Second Holidays

Mike Neighbour

Second Holidays

While all of the earliest holidays I can remember were based at Westcliff, Essex, our parents eventually found the inspiration to branch out in 1953. It appears that mother’s sister had stayed at a guesthouse in Westgate, Kent. Using their recommendation we too became acquainted with Mrs Jenkins in her narrow 5-storeyed house in Adrian Square. We had a large room with dark heavy furniture at the top of the house,

overlooking the grassed square.  Whereas we had always travelled to Westcliff by train, Albanian Coaches of St. Albans laid on holiday travel to Margate. So we booked our tickets and went to Kent like four latter-day Canterbury pilgrims. From Margate we either boarded a local bus or the coach driver carried us onward. I remember, we were usually the only family for Westgate.

Westgate was one man’s vision in the 1870s. He was wealthy Edmund Davies who bought an expanse of land along the coast not far from Margate. On it he built a little town – and that part of it between the railway line and the sea appears not to have changed one bit in all the intervening time.  Not that a nine-year-old child would have taken much interest in architecture. He was much more interested in the bucket and spade shop under the corrugated iron canopies in Station Road where the goods on sale spilled out onto the pavement. From 1956 until at least 1960 we continued to stay with Mrs Jenkins when she removed to a house called “Glenmere” in Elm Grove, beyond the railway tracks. It was a large detached property with a huge garden, slightly overgrown, but we were encouraged to use it. In 1956 the cost for a family of two adults and two children was £20.9.6 We sometimes took her daughter, Michelle, to the beach with us.  It must have taken about twenty minutes to walk between the house and the beach, but this we did four times every day, and often in the evenings too. This was the age of full board when you returned to your house for a full lunch at midday. Our parents had two routes to the beach; one via the town and past the Carlton Cinema, the other avoiding the shops and thus small children’s propensity to spend money.

There are two bays at Westgate. West Bay, and the one we mainly frequented: St Mildred’s Bay. We explored the rock pools endlessly and were fascinated, Durrell-like, to discover what new creatures the falling tide had left behind. The safe sea left exposed a beautifully sandy beach where castles, bridges, tunnels and other temporary civil engineering structures could be carved, decades before sand sculpture became an art-form. All topped by paper flags on little wooden sticks. Each day a little group of donkeys would be brought via the tunnel onto the sand and we would queue for rides. I have to say I did not enjoy my first ride, but I am sure that was not the donkey’s fault!  Because very few people brought their own car, the age of compact and lightweight beach furniture was yet to come. Stacks of wood framed and striped canvas deckchairs leaned against the sea wall for all to take. Each morning and afternoon a man in shorts with a ticket machine and money bag clicked and jingled his way across the often crowded sand.  The beach in the twenty-first century can still be busy on warm summer weekends, comprised mainly of locals and day-trippers. In the fifties a large number were, like us, weekly boarders. The little town thrived on the guesthouse trade, and regular flows of

pedestrian family groups to and from the beach and past the shops provided a buoyant retail trade.

Of course Westgate relied heavily on neighbouring Margate for entertainment and we used to walk there and back most times, only rarely catching the bus, for fares for four ate further into an already depleted holiday budget. We would rather spend what money there was at Dreamland’s wonderful fairground. However, Westgate could put on a show when it wanted to. Tucked into the top of the cliff between the two bays was the tiny Pavilion theatre, a shed-like structure which was more functional than grand. Clifford Hensley presented variety shows two or three times a week. Between Ourselves (1956 and 1957) and Gaiety at Eight (1958) included artistes such as Betty Morton, Elizabeth Gordon, Nena Musker, John Wade, Dorothy James, Marilyn Wildman, Douglas Quarterman. Tony Veale Sydney Shaw and Zena Relf.  These shows probably gave me my first experience of live theatre and I was enthralled.  My brother, Chris, carried our programme to the front of the stage one evening and obtained the autographs of the whole cast. That programme, along with several others, is still in the family.  

Today the Pavilion Theatre, closed when I visited Westgate last year, looks rather forlorn and forgotten; and seems rather smaller than when I was a child. The donkeys are gone, and so is the board by the steps where the beach photographer displayed the previous day’s prints. The small hotels along the front near the lovely hedged triangle appear now to have metamorphosed into apartments or retirement centres. The second railway crossing at the end of Roxburgh Road has been closed and replaced by

a footbridge. I recently saw no little collections of beach equipment, sandals and towels in any of the front porches.  Still present are the beach huts and the cabin which we walked to on the hot promenade tarmac to buy our ice creams. So too are the glorious cliff gardens between St Mildred’s Bay and Margate. The huge sign on a building near the station announcing “Jackson’s Stables”. And the corrugated iron canopies over the Station Road shops. There are still no amusements in the town, no coloured lights along the prom, no bandstand or concert hall. This is the way it is meant to be, and when two parents and their young children wanted an inexpensive holiday in the fifties they chose Westgate for its free pleasures of sandy beaches and safe bathing ... oh and Mrs Jenkins in Elm Grove offering three meals each day.

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