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.