An early Dutch sea chart of the Thanet coast by Gerard van Keulen, based on an original by his father Johannes van Keulen dating from about 1680, shows the creek at Margate extending a considerable way inland.
The middle watercolour, by Dutch artist, Michiel van Overbeck, who was in England between 1663 and 1666, shows high cliffs to the east and low ones to the west, on either side of a large creek; a boat is shown entering the creek. Buildings line the creek and, as in Willaerts’ picture, climb up the slopes of the hill leading to the Church; there is a windmill on the horizon. The ramshackle state of the harbour is all too apparent.
With time the main channel of the creek became narrower and, together with several of its branches, came to serve as an open drain for the town. As late as 1799 Carey described the area thus: ‘What the old Parade might have been is no easy matter to tell, but in its present state, and in this improving age, it has little to boast of in respect to elegance, or even cleanliness, and in rainy weather it is a mere swamp. The greater part of it lies between a noisy stable-yard, well furnished with manure, and the common sewer of the contiguous Market Place [then an open channel] as well as all the lower part of the town, which frequently yields up the most ungrateful exhalations and unsavoury smells to those who choose to regale themselves in this delicious neighbourhood’.
Deposits of sand and sea pebbles have often been uncovered during building work in Margate, showing that the creek used to extend from the sea along the line of the present King Street and Dane Road. The original line of the creek can easily be traced in modern maps of the town. As described by Arthur Rowe ‘we have to picture to ourselves a Creek which was always tidal to some extent, and when northerly gales and high spring tides prevailed we can well imagine that the sea rushed up what is now King Street almost as far as Addiscombe Road’.Further along Dane Valley, salt water driven inland would have met fresh water issuing from the many springs lining the sides of the valley; at one time the Creek would have drained the whole of the Dane Valley. Again quoting Arthur Rowe, the presence of a sheltered creek and ample spring water made the area suitable for settlement: ‘early sea-faring man asked but three things — spring-water to drink, a reasonably safe offing for his fishing, and a secure haven for his little dug-out boats, which he could draw up on the high ground when the sea bore too heavily on him. ’
The creek, at its seaward end, was some 150 yards wide, stretching between the bottom end of the High Street and the northern side of King Street at its junction with the Parade at the bottom of Fort Hill. The southern boundary of the creek followed the line of Market Street, Market Place and Lombard Street, and through what was Garden Row and is now the supermarket at the bottom of Hawley Street; the northern boundary of the creek followed the line of King Street and Dane Road. Buildings on the Parade and those in Broad Street, Duke Street, Market Place, the bottom of Hawley Street and the lower part of King Street all had to have their foundations strengthened by piles because of the old creek. Excavations in King Street have uncovered timber piles that could have lined the sides of the creek.
Growth of Margate to the west was limited by another stretch of water, a mere or lake, commonly called the Brooks. This originally formed a large sheet of water measuring some 300 yards at its outlet, extending inland as far as the site of the Tivoli Gardens and cut off from the sea by a sand-bar. The Brooks gradually silted up to form a marshy area intersected by ditches, making it difficult to enter the town from the west. Because of the Brooks there was no coach road along the coast; the road from Sarre to St Nicholas at Wade, Birchington and Westgate was only a bridle-track ending at the cliff edge near Westbrook Mill, where Royal Crescent now stands. The lack of a road from Westbrook Mill into Margate meant that the few inhabitants of Westbrook would often be cut off from Margate, except at low water; access to the town at high tide could only be obtained by passing through the fields to Salmestone and Frog Hill. The land to the west of Margate was only developed after a massive road embankment was carried along the shore line early in the nineteenth century, although even then Lower Marine Terrace had to be built on exceptionally long piles and the London Chatham and Dover Railway embankment across the Brooks had to be built on thousands of bundles of brushwood sunk into the marsh land.
The best description of Margate in its early days is that provided by John Lewis in his History and antiquities ecclesiastical and civil of the Isle of Tenet in Kent, published in 1723.
Mergate seems to have had its name from their being in it a gate or way into the Sea which lies just by a little Mere, called by the inhabitants now the Brooks. By this gate is situated the vill [vill is an old term for a hamlet or village] called Meregate, partly on the side of a hill, and partly in a little valley one end of which goes into the sea. It is a small Fishing Town, irregularly built, and the houses very low, and has formerly been of good repute for the fishing and coasting Trade.
On that part of the town which lies next the Sea, is a Peer of timber, built East and West, in the form of a half moon to defend the bay from the main sea, and make a small harbour . . . By the present appearance of the Chalky rocks on each side of this Peer at low water, it should seem as if anciently Nature itself had formed a Creek or harbour there, the mouth of which was just broad enough to let small vessels go in it. But, as the land on each side of this creek was, in the process of time, washed away by the sea, the inhabitants were obliged to build this Peer, to keep their town from being overflown by the ocean; and to defend that part of it which lies next the water by Jettes, or Piles of timber. This Peer was at first, but small, and went but a little way out into the sea; But the land still continuing to wash away, so that the sea lay more heavily on the back of it than usual, it has been, by degrees, enlarged.