My first impression of Margate’s stylish new Fort Road Hotel isn’t the art or the view or even the clever design: it’s the aroma of the fresh-baked cookies that are waiting in my room.
The train down from London’s Victoria Station delivered me to Margate Station in under two hours and the casual, beachfront stroll from there to the hotel only took 15 minutes. Nonetheless I set into the cookies like a famished pilgrim.
Once devoured, the room’s charms reveal themselves. There’s the built-in desk/wardrobe/coffee station complete with a stylish Hay kettle, fresh milk and fixings for coffee and tea. A Roberts smart speaker occupies one nightstand while the other holds a selection of books on local artists. Haeckels toiletries, derived from hand-picked local seaweed — you can’t get more sustainable than that — reside in the Mexican tile lined bathrooms, while a padded, pastel pillow-topped window seat competes with the luxurious bed for the best spot to unwind.
The window seat and the view win out for now. Across the street, shadow play from the mix of clouds and sun animate the six crystalline etched glass structures that constitute Margate’s crown jewel, the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery. Beyond that the North Sea churns and rolls. Above it, gulls careen through skies that the artist J.M.W. Turner – for whom the gallery is named – called “the loveliest in all Europe.”
The skies and sunsets may have always been lovely, but the town itself has had some ups and downs. In the Victorian era, Margate was a posh and glamorous seaside destination, but eventually cheap package vacations to other parts of the UK and, later, budget flights to Europe, drew visitors away from the area. By the end of the 20th century, the town had devolved into something of a punchline, a seedy and downtrodden wreck more abandoned than beloved.
When the Turner Contemporary opened in 2011 Margate still seemed like a long shot, but it was the start of an artist-led regeneration and within five years the gallery had welcomed 2 million visitors. The opening of the Carl Freedman Gallery in 2019 would help solidify the town’s reputation as an arts center and this year’s opening of TKE Studios, part of artist Tracey Emin’s ongoing commitment to her adopted hometown, cements the town’s status as a thriving art destination.
Margate’s riches to rags to riches story is echoed in the fate of the Fort Road Hotel, as well. The building itself, one of the last surviving structures remaining in the area that J.M.W. Turner would still recognize it, dating to 1820 when it originally served as a boarding house. All but abandoned by 1990, the building was left to decay and at one point was threatened with demolition. But, like the town itself, artists recognized its potential and moved to save the day.
Frieze Art Fair co-founder Matthew Slotover, developer Gabriel Chipperfield and artist Tom Gidley recognized the potential in the structure, not least its location: directly across the street from the Turner Contemporary and an easy stroll to old town. Similarly, the high street of Cliftonville, recently anointed by Time Out magazine as the 8th Coolest Neighborhood in the World — presumably they checked out every neighborhood in the world to make that conclusion — is just fifteen minutes away by foot. So, in 2018, the trio purchased the building.
Four years, a massive refurbishment, the addition of a fourth story and a roof terrace (best views in the city) later, the 14-room hotel opened this past September. Today, the ground floor restaurant with its green-tiled bar and fireplace, doubles as the reception area and it’s a pleasure to be welcomed back by GM Tom Fogg, an alumnus of the Corbin & King restaurant group.
Running the excellent restaurant is chef Daisy Cecil, who worked previously at London’s famous River Café and the legendary Sportsman in nearby Whitstable. The menu changes frequently but if there are kippers on the breakfast menu, don’t miss them. Similarly, the cheddar souffle on offer one night, the size and shape of a chef’s toque, can’t be skipped.
Art, appropriately, is given pride of place. Hallways throughout the property display antique maps of the area, vintage sepia photos and framed postcards of old timey Margate. The staircase to the double-height basement bar, a favourite with local artists, features a colorful mural by Sohpie Von Hellermann while a Tracey Emin neon sculpture illuminates a corner booth. ‘More Love’ it spells out.
There was a time when ‘More Love’ was something Margate and the Fort Road Hotel were in desperate need of. Today, the town and the hotel are giving some of that back.