The rise, fall and rise again of business in Northdown Road

ON THE ROAD: The ups and downs of trade on Northdown Road

By Dan Thompson

If one street can tell the story of Margate- and, of course, Cliftonville- it is Northdown Road. Running from the suburbs of Palm Bay down to the bustle of the harbour and Old Town, it has seen Margate rise and fall time and again.

Historically serving the visitors staying in the hotels and guesthouses strung out along the cliffs of Margate’s east side, and providing goods and services for those businesses too, today it mostly serves locals.

Northdown Road caters equally for old Margatonians, the Down From London creatives doing up old houses, and the diverse communities who have made their homes in Margate.

There are practical shops, like Margate Decorators’ Merchants and grocer KG Winters, workspaces like Northdown Studios and The Shop Front, and places for a night out like Banks Alehouse and Margate Arts Club.

The street is home to some of the Isle of Thanet’s oldest businesses. Lovely’s supplies art materials, provides picture framing. The business has been trading since 1891, when it was one of the first to import lengths of picture frame moulding from Germany, and celebrated its 130th birthday this summer.

Older still are estate agents Jesse Holness, established in 1838. But older than both are undertakers Gore Brothers, who had been providing funeral services for at least 60 years when Lovely’s opened. The company is still in the hands of the Gore family.

Of course, like most shopping streets, Northdown Road has seen closures in recent years. Many were familiar local names, and reflected the road’s reputation as home to the Isle’s finest shops in the 1960s and 1970s. John Bello the Tailor had once been a cutter for Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s dressmaker. Potton’s sold high-end menswear.

Martell Press sold fancy stationery. Thornton Bobby had started selling pianos, but from the 1960s sold colour TVs, hi-fis, and all the latest labour-saving devices for the kitchen.

There are, of course, some survivors from that era. Batchelor’s Patisserie has been serving fancy cakes and coffee for over 50 years. It has one of the finest intact cafe interiors of its age in the UK. Another great original interior, just off Northdown Road, can be found at the Dalby Cafe. Opened just after the Second World War, it has bench seats taken from old Margate trams, original formica tables, and serves what many consider the best breakfast in town.

Those old traders nestle amongst a new wave of businesses, many – paradoxically – looking back to the 1960s and 1970s.

Sunny Vintage & Retro can be found in the old Potton’s shop. They sell old postcards, vintage furniture, toys, and collectables.

And just across the road, Lost Property occupy the old Whites of Kent store. A variety of traders sell furniture, clothing, records and other vintage goods. Other antique stores, junk shops, house clearance businesses, and charity shops are scattered along the length of Northdown Road.

The street has two secondhand record stores, too. Cliffs combines vinyl, a cafe, a hairdresser, and a recording studio. They were attracted to the street by the availability of large property – and had been put off the Old Town by its erratic trading hours.

“Northdown Road’s not seasonal, it’s more ‘local centric’ (although the amount of tourists has gone through the roof now)” says co-founder Ed Warren, “and there’s much more diversity of product on offer.”

Cliffs, he says, has built a loyal following. “Our very first customer still comes in every single day. He has his own mug and stamps his own loyalty card if we forget.”

Clayspace is a pottery workshop that was the first of the new wave of businesses to open on Northdown Road, back in 2015.

“There were lots of little businesses that had been here through the thick and thin, and the feeling there was space for the new ones too.” says potter Bridget McVey, “We were the first of those new businesses to open. As new businesses opened, it was really nice to feel we were all in it together, and all helping each other out. Not competing but collaborating.”

Clayspace’s co-director Ian Parsons has been more involved than most in the street’s revival, she adds, “Ian’s built lots of stuff for the new businesses – record racks and the counter in Transmission, lots of stuff for the Arts Club, wine racks and a table for Urchin, and brass panels and fixtures for Stirling Hair.”

As well as Parson’s DIY skills, many of the shops have shared a signwriter, too. Andrew Hudson of Hermetic Sign Co, based on Margate High Street, have hand-painted signs for Quo Vadis, KG Winters, Cliffs, Skinny Dip coffee and others.

He recently painted the sign for Northdown Road’s newest arrival, Ghost Papa. The shop, opened by Kier Wiater-Carnihan and Sara Nelson in July, sells records and books.

The Margate Caves Photo Carole Adams

The newest building on Northdown Road is at Margate Caves.

The address of the Margate Caves visitor centre is No. 1 Northdown Road. Opened in 2019, the building provides an entrance to the historic caves, alongside a cafe and community rooms. Ahead of construction, an archaeological dig on the site found evidence of a bronze age settlement, with underground grain stores.

With suggestions that the Isle of Thanet’s earliest settlers were traders, perhaps this – not Gore Brothers – is the oldest shop in town.

To see 500 photos documenting the shops of Northdown Road visit https://www.flickr.com/gp/danthompson/LQgQJ6

28 Comments

  1. im sure these tories think places like this dont exist , and they created these ghettos ! now wait for someone to tell us how wonderful that area is – arts and culture bla bla bla

  2. Is it the 1st of April already ?

    Seriously did the writer actually walk down Northdown Road ? If so you are braver than me !

    I enjoy reading this web site but dont try and kid us that Northdown Road is great. I certainly wouldn’t walk around there at night. It’s a dump, and it’s the last place I would go in the day time.

    But perhaps the arty people can save it like they are saving Margare, Ramsgate etc. Perhaps I might try Northdown Road in a few years time once the arty people have saved it !

  3. We live at the suburban end of Northdown Road after moving from London in the summer, although I’m from Broadstairs originally, before the snippy DFL comments start! We love that we can walk to more amenities here than we could in London (gym, barbers, mechanic, groceries, coffee shops, breakfast etc) and feel perfectly safe. Often we walk home along Northdown Road after going for dinner in Margate. Although it still has an edge, the energy and community behind wanting to improve the area is palpable. It will be great again, as long as the dissing Debbie Downers stay away. From when I left Thanet 12 years ago, Northdown Road has improved greatly, long may that continue.

  4. Lived here all my life in thanet.51yrs
    I remember doing Christmas shopping in cliftonville. You could get everything.
    Now been taken from us by the rest of the world.my nan would be disgusted in the shite that’s there now.
    It’s shameful .the pavements are black and filthy the council are useless. Makes me sad to say unfortunately we’ve been taken over.

  5. “Been taken from us” to a large degree by the development of Westwood Cross.

    The pavements of Northdown Road have never been”black and filthy” when I’ve been there.

    • I largely agree, though even before that it was in terminal decline due to less holiday makers and many of the hotels/B&Bs being converted into cheap multiple occupancy housing.

      I certainly don’t blame immigration – there are many places in the UK with a far higher percentage of non-UK nationals, yet these places still thrive.

      • You can’t have been aware of the “scrap wars” that revolved around the contents of the Thornton Bobby’s skip when it was still open. Some particularly unpleasant individuals having standoffs over an old hoover or the like.

        Most certainly there are areas that have very high levels of inward migration and thrive but these tend to be separate communities that eschew the more traditional way of life that attracted them to this country, integration seemingly being an unattractive proposition.

        • All I know is that when I used to go out at night in Margate & Cliftonville a few years back, it tended to be white English druggies/alkies that gave me hassle.

          • Still very much the case, but without citing specific examples of different behaviours from those of various backgrounds its impossible to make specific points. So I don’t, as the shouts of xenophobia, racist etc come from the usual quarters and comments end up closed.
            But as a general point cliftonville and thanet has always had more than its fair share of problematic locals, there’s no problem with incoming migration until you add more undesirables to the mix, every community, group, race, religion or whatever has its wrong uns, probably as a percentage its a fairly stable number across them all, but cliftonville seems to attract ( or have pushed / placed into) just a few too many, there’s a tipping point at which things go a bit awry, cliftonville has been out of kilter for a long time, fingers crossed the arty / ex london crowd will slowly put things on a more even keel. Though what happens to those pushed out is another matter.

    • The odour that emanated for nigh on 20 plus years and maybe still does that emanated around what was the Nationwide was hardly pleasant.
      There is most certainly a degree of menace on northdown road at night, but in an area with a vastly disproportionate number of junkies, drunks and the unemployable perhaps its no surprise.

  6. Having lived and worked in Tower hamlets London for more than 20 years seldom have I seen such filth squalor detritus and run down pockets of dereliction as is evident on Northdown Road. and some roads leading off it . Indeed the pavements are filthy and do smell badly in many places!
    The squalor can not be blamed on immigrants .One of the best value supermarkets on the Northdown road is the large east European deli . A great asset to the area .

    It truly is testimony to the sheer grit of the remaining old business’s that have survived through the very bad times and the enthusiasm and vision of a new incoming breed with the enthusiasm and vision to literally set up shop and trade where I have heard it said DFL’S and the feint of heart fear to tread . Their tenacity is the face of impossible odds is truly humbling .
    Whilst the heady days of earlier affluence may never be totally recaptured ,Whitstable and Deal not so long ago were shadows of their present selves so there is hope yet. Northdown Road is not a place to wander about late at night without one wits about them.

    All of this success modest as it may be seems despite TDC who could and should be doing far more to support the rejuvenation of this area .

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