Close-up of seaweed

Margate: the Haeckels seaweed wrap

Most people book ski trips in winter. I booked a massage at Haeckels, a ‘wild fragrance and ecological skincare company’ whose lab and treatment rooms are in the seaside town of Margate, on the part of Kent that sticks out towards the North Sea.

My little day trip from London was not only to experience the Haeckels Detoxifying Seaweed Wrap, but also to check out the much-talked-about Margate art scene, to taste some Kent wine and seafood, and to go for a brisk coastal walk.  

Turner Contemporary and the Carl Freedman Gallery were closed; the seafood was good, but the ‘unnatural’ Kent wine made me ill; so thank goodness for Haeckels and the walk along the beach to Botany Bay.

Turner Contemporary to the right. The very helpful tourist office in the middle. The Harbour Arm and its cafés and bars to the left.

Margate: a day trip from London

Margate is a place of contrasts. Many artistic types have moved here from London in search of cheaper living and the seaside. Some call it Shoreditch-on-Sea. would call it London Fields-on-Sea. Yet one in three children in the area live in poverty.

Many residents are working hard to melt away that divide. One is Annie Nichols, founder of Hot Meals Now. I met Annie at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. Another is filmmaker and former volunteer beach warden Dom Bridges, founder of Haeckels, who I haven’t met,

Haeckels call themselves ‘ocean farmers‘, harvesting the ocean’s botanics – especially seaweed – and turning them into natural products. It’s about being sustainable, building communities, rejoicing in the sense of place that Margate offers, and honouring (and helping to save) the oceans.

On Margate beach, the Haeckels sea bathing machine made by local crafts people with a modern touch – a sauna.. Yes, it is for everyone!.

The Margate art scene – Carl Freedman & Tracey Ermin

Margate’s main beach is huge, sandy and windswept, with the fleet of little boats sheltered by the Harbour Arm. On the beach, you will find – at least for the moment – the Haeckels sea bathing machine, made by local crafts people. Yes, I took my swimsuit, but the path of life did not lead me to try the sauna inside, and the wheels looked a bit entrenched in the sand to take it to the water for me to swim

The sky that day was a pure, pure blue, almost a Prussian blue. The windy was icy.  Not a cloud in the sky – and it was the beauty of the clouds, the sunsets and the quality of the light that drew JMW Turner, the 19th century English Romantic painter, back to Margate time and time again.

I checked out the location of the Carl Freedman Gallery, which opened last year in the old Thanet Press building. His once girlfriend, young British artist Tracey Ermin, grew up in Margate in the 70s. According to an interview in The Art Newspaper, they used to visit Tracey’s mum and nan together above a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop on Northdown Road, towards Cliftonville.

Tracey’s studio adjoins Carl’s gallery, and plans are afoot to open it as a Tracey Ermin foundation. “I do not want to wake up to London, I want to wake up and be inspired by the same things that inspired Turner,” she was quoted as saying in the Isle of Thanet News.

The back of the Carl Freedman Gallery – to the right– in Prince’s Street, where Tracey Ermin has a studio and where she’s planning to open a foundation.

Lunch at Angela’s

Then an early lunch at Angela’s. I had come down from London with my 56mm portrait lens to take a picture of Angela. To my dismay, the name is merely in homage of Angela, who ran a greengrocer’s from this spot just off Marine Drive in the 1950s.

Angela’s is intimate, with white walls, open kitchen and tables made out recycled plastic bags. My neighbours on the adjoining table were interior design students from China studying in Canterbury, They had come to Margate to film a project. Margate is small. I had caught them on camera that morning.

I’d met these Chinese students that morning on the beach.

The food was good. The bread was sourdough from the local Thanet district. The view, through the fogged up windows, was of Turner Contemporary,

This Oyster & Celeriac soup was divine! The oysters used are ‘twin’ oysters that are normally discarded, The table is made out of recycled plastic bags.
Monkfish, carlin peas & bisque. The British have eaten Carlin peas – also known as parched peas in Lancashire, Merseyside and Greater Manchester – since the 1600s, yet not many people have heard of them. The new British lentil?

Falling foul of sulphites

… But, but, but, something was not right, I discovered a few hours later… my glass of Ortega wine (a variety popular in cool-climate wine-growing regions) from a Kent vineyard was making me feel nauseous and dizzy. I knew it was the wine as this has happened many a time before, especially with unregulated wines found in England, where wine is more about lifestyle than culture.

It’s the high dosage of sulphites, and other unnatural substances. Most wine labels say ‘contains sulphites’, but the dosage level is never indicated. Sulphites occur naturally, but adding sulphites is not natural. It is done to enhance the taste, the appearance and the shelf life. Organic wine is no better, as being ‘organic’ refers to the way the grapes are grown, and not how the wine is produced.

My new resolution when going out in England is to only drink wine marked as sulphite-free, in the same way that in Asia I only eat GSM-free food.

Botany Bay in Kent

After lunch, I walked to Botany Bay – whose name has nothing to do with the Botany Bay in Tasmania. It was a near 90-minute round trip along the sandy beaches shadowed from the sinking afternoon sun by the chalky white cliffs.. In all I walked 22km that day.

Botany Bay is famous for its chalk ‘stacks’. Plenty of people seemed to have hired bicycles and followed the coastal path at the top of the cliff. I like walking on sand… preferably bare foot, but not in January.

One of many sets of steps down to the beach on the way to Botany Bay, Part of Margate’s attraction is the authentic grittiness. Take note of the wind turbines in the distance. It annoyed me that they are set out on a grid rather than being ‘planted’ like a natural forest.
Botany Bay … if I had cycled, I would have had time to go down and explore, or get a bit closer.

Seaweed luxury at Haeckels

Once back in the Cliftonville neighbourhood of Margate, I climbed to the top of the cliff, and opposite the abandoned Lido, in a parade of shops, I found Haeckels, for my next ‘botanical’ experience.

The Haeckels Detoxifying Seaweed Wrap = body exfoliation + body wrap in bladderwort seaweed + scalp massage + lymphatic drainage massage, Haeckels harvested the seaweed fresh from the beach that day (with a licence). It takes as long as it took me to walk to Botany Bay.

This is about true luxury: an exclusivity that comes from uniqueness, craftsmanship, vision and passion. 

Walking through the door of Haeckels is like entering a fantastical world by the British seaside … with all its tinges of sea greys and splashes of coral pink, feelings of nostalgia, and touches of eccentricity … The museum-salvaged glass cabinets, the brown Haeckels bottles positioned in the printers’ sink, the colourful paper flowers made by a local artist, and the view through the Victorian windows on the first floor across the expanse of sea.

An old printer’s sink lovingly repurposed.

Ninety minutes later I emerged from my treatment with my skin fresh, my mind clear and my spirits high.

With only ten minutes to go to closing, and darkness descended, I took some photos (with my 56mm lens), made a few ‘made in the Margate lab’ purchases, and had a quick chat with the lovely young man going to set up Haeckels in London’s Broadway Market this February. He did not want to move to London., he said. He preferred living in Margate, as so many people do.

Not wanting to wake from my dream-like state, I went straight to the train station and back to London.

What I bought at Haeckels

  • Seaweed & Salyclic Powder Exfoliant, made from nothing more than the powders of walnut shells and seaweed, and willow bark extract.
  • Rosehip & Seaweed Suspension… an online map shows where Haeckels has harvested the seaweed.
Window display at Haeckels
Haeckels is across the road from the Lido. The view at night.

Where else to eat & drink in Margate

  • Bang next to Haeckels is Roost, whose head chef and owner once worked at St John’s in London. It is a cheerful-looking café and restaurant, specialising in ‘street food on the sea’, with the likes of soft shell crab burgers, tofu tacos and a ‘buddha bowl’.

At the heart of Haeckels is the idea of being part of a community. On their paper bags, they suggest the likes of:

  • Hantverk & Found for seafood and natural wine. (Hey! Hopefully no sulphites.)
  • Mala Kaffe in the Harbour Arm for allpresso coffee
  • Daly Café for English breakfast and Sunday roasts
  • Godwin Fish Bar in Cliftonville
  • The Reading Rooms boutique bed & breakfast to make it a weekend at the seaside

ADVICE: Catch the more expensive fast train direct from London Kings’ Cross to Margate. Otherwise you may be stopping at each and every station. Even as far out as Margate, this is London commuter belt. The journey talks around 90 minutes.

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