Margate Winter Gardens: Questions linger over future of iconic venue

By Stuart Maisner
BBC News

  • Published
Margate Winter GardensImage source, Thanet District Council
Image caption,
Margate Winter Gardens was named as one of the most beautiful gig venues in the UK in 2017

Questions linger over the future of an iconic venue which has helped bring prime ministers, the Beatles and Laurel and Hardy to the Kent coast.

Carved into a cliffside in Margate, the Winter Gardens is considered a monument to the grandeur and elegance of the seaside town's former heyday.

However, the building closes this week, with no decision made on its future.

Campaigner Jack Packman said: "My fear is that once it closes its doors it will never reopen again."

With its Ionic columns and domed roof, the Winter Gardens was a bold statement for Margate when it opened in 1911.

The neo-Grecian style banqueting and conference hall was intended to be a focal point for the town's local community and the pre-World War One generation of well-to-do seaside visitors.

The potential loss of the venue is being viewed as sad news by local historians, community activists, the leisure industry, and also performing artists.

Image source, Richard Clements
Image caption,
The Winter Gardens was built into Margate's cliffs in 1911 in a neo-Grecian style

For much of the 20th Century Margate was a hugely popular tourist destination.

However, like many other British seaside towns, it entered a period of decline following the onset of foreign package holidays in the 1970s.

Architecturally, the Winter Gardens has been one of the jewels in Margate's crown. The town itself is considered by some to be an architectural gem, if somewhat dated and crumbling.

Image source, Richard Clements
Image caption,
The venue was one of the UKs most popular venues for much of the 20th Century

Who has appeared at Margate Winter Gardens?

The venue, consisting of two entertainment halls and numerous function rooms with a total capacity of 2,500, has a long and auspicious history.

  • 1926 - Ramsay MacDonald's Labour Party holds its conference
  • 1947 - Laurel and Hardy make their only ever performance in Kent
  • 1953 - Prime Minister Winston Churchill addresses the Conservative Party conference
  • 1963 - The Beatles perform for six consecutive days
  • 1982 - Bucks Fizz appear the year after winning Eurovision
  • 1984 - New Order perform, a year before fellow Manchester pioneers The Smiths
  • 1998 - Manic Street Preachers take to the stage
  • 2016 - UKIP launches its campaign to leave the EU
  • 2020 - Blossoms perform, days before the first national Covid lockdown
  • 2022 - Emili Sandé's performance at the Margate Soul Festival could be the last at the venue
Image source, Donaldson Collection/Getty
Image caption,
Laurel and Hardy appeared at the venue in 1947
Image source, Erica Echenberg/Getty
Image caption,
Bucks Fizz performing at the Winter Gardens in 1982, just months after winning Eurovision

Concerned local resident, Jack Packman, has led a campaign to keep the venue open.

More than 200 people attended a protest in July.

Mr Packman said: "Closure would be a huge loss. The Winter Gardens is the go-to-place for all performing arts in the area.

"It survived a bomb dropping on it during the World War Two and they reopened. it Why can't they reopen it now?"

"I'm born and bred in Margate. I went there as a child for school prize-giving. I saw my first ever plays there. I even met my wife there."

Image source, Thanet District Council
Image caption,
The Winter Gardens has been an important attraction in Margate for more than 100 years

Margate has seen a cultural resurgence in recent years.

The Winter Gardens is considered a major part of Margate's cultural landscape by many performers.

And comedian Jason Manford, who performed at the venue in July, said on his Twitter feed: "I hope somebody buys it! It's a cracking venue."

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

The closure of the area's major entertainment venue will not only affect tourism, but jobs as well.

Jane Bishop, owner of the nearby Walpole Bay Hotel, said the decision would have a "huge impact" on her trade.

She said: "We are being forced to shut the doors of our hotel for the winter purely because of this closure.

"The Winter Gardens is our core out-of-season trade, and this is devastating for us."

Pamela Pople, chairperson of the Margate Civic Society, said people with a love of heritage would be "deeply saddened at the loss of this unique, historic building".

"The area desperately needs a resource of this size and quality."

Image caption,
The Winter Gardens has become an important community hub

The Winter Gardens will be handed back to Thanet District Council, which owns the building, from the current managers of the venue next weekend.

Council leader Ash Ashbee said the next step will be an in-depth appraisal of the building.

She said the probe will see experts explore the "best, most sustainable options" for the Winter Gardens, but currently no decision on its future has been made.

Councillor Ashbee said the building was in need of refurbishment, and that the impact of Covid had been "profound" not just for the Winter Gardens - but the town of Margate as a whole.

She said: "We fully recognise the level of public support that there is in the district, and beyond, for the Winter Gardens, and we are committed to including significant amounts of public engagement as part of the appraisal.

"I can assure residents that we will do everything we can to build a long-term and viable future for this well-loved local venue."

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