The rollercoaster ride to bring back Dreamland

A group of local residents and campaigners began a 12-year battle that led to the reopening of a historic amusement park on the Margate sea front. Andy Hillier reports

Dreamland in earlier years
Dreamland in earlier years

The Dreamland amusement park on the sea front at Margate in Kent was one of the UK's most popular attractions in the middle of the 20th century. It opened in 1920 and in its heyday included a zoo, a scenic railway, a cinema, a ballroom, cafés and restaurants.

But its fortunes started to wane in the later part of that century as foreign holidays became more popular, and in 2003 it was announced that Dreamland would close and the site would be sold for housing. Since then local activists and enthusiasts have fought a long and successful campaign to preserve and restore the amusement park, which finally reopened on 19 June this year.

The decision to shut the attraction prompted local residents and campaigners to form the group Save Dreamland. It was led by Nick Laister, an Oxfordshire-based planning consultant who specialises in the tourism industry, who in 2002 had successfully applied to the government to have Dreamland's historic scenic railway – believed to be the oldest rollercoaster in the UK – designated a Grade II listed building.

This generated a lot of publicity in the area, so when the closure was announced the following year, Laister was contacted by some local residents who wanted to oppose it. "I set up a couple of website pages trying to get some support," he says. "Within days I had people coming forward offering help; in a matter of weeks, several thousand people had signed up to the campaign."

Three-year battle

What followed was a three-year battle with Thanet District Council to get the Dreamland site preserved as an amusement park. "The council indicated in its local plan that it would be happy for the site to be redeveloped," Laister says. "But in the end we managed to get the council officer's recommendation overturned by the sheer number of people turning up and writing in."

In 2007, the campaigners started to think about what they could do next, which led Laister and two other campaigners to form the Dreamland Trust. They held discussions with potential funders, including the local council – by now sympathetic – and the Heritage Lottery Fund, which agreed to provide some initial funding to get the preservation scheme off the ground.

But in 2008 arsonists set fire to the scenic railway and about a quarter of the structure was lost. "There was a period of about 24 hours after the fire when I thought that it could be the end," says Laister. "But in fact the fire made people realise that we had to do something now or it would be lost."

The project faced a further setback in 2010 when the owners of the site, who were backing the project but taking some of the site for housing, pulled out because of the economic crisis. This led the council to issue a compulsory purchase order on the land, which was finally granted in September 2013 after a lengthy legal battle. Laister says emotions were so high that supporters turned out at midnight on the day before the transfer of ownership to form a symbolic protective cordon around the site.

The trust secured £18m from a range of backers, including the local council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and in 2014 work finally began. The trust remains responsible for the vision of the council-owned site, which is operated by the leisure company Sands Heritage.

Eddie Kemsley, chief executive of Dreamland, thinks the park is unlike any other in the UK. "We have a ride from every decade right up to the modern day," he says. "It's a journey through British seaside amusement parks."

Laister, who remains chair of the trust, says it has been hard work. "I would never have imagined it would take 12 years to get Dreamland reopened," he says. "I know it's a cliche, but it has been a real rollercoaster ride."

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