By Dan Thompson
A cornerstone of Margate’s Old Town has been lost with the demolition of Fort Road Yard ahead of a new development on the site.
The closure also sees the end of retail operations in Margate run by Joe Brown, a popular Old Town character easily identified by his brown shop coat and known for his cheerful trader’s patter.
Joe first opened Margate Retro in King Street the year that Turner Contemporary opened. The small shop (now part of seafood restaurant Hantverk & Found) helped set a style for the Old Town, with its mix of retro furniture, industrial items, and European ‘beer benches’. Joe’s furniture often spilled into the street, at a time when his was the only open shop in King Street and he was an advocate for community planters brightening the road.
In 2015, a former boat yard adjacent to the old Fort Hotel and above a car repair shop became available and Joe opened Fort Road Yard with his then-partner Kelly Abbott. They ran the yard and shops in King Street and Fort Road in tandem.
The couple also established the Margate Retro Rooms, holiday apartments in the Old Town furnished in a vintage style and complete with juke box and pinball machines.
Fort Road Yard housed antique stalls, studios and galleries for artists including Tom Swift and Charlie Evaristo Boyce, Miranda the fortune teller, and Thanet Cycle Ship, a bike shop run by Tim Mountford (Edwards) who died of Covid 19 in 2020. Well known for his cycle blog, Tim launched Thanet Bike Club from the yard.
In 2015, Top Yard was home to a two-day art festival called Outboard, and the first Fort Road Film Festival, marking the site’s cinema heritage. It was also home to the Bus Cafe, during its conversion from a bus to cafe, ahead of its move to the current Sun Deck site.
In 2017, the garage below the yard became vacant and Joe took a lease on that too. The old yard became known as Fort Road’s ‘Top Yard’ and Joe was able to offer more space to local traders.
It became a nursery slope for vintage and retro dealers, with many starting at Fort Road Yard before opening their own shops. The expanded yard was also home to Pete Doherty, selling vintage clothing, artist Chu and the Sinclair C5 club, who fitted out two shipping containers in colours to match the iconic electric buggies, as well as housing the iconic giant Timberland boot.
With the expanded space, Joe concentrated on selling old fairground signs and parts of rides, a nod to his family’s heritage as travelling showman and concession holders at Dreamland. Joe also established a business making neon signs.
The Fort Road Yard site was always run on a temporary arrangement, and as the adjacent Fort Hotel development progressed that took over part of the ‘Top Yard’. Lockdown closed Joe’s business, and he has decided to end his operations after 12 years as part of what he describes as ‘Team Margate’.
Looking back at his time in the Old Town, in which he saw 200 businesses open and close, Joe says “The only thing that stayed the same – is everything constantly changed.”
Free from seven days a week trading, he plans to travel “after taking some time to decompress”.