Robert Calvert in Margate
In August 2021, I went with my family for a long weekend in Margate. As well as being an increasingly bohemian outpost on the north-east coast of Kent, full of great shops and places to eat, it's also the town that Robert Calvert grew up in.
There's no statue or plaque to commemorate the years he spent in Margate (STOP PRESS!), but the town and surrounding area seemed to be full of references and triggers relating to him, plus places that may have inspired Robert in his formative years.
I took some pictures as we wandered around and visited the attractions on offer. Inevitably, I also paid a trip to nearby Minster cemetery, where Robert is buried.
Literally the first thing you see when you drive into Margate on the main road from the west is the imposing, monolithic tower block that is Arlington House, where Robert lived for a few years with his parents and siblings. Built in 1964, it's a looming Brutalist hulk on the horizon that's visible from just about everywhere in Margate, and was the part-inspiration for Robert's 'High Rise' lyric. Wikipedia notes that "It was initially advertised as "Britain's first ‘park and buy’ shopping centre with luxury flats", incorporating a theatre, restaurant and rooftop swimming pool" - very J.G. Ballard-esque - and that "The sides of the building have a wave-like design."
As you can see, Arlington House is also relatively close to Dreamland, the amusement hall, theme park and venue where Robert worked in his youth, and where Hawkwind - with Robert - played three times in 1972, the final date being part of the Space Ritual tour.
Dreamland is right on the seafront and looks out onto Margate's magnificent beach. The promenade above it is where Nik Turner used to sell Kiss-Me-Quick hats to the tourists, and perhaps where Robert first encountered him.
Just set back from this green railing is the Nayland Rock Shelter, a place to sit and contemplate the surf. It's also apparently where T.S. Eliot wrote part of The Wasteland in 1921, something which maybe inspired Robert's own poetic imagination.
The Viking Coastal Trail goes through Margate and around the Isle Of Thanet, taking in Viking Bay in Broadstairs and the replica Viking longboat near Ramsgate. Due to the wealth of its various monasteries, this part of England was subject to repeated Viking raids in the 8-10th centuries. Robert would no doubt have heard plenty about this when he was at school, and thus the seeds of Lucky Leif were sown.
Perhaps the most intriguing of Margate's tourist attractions is the mysterious Shell Grotto, an underground passageway and chamber where the walls are studded with 4.6 million shells. Discovered by chance in 1835, its website says, "Was this a place of worship, a setting for secret meetings or an extravagant folly? We don’t know who built this amazing place, or why, but since the first paying customers descended the chalk stairway in 1838, debate has raged about the Grotto’s origins."
It really is an amazing space, with a strong sense of the occult hanging over it. Séances were held in the main chamber (see picture below), but it could just as easily be the biomechanical nerve centre of some ancient astronaut's spacecraft. Surely Robert must have visited this place and been moved by its strangeness and charm?
Yet this isn't Margate's only subterranean attraction. Originally an 18th century chalk mine, the Margate Caves have a similarly murky history, with wall paintings appearing at some point in the 19th century. Not only do they feature the local Thanet Hunt, but also various crude depictions of exotic (at the time) animals. Again, perhaps another spark for the tinderbox of Robert's imagination.
Driving to Minster cemetery from Margate, you pass by the airfields that were previously RAF Manston, now Kent International Airport. RAF Manston saw plenty of action during WW2, and it was used by the USAF as a Strategic Air Command base for its bomber, fighter and fighter-bomber units during the 1950s. The skies over Margate must have been full of fantastic aircraft throughout Robert's childhood, fuelling his fascination with the world of fighter pilots and their planes, which would of course lead to Captain Lockheed.
The story of the Manston airfields is celebrated at the RAF Manston History Museum near Minster, while on the other side of the road is the Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum.
Despite being near to a busy road intersection, Minster cemetery is a peaceful resting place with plenty of trees and views across the Thanet countryside. Robert's grave is quite near the front as you enter, just to the right and in the fourth row of headstones.
It was nice to see that a small tribute, including his poems 'Infinity' and 'Insomnia', had been left at the foot of Robert's grave - hopefully there'll be many more to come. I like to think he would have appreciated the fact that the back of his headstone says "Roberts", the name of the stonemasons in Ramsgate that made it.