens - a small zoo featuring lions, tigers and bears which formed part of the amusement park. It closed in the late 1930s.

Micro brewery, Ashford

For those aged 40-plus, the transformation of Dusty's nightclub in the old flour mill on East Hill in Ashford, into a modern bar, Flatfoot Sam's, and adjoining club, Cales, was big news. Especially as when it first opened in 1990 it came complete with its own micro-brewery, the Packhorse Brewery - quite a rarity in its day.

Visitors to the venue could gawp through the windows to admire the huge shiny tanks that contained the beer which would keep them entertained long into the night.

The Packhorse micro-brewery in Ashford
The Packhorse micro-brewery in Ashford

It specialised in three beers - ingeniously entitled This, That and The Other.

However, the brewery didn't last for long and while the bar and club continued - morphing into Liquid and Envy as it changed ownership - the beer dried up and the brewery closed.

Trams, Medway

One hundred years ago, the high streets of all the major towns across Medway had a familiar scene - the rails of trams running up and down the main thoroughfares.

Because from 1902 to 1930 the main form of public transport was the tram in an era before the bus and private car became commonplace.

Running on electric rails, the trams were light green and ivory and initially served Chatham and Gillingham before being extended to Rochester and then Rainham within four years.

Operating every 10-15 minutes, the service was frequent but not without some incidents.

Trams in Gillingham
Trams in Gillingham

Most notably in October 1902 when an overloaded carriage carrying dock workers overturned in Brompton killing four people and injuring more than 50.

However, they would go on to be not only essential transportation across the towns, but hugely popular.

Until, of course, transport evolved and soon the clamour was for the bus and so the trams, after near 30 years of dominance, were parked up for the final time.

Cinemas of yesteryear

Remember when one of the joys of picking up the local paper was to see what the latest films were on at the cinema?

Granted, the thought of giant multiplexes offering the huge variety and choice we have today - let alone the levels of comfort - was a long way off, but back in the era of town centre picture houses, they were an accessible form of entertainment open to all.

You don't have to be that old to remember when films still had intervals and a public information film or cartoon before the main picture.

But with progress came the out-of-town complex and a hike in the prices to match the facilities offered.

The result was the loss of so many venues.

Back in the day, food was popcorn and a hot-dog, if you were lucky, and if you fancied a smoke then you could puff away to your heart's content in the smoking seats. How times change.

Ashford may be building a new town centre complex now, but many will remember the town's former cinema on Station Road.

The former Oxford Cinema in Whitstable
The former Oxford Cinema in Whitstable

A popular attraction since the early 20th century, it had not long before been given a modernisation before being pulled down to make way for the car park for the international station in the early 1990s.

In Cranbrook, the Regal Cinema was a much-loved venue for nearly 50 years before it closed in 1984 to make way for a supermarket and a car park.

Not far away was Tunbridge Wells' town centre ABC - the ghost of which would haunt the town for more than a decade.

Perched on the top of Mount Pleasant Road, the three screens would often see queues stretching down the hill and, legend has it, was the venue in which David Bowie's parents met.

When it closed in 2000 it stood abandoned until, only recently, was it demolished.

Tonbridge's Capital Cinema on the High Street enjoyed the big screen's hey-day between 1928 and 1964, becoming the first cinema in the county to have its own organ installed.

It would become a bingo hall before eventually falling victim to a fire which started in a neighbouring furniture store. Flats now stand on the site.

The New Century cinema in Sittingbourne
The New Century cinema in Sittingbourne

The Majestic in King Street, Gravesend opened in 1931 and under went a host of name and management changes over the years and, by the early 1970s, was an ABC and boasted three screens.

Taken over by Odeon and leased out for non-English language films, it closed in 2002 and was taken over by the United Church of the Kingdom of God before it too moved out. The building was badly damaged by fire in 2009.

Maidstone's much-loved cinema on Lower Stone Street finally came a cropper under the ABC banner in 1999, having opened in 1934 as the Granada Theatre. The building remains and the old cinema screens remain abandoned.

And in Whitstable, the Oxford Cinema, opened in 1912, and closed in the 1980s at least nods towards its former self. Now a Wetherspoon pub, it is named after Peter Cushing - the silver screen legend who lived in the town.

Not that every venue has since closed. Faversham's Royal was first built in the 1930s and after re-opening in 1994 remains a popular spot while Sittingbourne's New Century Cinema has undergone a host of transformations - and threats of closure - but continues to operate, albeit on a smaller scale.

Westgate in Thanet boasts the Carlton, a cinema since 1912, it offers some of the cheapest ticket prices in the county and is, unsurprisingly, a bit hit.

While the Empire in Sandwich opened in the 1930s and after briefly becoming a bingo hall and snooker club, is now a picture house once more.

Sevenoaks' Stag Theatre, first opened as a cinema in 1936, has also gone a number of incarnations but is now part of a community art centre showing the big blockbusters.

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