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How Ramsgate can finally emerge from Margate and Broadstairs' shadows as the 'next Whitstable'


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Can you name the town which, over the years, has attracted the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria to live or visit?

Where the architecture of the man who designed the interiors of the Houses of Parliament can be seen? Or where an Academy Award-nominated actor still calls home?

Ramsgate's Royal Harbour is a big draw for visitors
Ramsgate's Royal Harbour is a big draw for visitors

And which played a crucial, often overlooked, role in one of the Second World War’s most remarkable achievements?

It's sometimes hard to work out quite why Ramsgate doesn't outshine its Thanet neighbours or, for that matter, give Whitstable a run for its tourism money.

But could all that be about to change?

According to the Property Market Index, which tracks UK house-buying trends, the town was named its number one seaside town for London buyers seeking a move to the coast.

And if Whitstable's transformation over the year demonstrates, with the Down from London brigade comes plenty of disposable income and a revitalised local economy.

Ramsgate's Royal Harbour is certainly picturesque but the town struggles to outshine its Thanet neighbours
Ramsgate's Royal Harbour is certainly picturesque but the town struggles to outshine its Thanet neighbours

Amanda Collison from the Property Market Index explains: "Ramsgate's royal links, maritime history, architecture, stunning harbour, Thanet's Blue Flag international award-winning sandy beaches, high performing grammar schools and high demand for living by the sea have all lead to why this seaside town is quickly becoming the latest popular coastal location with relocators from London."

Which may well send a shiver down the spine of many living there - keen not to see their town become the latest where all the best properties are snapped up by wealthy city folk, pricing them out of the market in the process.

But there's no denying a free-spending stream of customers will certainly help its revival.

"Ramsgate doesn't enjoy the spotlight at the moment and from an aesthetic point of view, it should," says Phil Thorley, operations director at Thorley Taverns - the hospitality business which runs a number of outlets across the area.

"I don't quite understand why it hasn't caught on. Because when people come down and see Ramsgate they think it's breathtaking. The Royal Harbour and the vista along the front is magnificent.

Phil Thorley, director of Thorley Taverns, says more needs to be done create employment prospects for Thanet
Phil Thorley, director of Thorley Taverns, says more needs to be done create employment prospects for Thanet

"It's a beautiful part of the east Kent coastline - I call it the Mediterranean of Kent; we have a micro-climate which is fantastic and those who live here thoroughly enjoy it."

But the pub chain boss is only too aware of its limitations.

"I don't have a magic wand but if we could attract more companies to settle in Thanet and say 'look we have a ready workforce for you', I think that would be the best thing for the area.

"Thorley Taverns is the second biggest employer in Thanet outside of the QEQM Hospital [in Margate] and we're a leisure industry with only 19 venues. We employ seasonally upwards of 400 people and it just shows you the top end jobs just don't exist.

"There is very scant manufacturing and so on. It is an area with its challenges because of its lack of jobs."

Ramsgate was once a thriving cross-Channel port
Ramsgate was once a thriving cross-Channel port

And that, in a nutshell, is what has held back Thanet for years now - and Ramsgate in particular.

Over the last few decades it has seen its once-popular cross-Channel port close, Pfizer move most of its workforce out of its site in nearby Sandwich (now known as Discovery Park), seen Saga recently sell-off its call centre - on the cusp of Broadstairs and Ramsgate - while Manston Airport, even its hey-day as a commercial operation, only ever really limped along rather than soared through the skies.

Its future remains very much where the freight aircraft it hopes to service currently are - up in the air.

Add to that, Ramsgate's town centre has been deflated for years by the changing way we shop and the migration of many of the biggest brands to the out-of-town Westwood Cross.

Margate and Broadstairs - while both experiencing the same dilemma - have found their niche. Broadstairs is Whitstable-like in its compact blend of winding streets, independent shops, restaurants and cafes. Margate, the archetypal English seaside resort which once boomed, has traded heavily on its tourist history and reputation, pulling in millions of pounds of regeneration money.

Like many town centres, the heart of Ramsgate has been hit hard by vacant lots and the exodus of some big names
Like many town centres, the heart of Ramsgate has been hit hard by vacant lots and the exodus of some big names

Most notably, it used the Turner Contemporary as its much-discussed catalyst for regeneration while the revival of Dreamland has traded heavily on its 'vintage' appeal. In short, both neighbours have embraced the tourist pound and, while Margate still has plenty of challenges, it is a far cry from where it was 20 years ago.

Ramsgate has evolved rather than exploded. It’s had its fair share of broadsheet glowing reviews, but it’s seen more a trickle than a wave of deep-pocketed London folk heading its way so far.

Not that it is without its glamour. The marina regularly boasts a host of yachts which would comfortably dwarf the average salary of the vast majority overlooking them from the terrace of the Royal Victoria Pavilion - now the largest Wetherspoon pub in the world.

And just up the road lives double Academy Award-nominated Brenda Blethyn, the actor, who was born in the town, and is perhaps now best known for her depiction of Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope in ITV's long-running drama Vera.

"My head and heart are in Ramsgate," the actress, who has been filming the latest series of the show over recent months, revealed. "I absolutely love it here. We've got a beautiful harbour, and we're about to celebrate its 200th anniversary."

Academy Award-winner Brenda Blethyn grew up in the town - and still has a house there - pictured stood in front of the King George IV statue (48973101)
Academy Award-winner Brenda Blethyn grew up in the town - and still has a house there - pictured stood in front of the King George IV statue (48973101)

More on that anniversary later.

Perhaps most significantly for the future of the town is the hope one development in particular could enhance its popularity.

For years the Merrie England site - which morphed into Pleasurama - has sat on a prime piece of real estate. Nestled at the foot of the cliffs upon which is perched the bandstand and architectural splendour of the Grade II-listed homes which make up Wellington Crescent, the site has been one of the town's most dismal boarded-up eye-sores for years - an issue which is more painful given its beach-front location.

Once a railway station, the buildings were converted for use as an entertainment venue - pulling in the crowds during the town's early-to-mid-20th century hey-day.

But in 1998 it burned down overnight in a huge inferno.

For the next 20 years it stood empty as attempts at redeveloping the site hit hurdle after hurdle, false dawn after false dawn.

Today it is known as Royal Sands and work, which started last summer, is well under way to transform the site into more than 100 luxury seafront apartments, a 60-bedroom hotel, plus restaurants and retail units.

"Of all our developments over the last ten years," says a spokesman for Blueberry Homes, the developers behind the scheme, "we have never seen so much demand as there is for Royal Sands. It's a real testament to the area and its appeal that we've managed to sell all the first phase of apartments off-plan during Covid, and we're seeing a similar pattern now we've launched the second phase."

But, those who have seen the town's highs and lows over the years, warn the enthusiastic not to put all their eggs in one beachfront development basket.

Adds Phil Thorley: "That site has been empty for far too long so to see it regenerated is a fantastic thing because suddenly the eye-sore on the end of Ramsgate is being transformed. I think it will be really good for the whole area, but the caveat is I'd still like to see more jobs coming in.

How the Royal Sands site looked in January - just six months after work began on the site
How the Royal Sands site looked in January - just six months after work began on the site

"The stars are aligning for the whole area and they will align for Ramsgate - from someone who runs a hospitality company I'd like to see more employment prospects for the kids down here improve and I'm sure that will come as the people come."

Covid-permitting, the people should be flocking later this year as the town celebrates 200 years of its Royal Harbour status.

Legend has it King George IV returned into Ramsgate after a visit to Germany in 1821. So enamoured was he by the marina he gifted the harbour royal ascent.

Two centuries later, the honour is going to be celebrated with a three-day festival around the beachfront and harbour.

The main event includes the Royal Navy bringing two of their fleet to the harbour, and the world-famous tall ship The Royalist will also be anchored within the harbour.

Little ships coming into the harbour - as they did during the evacuation of the beaches at Dunkirk
Little ships coming into the harbour - as they did during the evacuation of the beaches at Dunkirk

Tied in will be the Covid-delayed 80th anniversary of the town's role in the evacuation of the troops surrounded by the Germans at Dunkirk in 1940. Hundreds of the 'Little Ships' which played such a key role left from Ramsgate as they helped rescue 331,000 British and French troops. More than a dozen of the original vessels which took part will sail into the harbour for the event.

Town stalwart Ralph Hoult, a man dubbed 'Mr Ramsgate', is festival director. He's hoping some very special royal visitors will soon follow.

He explained: "There is great anticipation about the town at the moment, and I'm proud to be a part of it all. We hope this historic event will help make up for the tough times people have been through during the pandemic.

"Upon receiving my OBE from the Queen, I took the opportunity to explain the 200th anniversary and suggested it would be very special if a member of the royal family could unveil the bronze statue of King George IV once we have raised enough funds."

The festival will raise funds towards the completion of a bronze statue of the former monarch which will stand beside the harbour.

Dominic Grant working in his Ramsgate harbour studio on the King George IV statue - he passed away before it was completed
Dominic Grant working in his Ramsgate harbour studio on the King George IV statue - he passed away before it was completed

Renowned sculpture Dominic Grant - a former member of 1970s ground Guys 'n' Dolls and son-in-law of the late entertainer Bruce Forsyth - planned to gift the statue to Ramsgate once finished but passed away before he could do so in November 2020 at the age of 71.

He had a studio in one of the arches on Military Road and had lived there for more than a decade.

Some £60,000 is needed to complete the bronze casting and provide the groundworks.

Added Ralph Hoult: "We have been talking directly to the Lord-Lieutenant of Kent about whether we could get young Prince George to unveil the late King George IV statue sometime after the 200th anniversary festival."

It seems fitting a harbour buoyed by royalty all those years ago, could see one of the Windsors’ latest generation give it all important boost again now.

Read more: All the latest news from Thanet

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