What images come to mind when you think of Kent? Probably white cliffs, castles surrounded by moats and cathedrals. What else? Beach huts, beautiful gardens and coalfields. Hang on a minute – coalfields? Yes, there were coalfields in Kent for the best part of a century right up to the late 1980s. In today’s blog I wanted to explore the world of coal mining in Kent.
I was a student at Leeds University during the miners strike of 1984-85 and all the attention was on the collieries and pit villages of West Yorkshire, Northumbria and South Wales. But there were four mines in Kent centred around the Deal and Dover area that were also affected.
Over twenty five years after the last colliery at Betteshanger closed, we decided to see what remains of Kent coal. The best resource to find out more about the coalfields of Kent is the exhibition at Dover Museum.
The history of coal mining in Kent started when coal was originally discovered as part of abortive excavations to build a Channel tunnel in the late 19th century. There then followed what must have been a frustrating twenty year period where bore holes were drilled, speculative shafts sunk and a vast amount of money spent – with little reward.
So what was the problem? The coal was located very deep underground and to get at it meant pumping out large deposits of water lying in chalk beds.
The first commercially produced coal was not mined until 1912 at Snowdon colliery. Previously, 22 miners had drowned when early drilling encountered water and the shaft flooded at 260 feet.
Snowdown Colliery was conveniently situated alongside the main Dover to Canterbury railway line, and lies between the villages of Nonninton and Womenswold.
We arrived at Snowdon on a sunny spring morning. There are a considerable number of disused colliery buildings still standing behind forbidding rusting iron fences topped with barbed wire. We walked along the road for a while, taking photos and surveyed the deserted scene of over seventy years of coal production. On the other side of the road, the remains of coal spoil was evident over a wide expanse; uneven patches of grey smudged flecks interspersed with dotted meadow flowers, silver birch trees and hardy shrubs.
New coalfields led to a demand for housing closer to the site of the pits.
Most Snowdown miners lived in Dover until the development of the town of Aylesham started in 1926. Aylesham was an innovative model town of 3,000 houses meant to serve Snowdown and a new pit at Adisham. This pit never materialised and Aylesham was only partly finished, providing 650 houses. Built in the middle of farm lands, Aylesham even now seems quite isolated and so every attempt was made to make it self-sufficient, ensuring it had its own shops, social clubs, schools, churches and sports facilities.
We visited the village – built from the proceeds of coal and noted that the Anglican Church had been constructed in 1927. It looked more like a grand community centre than a place of worship and it may have been both. The Roman Catholic church was very non-traditional in design and had a low lying corrugated roof that looked as it had been built in a hurry. The miners institute is now a centre for small business and it was easy to imagine the crescent of houses providing accommodation for the miners to the nearby colliery.
It was half term and young children were playing with their mothers. Less than thirty years ago, their husbands and fathers would have been toiling away at the nearby colliery. I wondered how many of the miners families remained in the village or whether more recent homeowners had any idea that without the coalfield the village wouldn’t have been built in the first place?
Walking around, we found a statue dedicated to the children of the miners and a display and map detailing the Kent Miners’ Way with directions to other local pits and villages.
As time was pressing, we decided to travel east about ten miles to the village of Northbourne. From there we walked through fields to Betteshanger colliery. Little remains of the colliery and most of the buildings have long been demolished. Shafts have been sealed up and fenced off. The colliery is now a country park and a wildlife centre with reservoirs and reed beds hosting a variety of bird life. Coal spoil was present and grassed over and several hills and mounds were testament to their former use.
Betteshanger miners initially lived in Deal itself but reports are that the genteel folk of the town didn’t take readily to the unwashed miners. And the miners were unwashed since bathing facilities were not originally available on site. ‘No Miners’ signs were placed in boarding house windows in the town.
As a result, in 1929, isolated farmland on the outskirts of Deal, at Mill Hill was acquired to build 950 houses plus social and sport facilities. Nowadays the miners have now gone, but perhaps they had the last laugh after all, since the houses built to keep them out of the Deal have now been incorporated into the town’s boundaries.
By all accounts, Betteshanger was the biggest and most militant of all the Kent coalfields and the last in the country to return to work after the miners strike in the 1980’s. It was also the last to close in 1989.
But what became of the first pit – that of Shakespeare colliery – formed from the Channel tunnel workings at Dover? Opened in1896, it encountered more water than coal and by 1915 mining had been largely abandoned. Five other collieries were started but never came to fruition and their sites and remains can be found on line at the Kent coalfields resource.
Government plans in the 1920’s were based on 18 new pits being developed and the need for upwards of 50,000 new homes to support the mining community. In the events both forecasts proved wildly over- optimistic. The mines were largely unproductive in the long term and conditions at Snowdon, the deepest, were described as being like Dante’s Inferno. Miners used to pass out with heat stroke and reports are that they drink up huge quantities of water to combat the intense heat. This started the slow decline of coal mining in Kent
We reflected on the hardships endured by the miners deep below ground. Just a few miles away there are beautiful rural historic villages dating back to the Norman Conquest. People leading very different lifestyles but with similar wants.
Under white cliffs was black coal. Today what remains of the coal lies undisturbed and unvisited while every year thousands walk on the cliffs as they imperceptibly erode back into the ground.
What’s Faversham famous for? Beer fans will need no reminding that it’s the home of Shepherds Neame – England’s oldest brewery which was founded in 1698. The brewery can be visited on special tours but Faversham can claim to be the site of an even older industry that can leave more than just a sore head!
But the town also has the oldest surviving gunpowder mill in the western world! Faversham Gunpowder Mills – The Chart Mills lie barely 400 metres from the edge of the centre’s medieval lanes but lay overgrown and neglected until the early 1960’s. Faversham’s long gunpowder industry finally came to an end in 1934 when production was moved to Scotland.
We recently visited the Chart Mills museum which opened in 2011 after a long period of restoration.
It’s located in the Davington area of the town and we approached it from the Bysing Wood Road end which is just by a Pond – saved by the Borough Council from development. It’s a good place to sit down for a moment and enjoy the tranquil surroundings.
The area is full of fascinating old brick buildings which served as houses for the munitions workers or as part of the old workshops themselves. Although signposted from the city centre, there’s no direct website and it’s a little hard to find, tucked away in suburbia. The streams or creeks are as good a guide as any to follow.
Nowadays, the Faversham Gunpowder Mills is in a quiet housing estate but things would have been anything but quiet when production was in full swing. Making gunpowder was highly dangerous and 100 people lost their lives in an explosion at a nearby powder factory in 1916.
The Chart Mill museum site is a modest but informative building. We learnt from Richard, one of the volunteers, that Chart Mills is an incorporating mill, where the ingredients having been mixed together are then incorporated to become an explosive mixture. This controlled the quality, power and evenness of burning so no wonder it was a lethal cocktail and more volatile than anything produced at the nearby brewery. The workers had special uniforms with the pockets sewn in to prevent matches or anything else setting off the powder with such devastating results. The Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, as museums are called these days, has some of the worker’s uniforms on display. It’s in the centre of Faversham and is a good stopping place to learn more about the many Gunpowder mills that used to frequent Faversham.
Concern over levels of drinking amongst the workers led to restrictions in the licensing hours which were still in force until quite recently brought in during the first world war to increase production and reduce drunkenness. Whether they had Faversham in mind, I don’t know but the horrific explosion must have played a part.
Inside the Faversham Gunpowder Mills, there are old photographs of workers at the mill as well as maps of where the mills stood and a history of the gunpowder industry in the area. The extensive restoration works is also well documented.
In it’s heyday, Chart Mills had 2 waterwheels which drove 4 mills. Today there’s a preserved iron wheel outside which helped to control the flow of water. Also, still visible is the pit of the other mill and the circular bed stones of the other 3 mills, as well as spare edge runners and other parts of the gunpowder making industry.
As an early nationalised industry, gunpowder from Chart Mills would have been used by the British army at battles such as Trafalgar and Waterloo. But it was a constant battle to ensure that the gunpowder didn’t explode in the mill. One such explosion blew off one of the twin towers of nearby Davington Church in 1781.
There’s a pleasant circular walk, uphill in parts around the Bysing Wood area which takes in both the church and the gunpowder mills. The church is fascinating in its own right. It’s actually the oldest building in Faversham, having been originally part of a much larger priory founded in 1135 as a convent for nuns. Much of the buildings survived Henry VIII’s dissolvement of the monasteries in the late 1530s as the order had recently died out.
Restored in the 19th century, the nun’s quarters were converted into a private house which remains to this day. Talking of remains, we wandered around the church and cemetery and spotted the grave of a woman who lived to be 100 years old, dying in 1814.
There’s a nice legend about those twin towers of Davington Church that links the gunpowder mills with the even older Reculver Church near Herne Bay. An Abbess of Davington was shipwrecked off Reculver and promised to build two towers at the church if she survived the storm. The winds abated, she was saved and the church duly got two towers. That is until the gunpowder mill nearby proved even more destructive than the storm out at sea.
There’s much to see in the centre of Faversham particularly around parts of the newly renovated quay area. But it’s not all about beer and barges. So don’t forget to venture a little further out to discover more about one of the town’s oldest industries – gunpowder making – as well as its oldest building – Davington Church.
Say that you’re going to Whitstable and before you can get past the end of the first sentence someone is bound to mention Oysters. And do you know why?
The height of the industry was in the mid Victorian era when millions of oysters were raised annually. The stretch of the harbour market is the best place to sample some local products although if you want to sample one of the Whitstable native variety you’ll have to wait until there’s an R in the month. I couldn’t wait and instead tried some of the Pacific oysters which are bred in tanks to maturity on beds in the shallows. They slipped down a treat with a dash of pepper – although like a pint of whelks, another one of my favourites – what is soft and succulent to one person – is all rubber to another.
The High Street reveals rows of neatly converted fisherman’s cottages, with attractive weatherboarding displays. Holiday lets abound in brightly coloured doorways. The town feels vibrant with a Sunday morning mix of day trippers and professional couples and local families enjoying a leisurely stroll in and out of the many alleyways and the narrow walks behind the seafront. Niche corners and nooks house niche shops and shabby chic is very much the order of the day. Drift amongst the driftwood and allow yourself to be amused by the inventiveness of the art in the beach huts
The diving suit was invented in Whitstable in 1828 and a steel divers helmet is on display in the harbour. We had a late breakfast in Tea & Times and amongst the art house paintings on the walls was one of a diver in a full diving suit with an umbrella!
But there is more to Whitstable than just oysters. In recent years the town has built up a deserved reputation for combining seafood with a thriving art and music scene. The Green Man festival on the first May Bank holiday sees the town dress up and welcome the start of the season with a wonderful mix of music, costume and an eclectic culture. That day it also hosts an annual 10k race which starts high above the town and then winds its way to Tankerton and through a holiday caravan park by the mudflats and then along the sea front coastal path back to finish by the main concourse. Tankerton’s grassy banks on the route along the coast east to Herne Bay are also home to several rare and protected species of plants and butterflies
It’s a good run out – especially when the sun is shining and the wind is on your back. I’ve been lucky enough to run in the last 2 races and the mass start, which amounts to a frenetic downhill charge, is truly a sight to behold. The smiling faces of the runners are somewhat more lined and weather beaten by the end of the race but it only adds to the overall atmosphere.
Boat building was one of Whitstable’s main industries until the early 20th century but more recently, it is the rows of highly prized wooden beach huts, set three deep in places on the banks out to Tankerton that attract most attention. Often brightly painted and individually decorated, the best situated ones are reputed to fetch upwards of £30,000 with a waiting list to rival those wanting to join Lords Cricket Club.
The original harbour was built by Thomas Telford in 1832 and the first railway station was actually inside the harbour gates – with a level crossing traversing the main Harbour street. This leads on nicely to the ‘Crab and Winkle’ way which was the first steam passenger railway, when it opened in 1830. Built by George and Robert Stephenson, the locomotive Invicta carried around 300 passengers the six miles to Canterbury. The train was to become the prototype for the famous Rocket which powered into history just four months later on the Liverpool to Manchester line. Finally closed in the 1950’s having carried its last passengers twenty years earlier, today the Crab and Winkle line has been restored as a walking and cycle path. The route takes in some delightful scenery through Clowes Wood, across ancient salt tracks, climbing Tyler Hill Tunnel and finishing near the Goods Shed in Canterbury. But don’t be fooled – it’s actually a gastronomic paradise. But if you’ve just walked along the whole way, you may want to eat more than just crab and winkle.
What’s the closest point on the English coast to France? Wrong! It’s not Dover, but actually St Margaret’s Bay, a spot about three miles north and east of the famous ferry port. The Bay and the nearby pretty little village of St Margaret’s at Cliffe was the starting point for our recent walk along the White Cliffs with Calais shimmering in the haze across the 18 miles of the Channel that separates England from France.
We had intended to start the walk at the White Cliff’s Visitor Centre in Dover but my navigation took us off the A2 early which was fortuitous as not only is St Margaret’s at Cliffe worth a visit in its own right but it also has a free car park. When out for the day, Magdalena’s logic is that any money saved from entrance fees or in this case car parking should be spent on ‘appropriate provisions’ for the journey. And as soon as possible, which is why she made an immediate bee-line for a local shop and boosted its sales with a bottle of water and an raspberry ice lolly. At least she got to taste the lolly which is more that can be said for my purchase of a Soreen malted loaf. But more (or should that be less) of that later.
Magdalena may have been quick but Vodaphone were even quicker in texting to inform me that I was now in France and different charge rates applied. Toute suite indeed but at least stocked up with provisions we were pret a manger!
Various informative display boards told us a little of the village, the Norman church and its previous famous inhabitants. It seemed Ian Fleming sold a house to Noel Coward nearby. Maybe they swopped stories on a summer day’s looking out to sea?
‘Any need for paperwork, Ian?’ –
‘No, Noel, as you know, my Bond is my word!’
Fleming would then call for a Martini shaken not stirred, but Coward would be already heading inside for the shade of the veranda, declaring that he wouldn’t give a mad dog for an Englishman out in the midday sun.
Peter Cushing was also a frequent visitor to St Margaret’s but his house was more likely to have been a Hammer House of Horror and probably perched high on a hill, off the beaten track and in need of some tender loving care – as the local estate agent might have put it.
After looking around the village for a while and noting the Cliffe Tavern as nice place to eat in the evening, we walked down towards the Bay. You can lengthen the walk by following the signs and heading west to take in the Dover Memorial monument.
Halfway down to the coast, nestled into the cliffs is the environmentally friendly Pine Garden area with six acres of gently undulating parkland and garden features and a tea house and museum across the path. Fronted by huge pine trees, it’s an ideal secluded place to stop for a while, but having visited before, we pressed on to the Bay itself which is where Channel swimmers take their first or last dip in the water.
The proximity of the continent gives the coastline and the surrounding cliffs a special feel and retracing our steps back up the hill, we found the chalk of the White Cliffs trail and the tranquil gardens were quickly replaced by coarse grass and windswept trees, braced by the constant buffeting of the Channel cross winds.
There are several walks across the cliffs and a variety of walks and walkers criss- cross the coastline. So soon after VE day, it seemed strangely appropriate to hear both French and German voices carrying across on the currents. The great thing about the cliff top walk is that there is no single cliff but a series of protruding ledges some more precipitous than others but most journeys pass by South Foreland Lighthouse, now owned by National Trust.
On a sunny day, its gleaming white exterior bids a cheerful welcome and Mrs Knott’s tea room inside offers a selection of cakes and bakes as well as an equally welcome comfort break from the wind. Named after the wife of the last lighthouse master, the tea rooms retain much of their original period décor and we weren’t the only couple to take photos of the quaint porcelain cups and china tea pots.
The tea stand had copies of old newspapers and commemorative issues of royal celebrations and I drank my speciality tea reading the Daily Telegraph’s account of the historic landing of the first man on the moon in 1969. Then I found the cricket pages and the report of Hampshire’s not so historic victory over Surrey in the John Player League somehow occupied my attention until Magdalena declared it was time to go.
After walking a little while longer, we ate our sandwiches tucked into a slightly less windy spot and I discovered that my pack of Soreen had somehow fallen out of my bag, perhaps when we were looking at maps earlier on the way. I hope it was picked by animal or human and went to a good home. Either way, both my bag and my stomach were a little lighter for its passing.
Over the next hill, down below we saw Dover harbour and out to sea the steady stream of ferries sedately crossing the channel. We were now walking across Langdon cliffs. Having read up a little bit before the trip, I knew this was the place to see Exmoor ponies and when we fell into conversation with a local woman bemoaning the state of shopping in Dover I asked about the ponies if only to change the subject. She promptly declared that she had been coming to this spot for many years but had never seen any ponies – despite the fact that a nearby display featured equine drawings.
Eventually our longer legs took us ahead of the woman and round the next bay several distinctive black ponies duly appeared on higher hilly ground close to us. I looked round and spotted the woman on the trail below. We decided not to hang around to share this happy moment and perhaps the ponies left before she arrived leaving only enough evidence of their droppings. That and the realisation if you look out to sea for France you aren’t going to sea ponies or even see Exmoor Ponies on land.
There’s a car park just before the White Cliffs Visitor Experience. At the back somewhat out of site, there’s also a display board unhelpfully facing away from the path and towards the terraces. It informs visitors that they are standing on what was once a prison, built in 1884 for convicts to help in the construction of the port. In 1908 the prison was converted into army barracks. On this sober note, Magdalena quickly headed back into the sanctuary of the tea room for more rations of an altogether different kind.
The great thing about turning round and retracing your steps is that you get to see and experience all the things you missed first time round. And so on our return journey, we took a slightly different route and spotted lumps of coal from seams buried deep under the chalk and evidence of rail sleepers still protruding from the soil to transport the coal to the harbour at Dover.
We saw the white windmill behind the lighthouse with a revolving cap that turned towards the wind, built as late as 1929 – the last windmill to be built in Kent. We saw the work that has begun to restore and open to the public Deep Fan Bay Shelter which provided wartime accommodation for hundreds of soldiers of the Fan Bay gun battery.
In short, we began to truly experience the myriad of human endeavours across the cliffs and across the ages to use the natural environment of the White Cliffs for profit, or defence or to just live between the cliff and the coast, between chalk and coal, in peace and in war. We saw lots of things but we never saw my pack of Soreen.
All Quiet on the Western Heights ?
When someone mentions the Kent coastal town of Dover, what immediately comes to mind?
Dover Castle, the English Heritage historic property that proudly overlooks the town? The iconic White Cliffs of Dover as immortalised in song? Dover sole, maybe, the popular restaurant fish dish? Or perhaps, the Dover to Calais ferry? More recently, it might be the town as a centre for migrants from the continent and further afield.
In truth, Dover is all these things. And more.
What probably isn’t mentioned too often is the Western Heights – an undulating long hilly steep grass bank of land set back from the sea on the road to Folkestone. From the top you can look out to the Marina in front and gaze across the town down to the east and take in the Castle and the start of the White Cliffs walk on to St Margaret’s. Of course, you can also watch the ferries come and go and stare out to Calais just 22 miles away. So everything you might associate with Dover is visible in one long sweeping gorgeous vista. The advantage is that while you’re admiring the view, you’re also standing on an area rich in history and natural beauty of its very own.
So, if you like exploring over bastions, barracks and forts; not to mention going down deep into grand shafts this is the place for you. You can wander across lost citadels and walk along vast earthworks. It’s the perfect place to re-charge your batteries – more of which later.
We visited Western Heights recently to celebrate my birthday. Let’s just say it was a special one. The halfway mark to getting a telegram from the Queen. Passing the roundabout turnoff to the Western Heights we parked down in the Marina area and headed to the Waterfront café owned by the Best Western chain. The front boasts a whole block of grand Victorian edifices and the Waterloo Mansions are particularly impressive with individual well-kept gardens adorned with spring flowers and ornamental statues.
Part of the Marina buildings have been sympathetically converted into the De Bradelei Warf shopping centre – a row of ‘out of town’ designer discount concessions. Magda may have been swayed by the shops but my head was turned by the view behind of the imposing Western Heights and what looked like battle lines being drawn into the folds of the hill. I couldn’t wait to climb the hill and see for myself the fortifications and citadels built over two centuries; first started during the War of American Independence and then developed to combat the threat of a Napoleonic invasion and later updated over both World Wars.
Eventually, Magdalena’s curiosity was spent – although fortunately not on any actual purchases. So we drove up the old Military Road and parked in the English Heritage car park at the start of the walk on the western edge of the Heights. Even here, the views were impressive and we were lucky that on a clear sunny day everything seemed so clear and in focus down to the last detail of the red smudge on the beaks of the swirling seagulls above. Truly, we could see for miles and miles and miles.
The Heights are well served by a large number of maps and guides which set out various trails and paths. Additionally, there are a series of information boards to mark the spot of various barracks, hospital and kitchen built to support a sizeable garrison of soldiers whose job it was to defend the fortifications from foreign attack and ensure that the port never fell into enemy hands. The fortifications were manned until 1961.
Back to those batteries – re-charged or otherwise! St Martin’s Battery has gun turrets, cannon positions and pillboxes with grassy tops for camouflage and wavy brickwork to confuse enemy aircraft. The ‘lost’ citadels, sunken into the hillside are every bit as imposing in their own way as those of Dover Castle itself.
All in all, the scale of the battle works is immense, the various fortifications imposing and the views spectacular. It doesn’t require too much imagination to picture soldiers of any era from Napoleonic, Victorian to WW2 parading along the front or re-charging the guns.
But it’s not all about the smoke of the gunpowder or the rattle of anti-aircraft guns. The social history of the life of the soldiers is well documented too. The discipline, particularly in the early days was harsh and relentless. Ordinary privates existed on meagre diet of porridge and coffee, meat and potatoes with suet pudding thrown in, sometimes, for good measure. There appears to have been a good measure of potatoes but the meat was often of dubious quality. The unvarying diet must have complemented all too well the repetitive drills and exercises designed to maintain battle readiness.
More information on the history of the Western Heights can be found via English Heritage who maintain the site http://www.english-eritage.org.uk/visit/places/western-heights-dover/history/
The Western Heights Preservation Society also conducts guided tours in the summer and can be found at www.doverwesternheights.org . Some sites such as the Drop Redoubt and the Grand Shaft are also open to the public on particular days or an admission charge. There are also battle and camp re-enactment weekends.
As the late afternoon wintry sun was setting, we took one last look at the commanding view from the Heights and slowly made our way back down to the Marina.
Earlier, Magda had spotted the Hythe Bar seafood restaurant which occupies a lovely spot on the esplanade overlooking the Harbour. http://www.hythebay.co.uk/dover/dover.html
Well, as we were in Dover, we weren’t about to order burgers! The restaurant is light and airy with a modern, contemporary feel about the décor and a relaxed ambiance. We enjoyed seafood chowder and a ‘special’ of piquant prawns. For mains, obligatory fish and chips was crisp and plentiful with a taste which the soldiers on the Heights could only have dreamed of. Madga’s Pan Fried Sea Bass was tender and we both just about managed desserts.
Magda was not disappointed with the Dark Chocolate Marquise which was served with Morello Cherries and Black Cherry Sorbet. My more conventional choice of Bread and Butter Pudding with Crème Anglaise was soft and definitely creamy. The staff were attentive and we found time to have a pleasant chat about plans for Dover’s future development.
We’ve already made plans to come back to the Western Heights in the summer. So once you’ve gone down the Great Shaft with its three grand spiral staircases look up the Hythe Bar seafood restaurant for a pleasant way to finish the day.
Maybe, next time we’ll have the Dover Sole!
It’s Easter Bank Holiday Saturday. There are strong, gale force winds forecast and already people are huddled into their coats, heads forward, eyes down, hands thrust deep into pockets. Except those who are trying to keep their wholly hats on. There’s a definite threat of rain in the air. It’s murky and the sea is a grainy shade of grey.
And we‘ve decided to visit Ramsgate.
But all is not lost. The cunning plan is to visit the wartime tunnels which served as air raid shelters for the town during the second world war. No wind. No rain. And the temperature is a constant 11 degrees celsius which will make it warmer than walking along the promenade.
We park just off Marina Esplande and near Granville Theatre. Unbeknown to us at the time, we are actually on top of the very tunnel we’ve come to visit. When it comes to finding a place, Magdalena and I have very different approaches. She reads a map and I ask for directions. So, by the time a very kind lady out walking her dog has pointed out the way, she’s already halfway there bounding down the steps to the shore and the tunnel entrance.
The tunnels were only re-opened to the public in May 2014 having been completed in just nine months in 1939 as war clouds loomed all too prominently on the horizon. Later, David, our guide, tells us that it took the same length of time seventy years later to get BT to install telephone cables into the tunnels.
Built on the site of a former railway tunnel which closed in 1926, www.ramsgatetunnels.org now offer guided tours allowing visitors to explore over a kilometre of deep shelter tunnels dug up to 100 metres under the town. Arriving shortly before the 12.00 tour, we hadn’t booked tickets and so felt lucky that there were still places available on the last tour of the day at 4pm.
There’s a little retro café shop at the entrance and a free museum dedicated to Operation Dynamo and Ramsgate’s role in the evacuation of over 300,000 British troops from Dunkirk in 1940. We looked around the various displays, ration cards, tunnel passes and old photos of life in the tunnels during the war.
Having a couple of hours or so to spare, we decided to walk around the town.
After a while, we realised that there was only going to be one winner trying to walk uphill into the wind and it wasn’t going to be us. And so before the wind stopped us, altogether, we stopped at Albion House www.albionhouseramsgate.co.uk for coffee and cakes.
Perched high on East Cliff, overlooking the Royal Harbour, it was built in 1791 and is surrounded by beautiful Regency architecture and crescents. It was the perfect setting to enjoy a break from the blasts outside which had practically blown us into the tea room. The coffee cake was as sumptuous as the surroundings and regency style chairs added to the ambience. We paused there as long as we could until we realised that tunnel time was fast approaching. At least it was down hill this time.
And so it was back to the tunnels. With 14 entrances above ground, the tunnels were built to provide shelter to up to 60,000 people during a bombing raid. At the time, the railway tracks were still present and ‘tunnel town’ as it was called must have resembled a shanty town akin to that of the navvies who built the original tunnels into Ramsgate. Having been bombed during the first world war, the town’s mayor, successfully petitioned have the shelters built
The plans were considerably aided by the fact that an enterprising railway company had built the tunnel right under the cliffs and into the heart of Ramsgate and to the seafront – to allow for tourists to be transported directly to the Merrie England amusement park on the promenade. A couple of the original fun fair rides are on display in the tunnel entrance. The original and current railway station is over a mile away, in land.
The tour begins with a short video and footage of the aftermath of the devastating air raid of 24 August 1940 when 29 civilians died as a result of Luftwaffe bombing. Hundreds of homes were damaged and people ended up living in the shelters until other temporary accommodation could be provided.
Next, we donned hard hats and lights and embarked upon our journey through the tunnels. Along the way we passed bunk beds and a series of hollowed out entrances where chemical toilets were placed. The guide kept us entertained with stories of life in the shelters. The right hand side of toilets were meant to be for ladies and the left for gents. But men caught short after a night drinking weren’t too particular about which side of the tunnel they used.
Some parts of the tunnels closer to the surface were reinforced with concrete but even so, a nearby hit overhead could still be felt underground. On one occasion, a bomb knocked out all lighting in the shelters and when the guide instructed us to turn off our own lights it was a eerie feeling to be suddenly plunged into total darkness, if only for a few seconds.
During the tour we stopped at a flight of stairs which led up to the very entrance near where we had parked. When the sirens sounded, local residents had only five minutes to get to the safety of the shelter. The entrance was wider from the ground to allow for quicker passage through the tunnel but even so, around 1, 500 people would quickly stop whatever they were doing and descend from this point into the safety of the shelter.
After the war, the tunnels were largely neglected and entrances were hastily blocked up or vandalised or just fell into disrepair. A town busy re-building for a new age didn’t have the funds to maintain its underground heritage. Local residents used the tunnels to get from one part of the town to another and avoid the rain! It was said that Ramsgate was a town where the kids didn’t hang around on the street corners, they played underground instead.
There are plans to open up another section of the tunnels which are currently blocked due to a subsidence which would allow a further section to be explored.
The tour lasts up to an hour and a half and is well lit and not claustrophobic in the least. The floor surface, although uneven parts is easily walkable, and the height of the tunnels allows all but the tallest to pass through without much discomfort.
It finishes with a series of mocks up of how the improvised accommodation would have been constructed. Usually this consisted of Hessian sacks strung up for curtains and a bit of privacy if that was possible. Rushing into the shelter must have been a nerve-wracking experience in itself. Rivaled only by leaving after the ‘all clear’ siren was sounded in the hope that your house was still intact.
These days we take so many things for granted. Privations even for the shortest period of time are loudly complained about and endured with a sense of indignity of ‘why us?’
We left with a sense of appreciation of the fortitude of human spirit and even the blast of wind that greeted us on the seafront didn’t seem that bad.