Dreamland rises again

Once a symbol of the best of the British seaside, attracting millions of visitors at its peak in the 1960s, Margate’s Dreamland amusement park has sat unloved for decades.
On June 19 though, it will reopen, redesigned and restored under the creative direction of Hemingway Design. The new Dreamland will be a mix of a heritage theme park and a hip new events venue: Eliza Williams takes look at the site in its final stages of development…

(Above: A view of Dreamland in the 1960s. Image: John Hutchingson Collection, courtesy of the Dreamland Trust)

The revival of Dreamland is the latest step in the recent wider regeneration of Margate. In 2011, the Turner Contemporary art gallery, designed by David Chipperfield, opened on the seafront, and the Old Town has a growing number of independent shops, reflecting the creative community that has settled in the town.

Dreamland first opened in 1920 (though an amusement park sat on the site from 1880) and enjoyed a peak of success in the 1960s and 70s, before cheap overseas travel led British holidaymakers to the warmer climes of Europe. By the 2000s, the site was in serious decline and plans to redevelop it into flats were announced in 2003. These were prevented by protests by the public though uncertainty hung over its future until 2013 (two years after work on the new Dreamland had begun by Hemingway Design and the wider team) when Thanet District Council gained ownership via a compulsory purchase order.


This complex history is in part what drew Hemingway Design to bid to work on the project. “I’d been following some of the stories and I thought it was really interesting because I like community uprising and this is what this was,” explains Wayne Hemingway, who runs Hemingway Design with his wife and business partner Gerardine. “Me and Gerardine have always been very political and this was something we were following and thinking ‘bloody hell’. To be honest I thought the developer would win.”

The competition brief for the new Dreamland asked for a heritage theme park, though Hemingway felt this was a limited approach, and instead suggested a mix between a heritage park and an events space that could operate all year round. “To keep it going as a heritage project, you’re going to have to raise loads of money to subsidise it, or you’re going to have to have someone with very deep pockets who’s a benefactor,” says Hemingway. “So we came up with this idea that it could be an events space as well. I think that’s what won us the bid, because we added another dimension to what they were thinking.”

“From a commercial perspective, if you’re just about rides, you’ve got a limited season – the summer,” says Eddie Kemsley, CEO at Dreamland. “We wanted to be able to stretch that and the events programme gives us that ability. We can hold something like Screamland, which is our Halloween festival, and we’re doing an amazing Christmas event, and hosting a gaming festival in February. You can keep jobs going through the winter, when a lot of these kinds of businesses have to hire people seasonally.”

The objects were obtained from a range of sources, including eBay and other fairgrounds
The objects were obtained from a range of sources, including eBay and other fairgrounds

Hemingway Design worked with Ray Hole Architects on the design of the site, and M&C Saatchi to create the branding and tone of voice. The new Dreamland will open in phases. The first phase, opening on June 19, will include the theme park, featuring rides from the late 1880s to the present day, and a roller disco. The newly built scenic railway and a ballroom events space will open later in the year.

The budget for the project has been extremely tight, with all the rides in Dreamland costing the equivalent to one new ride at a major modern theme park. “The biggest battle is how do you squeeze something this scale out of the money that you’ve got,” says Hemingway. “It’s one hell of a challenge.”

The limited funds have defined the direction of the design to some extent, with the team reusing and recycling everything from the original site that they can. All the remaining wood from the original scenic railway (which was part destroyed by an arson attack in 2008) has been resused, both as furniture for the site and as souvenirs, and other fairground artifacts have been sourced via the internet, before being ‘upcycled’. The roller disco will feature the original ceiling, which is sound but charmingly worn.

The site in development, showing the new scenic railway
The site in development, showing the new scenic railway

“It can make you make the right decisions,” says Hemingway of the budget restrictions. “At least we can hold our hand on our hearts and say we really have reused everything. Every single thing. It may not be as designer-y as sometimes you’d like things to be, but at least you’ve done the right thing and been sustainable, thrifty and sensible. [Plus] we have some good things coming through [in later phases] that are new and shiny.”

Much of the upcycling has taken place in a huge space in the Hornby warehouses in Margate, where Jack Hemingway of Hemingway Design has overseen a team of mostly local designers to restore the salvaged rides and signage, and create new objects from the scenic railway wood. As well as finding items on eBay, the team bought pieces from Blackpool, and also received donations. Some of these came from local people who had ‘liberated’ items from the original Dreamland. “If you’re going into the Old Town, you’ll probably see some artifacts in some of the vintage stores that are from Dreamland,” says Jack Hemingway. “And if you walk around the town, you’ll probably see them in people’s back gardens.”

 Exterior of Dreamland, photographed in May 2015
Exterior of Dreamland, photographed in May 2015

While the upcycled items will form a major aspect of the new Dreamland, the aim is to always mix the old with the new, to echo the site’s much-loved history, but also keep it fresh. This is reflected in Wayne Hemingway’s summation of the whole proposition for the new Dreamland, which he describes as “old-fashioned but oh-so-fashionable”.

“Margate is a bit rough around the edges and that’s what’s really attractive to creative people,” says Jack Hemingway. “Elements of Dreamland’s future will be slick, but we don’t want it all to be slick. But we wouldn’t want it all to be upcycled and salvaged. I think you’ve got to have that contrast.

“Before we joined the project, the vision was just for an amusement park with historic rides but … it’s a better story and better narrative to say you’re charting the evolution of rides,” he continues.

East Londoners were always particularly drawn to Margate historically, and the new Dreamland’s cheeky vintage look and branding seems likely to appeal to the hipster community that populates that part of the capital today. The retro look used at Dreamland is currently very fashionable, though when questioned over whether this might fade, Wayne Hemingway robustly defended its enduring appeal. “It’s 37 years since me and Gerardine started selling second-hand clothes, and it’s bigger than it ever was,” he says. “Things don’t go for 37 years and then stop – it’s part of our lives.”

 Many artifacts 'liberated' from the original Dreamland have also been returned for use on the new site
Many artifacts ‘liberated’ from the original Dreamland have also been returned for use on the new site

The team’s passion for the project, and respect for Dreamland’s heritage, is evident in the depth and attention to detail in its design, with the rides themselves also filled with quirky touches and unusual references wherever possible. “The spinning teacup ride is a great example,” says Hemingway. “Every theme park has a spinning teacup ride – we thought ‘what’s the most iconic teacup in Britain?’.

Wedgwood. So we had this idea – and I can’t believe they went for it – of doing it in Wedgwood colours and [showing] the evolution of youth culture [on the cups] – so we had a teddy boy, a mod, a rocker, a hippie, a punk, a new romantic, a raver…” To keep it authentic Hemingway approached a Wedgwood illustrator to create the images. “The end result, they’re finding it quite shocking, but they’re laughing about it,” he says.

The new Dreamland will be filled with such details, and, with its unusual rides and events spaces, and unique history, the hope is that it will offer an appealing alternative experience to the speed and action of the more snazzy contemporary theme parks. “What inspired us quite a lot is as a family we’ve travelled a lot in places like India and Egypt,” says Hemingway,  “and I remember taking the kids to really funny amusement parks where you do things like pedal, and it’s so slow that it’s fun. I’ve got more memories of going on those. We can’t hope to compete with [the slicker theme parks], so we’ve got to do something that’s got wit and charm.”


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