2013 was the year Turner mania kicked into high gear.
First, a fabulous exhibition at Tate Britain called Painting Set Free. Then, of course, there was the film by Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner, starring the incomparable Timothy Spall. Even the West Sussex mansion shown in the film, Petworth House, was showcasing its glorious wares of the great man.
All of this made us curious to see what Mr. Turner actually saw when he painted some of his incredibly modern works. In the film, there was not much mention of Turners travels to France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, though they were very much part of his life. The famous Blue Rigi Sunrise, for example, was never seen. Instead, Leigh showed a small town on the east coast where Turner went to get inspired by the light: Margate. Who would have thought?
So ever eager for exiting, new things, we set off for Margate. As with Blackpool, this is not immediately a go-to location, although things are definitely happening there. (A smart, new gallery, The Turner Contemporary, may be the point where a ‘New Brighton’ emerges.)
At just under two hours from London, we decided to mix the beach and the art with some uplifting moments — it was the end of the year, and a contemplative short break was in order. Canterbury, one of the most important cathedrals in England, called us first. It is utterly beautiful and historically fascinating, well worth the little detour. Need I mention Thomas Becket, or indeed Henry II or VIII — it all started here.
Outside, delicious cakes and a perfect flat white in the cobbled streets were a very welcome surprise. The Moat Tea Rooms are just what you hope for in a historic setting: a charming place, welcoming owners, and great fare, so unlike the tearooms of old. Things have changed!
Then, via a long and winding country road with beautiful oh-so English hedges, and past the very French sounding Wickhambreaux, we went to the coast.
Margate still looked quite like Turner must have seen it; the white coast and huge expansive bay as the tide was coming in. Sadly, so was the rain, but not before a gorgeous blood red sunset that compelled us to stare at through the windows of the new Turner Contemporary facing the bay. That gallery, strangely, is a bit deprived of Turners — it seems they are all in the Tate, and they only get a few on loan with exhibitions they run. Right now there is a clever and beautiful video installation by Jeremy Deller called English Magic, which was truly magical. From huge swooping Hen Harriers and fluffy giant white owls to crushed Land Rovers and the London NY Parade, while Neolithic axes worked their spell with William Morris and John Ruskin, it was all supported with fluid, elegant steel band sounds. What a combo! (No wonder it made the Venice Biennale in 2013.) The theme of Britishness/Englishness was being treated here in a very un-UKIP way — the transformations of Englishness seen as a success story of the human capacity for integration. And there were a few Turners too, little ones.
After all that beauty, it would have been awful to stay in a little B&B or a Faulty Towers hotel of old. So what a relief a boutique hotel opened a year ago that makes Margate a destination in its own right. The Sands Hotel, right in the centre and overlooking that gorgeous bay, is just the ticket if you want style and comfort, good food and that view. With just 20 rooms, some overlooking the Margate Sands, and a huge terrace where you can while away the day eating scrumptious food and looking out over the bay, it's everything you could want.
Even on a rainy January day, the light really is different in Margate. You can see exactly how that delicate Turner colour wash came about. The Turner Contemporary offers a two-day self-guided tour of Turner’s Margate, and with a stylish, relaxing place like the Sands to call home, there's no better way to spend a weekend.
Click here to find out more about Canterbury Cathedral without going to Canterbury by attending a production of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral at Temple Church in London on Saturday, January 31st, 2015.