The patchwork of heavy cloud seems to be carving a pathway out over the ocean, to far-off places whose existence is attested by occasional container ships appearing on the horizon before vanishing almost as suddenly as they have come. But the clouds are heading for the coast of Margate, a town on the North Kent coast in south-east England which around 64,000 people have made their home. The houses thronging the coast road appear to throw a protective shield around the real life of Margate people, their façades concealing it from view and instead welcoming visitors with no plans to stay in this place for long: the tourists. One brick building proclaims Dreamland in oversized letters, hinting at the activities within: cinema, restaurants, cafes and bars, amusements. But in the grey world outside where a blanket of clouds stretches over near-deserted streets, the word has an almost cynical ring. A string of tourist shops with names like Life’s a Beach, pizza joints, chip shops, ice-cream parlours, casinos and holiday lets unfurls along the street, all bearing witness to the abundance of tourists which, however, had already begun to decline even before Covid-19 came along. We abandon our walk and drive out of Margate along the coast. Here Margate’s attraction for visitors enticed by holiday brochures is revealed; the entire coast is fringed by soaring chalk cliffs, already defying the ocean long before humans appeared on the land. We get out and head down between the cliffs to the beach. As if a switch had been flicked, the sounds of the sea are swallowed up between the cliffs and only the tiniest, most muted sounds like the faint rippling of water droplets are audible. The chalk flattens out towards the waterline and becomes a bed for a plant so familiar from many coasts, yet so frequently ignored: seaweed. When Dom Bridges came to Margate, he looked closer. He identified seaweed as the bearer of potential that would allow him to strike out along a new path and embrace change not only in his own life, but also for the town, the people and the sea itself.
Our aim is to make skin care. And we only do really good skin care. This simple sentence at the start of our interview with Dom Bridges sums up the whole issue. Like so many conversations all over the world, especially since the pandemic, our meeting takes place on a screen, which brings Margate to life again through Dom’s stories and through the images and videos cast up by search machines.
Haeckels was launched in Margate, UK, in 2012. Its first product was a tablet of soap produced from a seaweed harvest. Haeckels House, which had been standing empty for 18 years, was chosen by founder Dom Bridges as his new business premises; today the name gleams from the façade with new brightness. Inside, a steadily grow-ing team creates and sells a range of 100 per cent natural skin, body and hair care products, all inspired by ingredients from the sea that is always within their sight.
But still we bring our thoughts back to the beach, which Dom likes to visit early, at half-past four or even half-past three. This change of mental perspective also casts a different light on the products he makes: Well, we’re exploring our connection with the ocean; maybe that sums it up best. Rather than saying: (adopting the exaggerated tone of an advertising voiceover): Theee neeeew skin care! Because we do a bunch of other things as well.
We is Haeckels, the company Dom founded, whose name stands over the door of his Margate shop and, more recently, over a newly opened branch in London. The shop supplies a range of products created from ingredients sourced from the sea, mainly seaweed. Over the course of countless experiments, his laboratory has developed soaps, lotions, face creams, masques and more; the shop also offers cosmetic treatments. The product and salesroom design also recreates a laboratory atmosphere to capture a consistent and authentic presentation of the heart of Haeckels: the goal of making 100 per cent natural and highly effective products. One recent successful experiment is Bio Restore Membrane, an under-eye masque that is actually self-growing, creating itself from seaweed extract. It takes three weeks for the mask to be completed in this most natural of ways. Nature moves to a different beat, and one that more and more people are striving to match in the newly dawned era of sustainability.
The subject of a different beat is a natural segue into the question of what brought Dom to this remote town in the first place. The original plans had gone in quite another direction; he and his wife were about to buy a house in London. Life is easy to plan, but destiny often throws a spanner in the works. A family bereavement derailed the house purchase, and Dom and his wife found a new closeness on their path of grief. Within this struggle with grief, my wife and I were able to gain a lot of clarity. And that’s the best the best outcome we could have hoped for. Dom muses about what would have happened if they had gone ahead with the house-buying plans, and laughs briefly: Our lives would be miserable and boring right now. Instead, they relocated to the coastal town of Margate twelve years ago. When we first moved here, the town had a very fragile economy. Hotels, chip shops, dog groomers, coffee shops … they were all really struggling. You can compare Margate to Coney Island in the US; it’s a touristy amusement place, where the culture has never really progressed and people naturally move on to other things. The economy is very much about tourism, and needs to develop and embrace new ideas to keep it interesting. But that’s really hard if the government doesn’t support it.
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