We went to the seaside the other day…
Margate to be precise, my old home town, to visit the recently-restored Dreamland amusement park.
I didn’t have much to do with it as a nipper. Thing is when you live near the seaside it has less appeal that when you live inland and when you live on the outskirts of a resort like ‘Margit’ the appeal is further reduced by the amount of holidaymakers that pack the town and sandy spots throughout the summer months. On reflection, it’s much the same for the Manx people when us annoying motorcyclists act like we own the Island twice a year….
So a trip to Dreamland was a bit of a novelty and our particular reason for going was that it is now a year since this early example of a mega-funfair underwent a major facelift involving an attempt to return it to past glories with restored rides – including a vintage motor-cycle race.
The bikes may be a bit anatomically incorrect but they had BSA, AJS and Ariel badges and the outer ones had pressed aluminium exhausts, mudguards and girder forks, which I thought was a pretty cool touch. Allegedly some of the old Dreamland equipment had been found on the isle of Sheppey where it had been stored for decades. In it’s heyday Dreamland had a miniature Brooklands car race too.
Fashion designer Wayne Hemingway was called in to add a sensitive touch to a restoration that aimed squarely at the glory days of Dreamland, which had been closed since 2006, then earmarked for compulsory purchase, demolition and redevelopment into housing. Major local opposition saw the site saved and the building of the Turner Modern art gallery on the seafront has supposedly spurred a cultural regeneration of Margate into a centre for the artistic among us. Well, all things are possible and Hemingway believed the restoration of Dreamland would complement the town’s revival. Trustees of the site had planned to rebuild the attraction as a ‘heritage site’ given its long history but Hemingway convinced them that with the town’s upgraded image it needed to be a place people went for fun as much as history while including the idea in the plan that ‘every little detail will be something which will photograph.’
Some while back the famous (and I believe Grade 2 listed) scenic railway roller coaster was a victim of fire and as part of the multi-million budget, this has been faithfully reconstructed in musky new timber. Other rides from the early days have been acquired – some found mouldering on the nearby Isle of Sheppey – re-commissioned and installed. All in all a worthy and noble venture that deserves to succeed.
But despite Hemingway’s view that success was assured by the reopening being ‘the right place at the right time’ it has been announced that it isn’t paying and the park is heading for administration. Visiting, just before the anniversary weekend we heard that someone has stepped in with funding to keep it afloat but our visit proved a though provoking experience for me.
“Not fairground people.” said one tattooed stallholder, flatly. “They don’t understand what it takes to run something like this.” A middle aged guy buying a coffees said “Look at the weeds growing under the scenic railway; can’t they get a strimmer? They need to put some money into it if they want to make it work.” Perhaps he didn’t appreciate the (according to our mate Rick the Gardener) £1000 each Mediterranean trees in pots dotted around. But he had a point.
“Thing is,” said the tattooed man, “they charge a high price to get in…” (we paid £15 each for a day ticket or it’s £19 on the gate), “That’s alright if you go on all the rides but it means gran and granddad have to pay in just to watch the kids having fun from the side: makes it an expensive day out. So they tried doing a free entry offer with tokens for rides for one weekend but then tried to charge five quid’s worth of tokens to go on the railway. No idea; not fairground people…” he reiterated, shaking his head.
Made me think. We enjoyed our day and I reckon it was excellent value but then we like old things. For anyone who brings kids, kids with visions of Disneyworld, TeddyBoy Bear and his moll are a bit low budget next to Mickey and Minnie. My love of preserving old things rests easily with the thinking behind turning Dreamland into an Art Deco monument to harmoniously ripple gently against the Turner Modern across the bay but it has traditionally been the summer influx of the rowdy Eastenders that kept places like Dreamland alive. How much will those punters appreciate the fact that ‘every little detail will photograph’?
It’s a bit like restoring old bikes when you think about it. Pre-war bikes are often perceived as ‘old men’s motorcycles’ but my favourite reply is “No, they are young men’s motorcycles, made long ago”. We all tend to see the bikes of our youth as ‘our era’ but in truth while we age within our motorcycling, the bikes don’t. They can leave us behind as in the case of most pre-war bikes; their original owners are gone but the bikes have become the passion of a younger generation. Take my Norton Inter back to 1935 and the young blokes would be all over it; take me back with it and I’d just be the same weird old geezer today’s learner riders see.
Unfortunately, many of the real class acts of the past have become so valuable that they have lost touch with their purpose. No longer exciting, dangerous and fast they are now exotic, rare and valuable. Don’t get me wrong, I think both views have their place but what worries me is that if you remove a bike from its opportunity to prove itself and just rely on old glory, then, like Dreamland, you may be turning it into an art concept that is unsustainable on its own merit. I’ve given my bikes a pretty hard time, caning them at Mallory 1000 bikes, Brooklands Test Hill or Kop Hillclimb or just on the road but I do it for two reasons. First it’s bloody good fun and second I hope people will be impressed that these old bikes are actually quite quick, not comedy old bangers. This is surely better promotion than droning on about setting record laps at Brooklands or the 1925 TT…
Anyway, I admire Wayne Hemingway’s vision and we had a lot of fun on the rides – especially the motorbike one which was considerably faster than I expected – weird going round a tight circle without leaning in! I hope Dreamland survives. If you’re interested, Nick Evan’s history Dreamland Remembered is a good read, it’s out of print but Judy found a copy.
Talking of ‘the show’, last Kempton marked the end of an era as founder Eric Patterson sold the event to Morton’s Media for an undisclosed sum. Eric is staying on as a consultant and hopefully the new owners won’t change it too much.
This weekend was the Banbury Run and I’m sorry to say it was a bit of a screw-up for us. I planned to leave a bike on the Sunbeam Club stand and then look around the jumble before going for a ride on our bikes to a pub, watch riders pass then come back for a relaxed wander around the paddock. But in fact we put the Martinsyde on the stand, walked 20 feet and got talking. People came and went and we were there till past two and needed food. We headed for the canteen and by the time we’d had a drink and sarnie everybody was packing up so I didn’t see half of what was in the jumble or many of the bikes. But…
But…one thing I did spot in the jumble was this Francis Barnett Seagull, just like the one I had. In fact… excitedly I told the bloke on the stand that it was my old bike from years ago. I expected him to use this information to try to extract the required £1295 from my pocket but he didn’t seem that interested. This turned out less surprising after he waIked off and I realised he was just another customer, making me look a bit of a berk…
It said on the note that it has a V5. When I had it, it was registered DLX760. I wonder if it still is…
Bike of the day for me was Richard Rosenthal’s recently acquired 1927 Bullnose Model 90 Sunbeam, a lovely un-restored beauty that is safe in Richard’s hands; although I did ask son Pete if he’d been plotting his father’s untimely demise yet…
Another pleasant surprise was a tap on the shoulder from Dominic Kramer who has been busy building a Round Tank BSA for the past year or so. Hopefully aided by my occasional advice.
“Come and see what you started!” he said. Since I was just talking to Ian Smart (peering at the Sunbeam above) who said the same thing a couple of years back I didn’t argue.
Then there’s Winold from Utrecht. A few steps farther back down the road than Dominic, he’s building a Sunbeam from whatever bits he can get that will bolt together. He wisely brought the bike across to Banbury with him and stuck as sign on it saying Parts Wanted. He’s going back with a few more bits of the jigsaw.
So does it matter that Dominic hasn’t got around to painting the tank? Should Winold decide whether to get a 1921 engine for his frame or a 1926 frame for his engine?
Anything can be turned into an art form but at the end of the day it’s all about getting bikes back out on the road where they belong. Banbury is an excellent advertisement for pre 1930 bikes giving people the chance to see them properly alive – indeed this was the founding philosophy of the VMCC. We all remember Mohammed Ali as a boxer and can still see him dancing about the ring on his toes. We probably all know W.G.Grace as a legendary cricketer but no one alive saw him play so he’s a kind of theoretical sportsman, just a big beard on a cigarette card. To maintain relevance it’s not sufficient to promote an artistic appreciation of past glories, somewhere down the line you have to put it on the line and show people why it’s worth their attention. Motorbikes, like fairground rides, are there to be ridden; shouldn’t restoration, rebuild, refurb call it whatever simply be there to return them to a standard where they are capable of being ridden?