Sitting on Margate beach with a flat white and a stonking hangover, my partner and I made what felt like a life-changing decision. We were going to leave London and move to the Kent coast. But not long after we decided, our conversation about our new reality of daily sea swims and sunsets was interrupted by a barking dog and a shouting man.
“What’s the matter, love?” he said to me. “The dog doesn’t like foreigners?” I couldn’t actually make out if he was talking about me, as I had lost count of how many other non-white faces there were around us, but I started to feel uncomfortable, the salty sea air catching in my throat. Was Margate really right for me if it felt like the people there didn’t want me? I am going ahead, waiting to complete on a four-bedroom house that I could never afford in London, but in all honesty I have my doubts.
The Margate community has seen a big shift with people coming from London, flocking to the Turner Contemporary gallery, Dreamland and now The Libertines’ boutique B&B The Albion Rooms. I’m conscious of being perceived as another member of the metropolitan elite trying to change the scene.
Leaving the city I was born in and where I have spent the last 10 years establishing a career is a decision that I would not have been brave enough to take before the pandemic. London excites and frustrates me at the same time. Just before lockdown I had finally got a full-time proper job in television after years of short-term contracts and saved up some money — now was my time, at 32, to buy some bricks and mortar of my own.
But when you figure out how much you can borrow and start to view places within your budget, the thrill of becoming a homebuyer quickly dissipates and what you’re left with is sadness that the city is not for people like you. The places I could afford were small and dark, or they were further out than I was willing to go. One lockdown later, in a Leyton one-bed, working and sleeping from the bedroom, I was desperate for more space and an outdoor patch that wasn’t a balcony overlooking a graveyard.
Having first visited Margate in 2014, I was blown away by how the train station opens up onto the beach and found the whole place totally charming. The sea never fails to have a profound impact on me, instantly calming, vast, the smell of salt water intoxicating.
However, it wasn’t somewhere I could ever live; it’s too far from London, too small to feel anonymous and its associations with Ukip are enough to scare this brown child of immigrants right off. In fact I had been so interested in the tension there that in 2014 I had suggested to the boss of the TV show I was working for at the time, Free Speech on BBC Three, that we host our debate on immigration there.
Three weeks later, we did. Standing in the makeshift green room in Margate Winter Gardens talking to columnist Owen Jones and then-Ukip deputy chairman Suzanne Evans, Margate felt like a quirky oddball place, some surreal dream.
But strangely, it remained at the back of my mind. During lockdown, like many others, I became addicted to any website where I could get my property porn fix. I started to think about places I’d like to live and what was important to me and my mind kept veering to the sea. Restrictions began to ease and my curiosity got the better of me — what could my budget get me in Margate?
A week later, I’d booked in to see five houses — yes houses not flats — in a day. Margate-me could live in a four-bed Victorian end of terrace complete with a hot tub, and I couldn’t ignore that. I was delighted to see the sea, and the excitement of catching up with a friend who had made the move there had already made me think that maybe this could be a good idea.
There are projects that make me feel I am not alone in Margate. People Dem Collective’s plan to build a cultural centre on the seafront to celebrate black and brown British excellence fills me with optimism and enthusiasm that sometimes change is a good thing. And I need the space. We are bursting out of our flat and I can no longer work from the room I have sex in. So I’m pushing on and signing all the relevant paperwork, transferring my life savings and cashing in that Help to Buy ISA. Will the move be the best decision for this London-loving lady? I guess sometimes you have to take a ride on the waltzers to find out what happens.
Rubina Pabani co-hosts Brown Girls Do It Too on BBC Sounds