Dreamland once more

Scenic Railway at Dreamland

The British seaside has always been an environment that draws photographers to it and Margate in Kent is well known for its traditional donkey rides alongside more recent attractions, including the Turner Contemporary art gallery. Yet for those who remember sampling its delights in the past, it was the amusement park Dreamland that drew the crowds.

Dreamland was one of the country's oldest amusement parks; at one time, the 16-acre site held a zoo and miniature railway, a cinema, cafes, restaurants, bars, shops and a 2,000-capacity ballroom, not forgetting that in later years it was home to Europe's largest big wheel.

Of course it evolved through the years. The site I remember from the 1970s was no doubt very different from that of the 1920s and the much smaller site that operated in the late 1990s.

As tastes changed and Margate, like many other seaside resorts, fell on hard times, the site finally closed in 2003 and sank into disrepair.

Yet now there are plans to see it rise once more, to bring back the wooden Grade II* listed scenic railway ride which was damaged in an arson attack in 2008. It's a ride that may not have the speed and gravity-defying plunges that many of today's fairs offer, but instead provides a link to the past, and the sounds of the cars on the wooden rails is one to savour.

In addition to that, the Dreamland Trust is gathering historical rides from other fairgrounds around the UK, working in partnership with Thanet District Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as Hemingway Design.

Margate, 1985

This process of restoration is being documented by photographer Rob Ball, who, since January, has been creating ferrotypes, also known as tintypes, of the existing site. The ferrotype process was established around the same time the site on which Dreamland stands became an entertainment venue in the 1860s, with the first amusement rides arriving 20 or so years later.

Each time Ball shoots, he creates a darkroom on site, ensuring the photographic plates are both created and developed in the location itself. The ferrotype process is quick, at least in comparison to other processes of that time, and was a favourite of while-you-wait photographers of the 19th Century. You can find out more and watch a video of the ferrotype process on the blog of the National Media Museum.

Ball has also taken some pictures in colour and is planning to continue the project as the new site takes shape.

The Dreamland Visitor and Learning Arcade is planning to open over the spring bank holiday and details will be announced on its website. Rob Ball will be there on 26 May to photograph the motorcyclists who are taking part in the annual drive from the Ace Cafe in London to Margate, this year marking the 50th anniversary of clashes between mods and rockers in 1964, an event dubbed "gang warfare" and the "battle of the beaches".

Dreamland Once home to one-armed bandits the amusement arcade is now boarded up.
Hook a bag, Dreamland The Hook a Bag stall shuttered and closed.
Scenic Railway at Dreamland Vegetation pokes through the rails of the Scenic Railway, will it once again echo to the shouts of screams of those who dare to ride it?
Dreamland Welcomes You sign A sign that once welcomed thousands of visitors each year.
Remains of menagerie enclosures and cages at Dreamland Remains of menagerie enclosures and cages at Dreamland which are Grade II listed.
Abandoned hall Once a happy place and site of birthday parties.
Old sign at Dreamland Storage cages and an old sign lie abandoned.
Old rides stored at Dreamland Old rides stored at Dreamland.

You can follow progress of Rob Ball's work on the Dreamland site. For those interested, the South East Archive of Seaside Photography is well worth a look. Rob Ball is the deputy director.

In pictures: Dreamland

Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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