Margate, in the quest to show the latest visitors that it’s bottled the zeitgeist, often forgets that there’s nothing new under the sun. Since a failing fishing village reinvented itself, Margate’s always been somewhere that people come to play. And there’s a straight line from the earliest Pleasure Gardens of the 18th Century to the very 21st Century GEEK festival, which happens during the half term holiday every February.
The old Pleasure Gardens like Dent De Lion, The Wilderness and Ranelagh Gardens were egalitarian public places, where visitors from every class would dress in their finest to promenade, play bowls, perhaps impress with their archery skills, listen to music, and – later on – enjoy the first amusement rides.
So there’s a certain symmetry in GEEK’s move this year to the site Victorian circus superstar Lord Sanger chose for his own Pleasure Gardens. The modern Dreamland sits on almost the exact footprint of the grounds behind Lord Sanger’s Hall By The Sea, where visitors could see the circus owner’s menagerie, experience early rides, and wander through the (faked) ruins of Margate Abbey.
GEEK – or to give it its full title, Games Expo East Kent – has been running since 2012, and this will be its first year on the Dreamland site. Like the old Pleasure Gardens, GEEK’s egalitarian; and like the Pleasure Gardens, it will always wow visitors with the latest technology. For a few days, Dreamland will be brought alive by retro games, digital art, tournaments and boardgames. There’s space dedicated to cosplay, Warhammer, 2000AD, Raspberry Pi antics and Minecraft. There will be a special celebration of the anniversary of Mario Kart.
But while the Pleasure Gardens quickly fell out of fashion, the family-friendly GEEK festival is no passing fancy. It’s firmly rooted in the Isle of Thanet’s creative economy, and in showcasing the town’s arts, digital and creative work, suggests creative careers for the younger gamers who visit.
Margate’s a playful place, for sure, but there’s some serious thinking and a thriving economy underneath all the fun.