Broadstairs is situated on the Isle of Thanet and is a quintessentially English coastal town. It comprises a picturesque, orange-sand bay backed by rows of handsome Victorian sea-front properties.
Broadstairs is known as the ‘Jewel in Thanet’s crown’ and takes its name from a flight of steps which once led from the beach to an old chapel which sat atop a nearby cliff. Located in Kent, which borders Sussex, its crest reads ‘Stella Matris’ which translates as ‘Star of the Sea’.
Broadstairs is one of the most popular seaside resorts in Kent. However the town has an ambience all of its own, far removed from the larger seaside resorts of the region. Its quaintness offers a sharp contrast to nearby holiday towns of Margate and Ramsgate with their jingling arcades and pounding nightclubs.
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History of Broadstairs
Broadstairs was originally a small fishing village named Bradstow which began to develop around a chapel named Shrine of our Lady, during the 14th century. Ship-building became the town’s main industry during the 16th and 17th centuries with many large vessels built for the navy as well as merchant companies.
Broadstairs’ original pier, a wooden jetty-type construction, built by George Culmner was destroyed in a storm in 1767. However, due to its importance to the fishing industry, the pier’s restoration was commissioned by, among others, the East India Company.
The town also played its part in a collection of historical events through the years. For instance, inhabitants provided the English Fleet with supplies while it waited for the Spanish Amanda in 1588.
And following the victory at Waterloo by the Royal Navy, the captured French Eagle Standard was brought ashore by Major Henry Percy. A tunnel was then built into the cliffs and named the Waterloo Stairs in their honour – Broadstairs is supposedly the first English town to learn of the great victory.
Tunnels were built for very different reasons in the 18th and 19th centuries. Smuggling had become a lucrative local trade and townsfolk used underground caverns to store their contraband including in this case, tea, tobacco and alcohol. Although seemingly inoffensive by today’s standards, the smuggling of such goods was highly profitable due to the high duty paid on them.
The town was presented with its first lifeboat in 1850 which was followed by a second soon after. It was an essential service that ran for more than 60 years, saving countless lives. Over that period, the lifeboats were launched almost 80 times and saved more than 100 lives. The station closed in 1912.
The Advent of Tourism
Broadstairs began to develop as a tourist destination during the 18th century thanks in part to the increasing popularity of steamboats. The advent of railed travel and its improved connections with London further accelerated its emergence as a prime holiday destination, with Charles Dickens among the many visitors who came to sample the bracing coastal climes.
Broadstairs Visitor Attractions
Today, Broadstairs offers the visitor a taste of both the past and the present. Tourism remains ever-popular but the town is careful to retain and celebrate its proud history, which includes smugglers, maritime daring-do and one particularly famous author. Here’s a run-down of Broadstairs top visitor attractions and activities.
Dickens House Museum
One of the most popular Broadstairs visitor attractions, Dickens House Museum was at one time the home of Mary Pearson Strong, the inspiration for Betsey Trotwood – one of the many colourful characters from David Copperfield. Much has been done to retain the historical character of the house and there’s a diverse range of Dickens memorabilia including pictures, letters, period costumes and furniture.
Crampton Tower Museum
This major town landmark is situated close to the railway station and was originally part of Broadstair’s water supply. It was designed by Thomas Russell Crampton and houses a museum with a number of galleries celebrating his life and work. Artefacts include original patents, his drawings and a model railway.
A cliff-top house located above the pier and the place where Dickens is said to have written parts of Bleak House as well as finishing his favourite novel, David Copperfield. The 19th century building retains its period charm despite being a tad run-down. Although ravaged by fire in 2006, repairs have since been made and it is now open to the public.
Broadstairs Viking Bay
Broadstairs main beach is backed by a traditional boardwalk and cliffs, on top of which sits the afore-mentioned Bleak House. This picturesque harbour area includes a variety of good pubs and restaurants as well as the usual seaside amusements that populate most UK seaside towns. The beach is lifeguarded and there are plenty of activities for families including surf schools and children’s rides.
Helter Skelter Play Centre
Geared towards 8 year-olds and under, this Broadstairs activity centre offers a safe and fun environment for children to play in. It hosts birthday parties and various arts and crafts events. The centre features various rides and activities including slides and climbing frames. Meals and refreshments are also served throughout the week.
North Foreland Golf Club
Founded in the early 20th century, this outstanding links golf course affords some inspiring costal vistas and boasts 18 magnificent, challenging holes. The course is of such high quality that it’s used as a qualifying course for the British Open when the tournament is held at Royal St George. There’s also a par 3 short course which is just as demanding.
Lillyputt Mini Golf
Those looking for a more light-hearted game of golf should try the Lillyputt Mini Golf Centre. Families can enjoy a championship mini-golf course full of imaginative and wacky obstacles that will prove challenging to adults and kids alike. There’s also a tea garden and picnic area as well – it’s open all the year round.
Broadstairs & St Peter’s Lawn Tennis Club
The Broadstairs and St Peters Tennis Club welcomes members of all ages and abilities. It’s affiliated to the Lawn Tennis Association and welcomes non-members on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Non-members can visit five times before registration is required.
Broadstairs Sailing Club
Broadstairs Sailing Club, which was founded in 1936, offers training and racing activities for all levels of experience. It specialises mainly in sailing dinghies and offers beginner memberships for people of all ages. Social events are run throughout the year and newcomers are made to feel very welcome.
In addition to the many visitor attractions and activities around Broadstairs, there are a collection of events which celebrate the town’s cultural heritage.
Broadstairs Dickens Festival Dickens Festival – June
This is one of Broadstairs’ premier events, held in honour of novelist Charles Dickens. The festival features the theatrical production of a Dickens novel played by enthusiasts and locals dressed in authentic Victorian attire. There’s also a wide array of support events including gin tasting and musical entertainment. The festival culminates with a banquet and ball at the Dickens House Museum.
Broadstairs Folk Week – August
Held at a variety of venues around Broadstairs, this event is all about folk music. Dancers and musicians of all levels perform both planned and impromptu sessions in the pubs, on the streets and local beaches in celebration of folk culture. Together with the Dickens Festival, this is one of the most popular events in Broadstairs.
Broadstairs Fireworks Display – November
Held on Guy Fawkes Night, this event features an impressive firework display which starts at the Broadstairs Bandstand from 6pm. A number of live acts play at the Bandstand and Pavillion from 6 to 8 and there’s also a fireworks disco. The actual display is held at Viking Bay and commences at 8pm.
Broadstairs Food Festival – September, October
This event showcases locally-sourced produce and features up to 100 stalls selling all manner of culinary delicacies. There’s also a restaurant trail which takes in some of Broadstairs’ finest restaurants and eateries.
Broadstairs Blues Bash – February
Broadstairs Blues Bash is a free Blues music festival. There are over thirty local, national and international Blues acts that perform across 15 venues around town, attracting thousands of visitors each year.
Attractions near to Broadstairs
If you’re looking to expand your holiday itinerary, read on for more information about visitor attractions in the surrounding area. We’ve included details of notable places of interest in Margate and Ramsgate.
The Shell Grotto, Margate
This is a place of national significance and also a major local visitor attraction. It’s located close to Margate and features over 4 million shells of all shapes and sizes plastered on the walls of winding tunnels as well as an underground cavern. Discovered in the early 19th century, its origins are unknown.
Hornby Visitor Centre, Margate
The Hornby Visitor Centre is another popular Margate visitor attraction and is home to a large array of model railways, an elaborate Scalextric track and a small collection of model cathedrals, originally built by William Gorringe. There’s also a superbly-stocked shop featuring all kinds of Hornby products.
Spitfire Museum Spitfire Museum, Ramsgate
A museum located in Ramsgate which is dedicated to the pilots and aircrew who fought during WW2. It houses wonderfully-preserved Spitfires and Hurricanes, as well as an original bouncing bomb and squadron scoreboard that illustrates 222 Squadron’s successes.
RAF Manston History Museum, Ramgsate
This was at one time a major RAF air base and played a major role in both World Wars. Although it closed in 1999, there remains a museum which vividly celebrates its aeronautical history. Visitors will find a variety of aircraft including a Gloster Meteor, a Westland Wessex helicopter and a Jaguar. It’s open from Monday to Sunday and is next-door to the Spitfire Museum.
For more ideas about things to do in Broadstairs and beyond, see our post on unusual things to see and do in Kent.