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How Kent's seaside towns have changed over the years from Victorian Margate to Folkestone's revival

Kent's love of the seaside dates back centuries.

The 1940s to the 60s were the heydays of British beaches and before that the Victorians thought the beauty spots had a medicinal purpose – with doctors of that era even endorsing the healing powers of sea water for all sorts or ailments, including heat stroke.

The bathing huts on Margate beach in 1908
The bathing huts on Margate beach in 1908

Air travel changed that in the sixties, with families swapping traditional seaside holiday destinations with the likes of Spain as flights became much more affordable.

It's only over the past few decades that people have said we should be proud of our British heritage.

In Kent, we have lots to celebrate today – including 10 Blue Flag beaches – and, when the nation's lockdown restrictions were lifted in May, our beaches were swarming, despite seaside amusements and attractions being shut.

Now that we've come full circle, we've taken a look back at how Kent's seaside towns have changed over the years.

Bathing machines were a common sight on our beaches from the 18th Century to the early 20th Century, particularly in Margate where some say they were invented.

Bathing tents at West Beach in 1906. Picture: Sylvia McKean
Bathing tents at West Beach in 1906. Picture: Sylvia McKean

The machines were simply wooden huts on wheels in which bathers changed, in private.

Then there were bathing tents, which were often used on Herne Bay's West Beach and in Leysdown.

Over the years, these were replaced by beach huts, which have become permanent – and popular – structures on Kent's promenades.

Today, huts in all colours of the rainbow can be found at beaches across the county, including Thanet, Dover, Whitstable, Herne Bay, Folkestone and on the Isle of Sheppey. On Sheppey alone, there are 35 huts on Minster beach and 15 at Leysdown and, as of last month, there were 350 people on the waiting list for one.

Looking at other seaside attractions, this month – July 3 in particular – marks a century since Dreamland opened its doors to the public.

Minster's beach huts. Picture: Mark Whitton
Minster's beach huts. Picture: Mark Whitton

The beloved coastal theme park in Margate has been welcoming families, holiday-makers and pleasure seekers for the past 100 years, leaving an indelible mark on Thanet for generations of people.

But its existence has not been without difficult times.

In fact, the ancient pleasure park has died and been resurrected over and over, surviving everything from economic disaster to a suspected arson attack.

However, its future has been thrown into uncertainty once again by lockdown, with park bosses announcing in May they had made 52 staff redundant as a result of the drastic fall in revenue.

That said, the message from chief executive, Eddie Kemsley, remains optimistic. "We are determined to survive and we will return to entertain the thousands of families and fans who have supported us over the years,” he said.

Margate's Dreamland amusement park over the years

Other seaside attractions and towns that have been brought back to life include Folkestone's harbour arm, which fell into disuse when the ferry services closed in 2000.

In 2014, it came back as a social space featuring shops and pop-up bars. The regeneration also included redeveloping the old railway line, connecting the harbour arm with the town.

The then derelict Folkestone Harbour Arm in 2011 and the launch weekend in 2015 after its renovation

Meanwhile, Margate - which had become an unloved town of boarded-up shops and derelict arcades - underwent a huge transformation when the Turner Contemporary opened its doors in 2011.

Despite it initially being predicted as a white elephant, the art gallery has turned fortunes round for the town.

A year later, the Government introduced its Coastal Communities Fund to improve seaside resorts and put them back on the map - like Sheerness, for example, which used to be home to the open air Sheerness Aquarena in the early 1900s, had an amusement park and, even, a pier.

The old Aquarena at Sheerness. Picture: Margaret Obray
The old Aquarena at Sheerness. Picture: Margaret Obray

Sheerness, like many other of Kent's holiday destinations, might have fallen off the radar for some.

But the county's coastal towns still boast plenty of attractions today, whether it's the amusement arcades in Leysdown, the pink Wheelers Oyster Bar in Whitstable or the pier in Deal, to name a few.

Leysdown Promenade and amusement arcades over the years

Deirdre Wells OBE, chief executive of the tourism body Visit Kent, said: "With 333km, encompassing sandy shores, iconic chalk faces, fascinating wildlife and some of the UK’s most exciting cultural hotspots, our vast array of award-winning sandy beaches and coastal spots will leave you spoilt for choice when it comes to planning for your next trip to the seaside."

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