Boarded up and becoming derelict, the Royal Victoria Pavilion is an eye sore in a prominent spot on Ramsgate’s seafront. The distinctive white building, which opened in 1906 and was popular with daytrippers from London in the first half of the century, has stood empty since 2008. Today, it’s only really enjoyed by skateboarders who use its terraces as ramps.
When Ramsgate was a popular seaside resort with visitors arriving from the capital by train, the pavilion was a thriving venue with a concert hall, assembly rooms, shops, cafés, a photographic studio and sun terraces. It was the beating heart of the seaside resort and had the sort of attractions you would only normally find at the end of a pier.
From 1969 to 2008 the pavilion was both a casino and a nightclub. But now it faces an uncertain future. And the town seems divided as to what should happen to it. Wetherspoons wants to convert it into a superpub (the venue is so big that if all the floor space was used for a pub it would be the biggest in Britain, beating the Moon Under Water in Manchester), others has suggested it becomes a foodie market while traditionalists want it to remain an entertainment venue.
As the public consultations and reviews drag on, the Royal Victorian Pavilion stands as a reminder for some that Ramsgate’s better times have been and gone.
While Ramsgate began life as a small fishing village and farming hamlet long ago (versions of the name first appeared in 1225), it was the arrival of the first railway line in 1846 (with a station in the town centre) that truly put the resort on the map. And the opening of the Ramsgate Harbour (or Sands) station in 1863 (which operated until 1926) meant that daytrippers literally arrived on the beach.
The prominent promenade site, not far from the Royal Victoria Pavilion, has yet to be re-developed all these years on (apartments are planned). Visitors now arrive at a station a mile from the town and face a dreary walk through the suburbs and then down the High Street.
Victorian and Edwardian photos capture Ramsgate in its heyday. Back then the main beach was invariably packed with holidaymakers wading into the sea – wearing the same clothes as they wouldd wear to church on a Sunday – while others relaxed on deck chairs on the sands.
Entertainers performed shows along the beach, groups of children organised games for themselves and cafés did a booming trade. Others enjoyed the paddling pools and at one stage there was even a pier. The fun of a family day out in Victorian times is captured in a letter extract:
“Today I have had such an amazing day. Papa and Mama took the whole family to the beach at Ramsgate! Yes, all that way and we went by train. Mother was shocked at father’s suggestion he might nude bathe with the other men at their separate area of the beach. She suggested that a bathing machine might be more appropriate.
“The beach was already quite crowded but we found a place to establish ourselves and when the chairs arrived all was complete. Father had paid to have them fetched from a nearby hotel. We girls were content to promenade along the sand, watching a Punch and Judy show and listened to the hurdy gurdy player. We held our parasols aloft and our bonnets in place to keep the sun from reaching us. Indeed, had it not been for the gloves we had brought, I fear that we might have had very pink hands by the end of the day! Ramsgate itself is a fine town and we finished off our day with a tray of tea at a tea shop on the promenade.”
Changing tastes and the popularity of overseas package holidays – where sun was guaranteed were the un-doing of towns likes Ramsgate. Indoor amusement arcades opened in a bid to provide activities when the weather was too bad to be outside but even those have now largely disappeared.
But it would be wrong to completely write off Ramsgate. When I visited it was a sunny October Saturday and I found a comfortable cafe with a front row view of the harbour. Across the road, I could see the masts of the yachts bobbing and the place seemed to be thriving. The maritime museum – one of the town’s few attractions – was closed, but there were still plenty of people out enjoying the good weather.
In a magazine I found lying around in the cafe, there was an article about dance DJs and producers moving to the Ramsgate area. It seemed a bizarre thought to leave the likes of London, Berlin and New York and build new lives in what many would consider a faded seaside resort so why did they make the move?
“I came here thinking ‘Oh well, I like to live by the sea, it’s not too far from London, I can get on with things’,” said one interviewee. “But now there seems to be a critical mass here. Every week there’s something new and interesting happening. Berlin was supposed to be the electronic music hub of the world, and yet I’ve found more of a musical community here than there.”
It seems those in the music industry aren’t the only new people that have been drawn to Ramsgate in recent years. When I explored more of the town later in the day, I found an array of trendy galleries and quirky art shops. Often hidden away down backstreets in spots, you wonder how on earth they manage to sell anything.
Away from the grim High Street, Ramsgate’s splendid Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture shines through. The squares, crescents and bandstands are still in use and enjoyed today.
And then of course there’s the very thing that brought visitors to Ramsgate in the first place – the long stretch of golden sands. It may have been October, but given the heat I contemplated swimming in the sea. Remembering I didn’t have the appropriate attire I opted instead for a walk on the beach and wasn’t disappointed. The crashing waves were on one side, the white chalk cliffs on the other, and I largely had the place to myself.