The 27th of September arrived and oddly for me, I had a plan of sorts. I know I did not set my alarm but the timing on my images indicates that I had awoken and showered early before jumping on the bus to Ramsgate. I do apologise about my attempt to be arty by taking an image of a bus through another bus but I had to do it. I made my way to the Royal Victoria Pavilion and once there I had the very tasty breakfast you can see pictured served to my favourite table 120 and all this before 0900. Yes, I know I was becoming a creature of habit but at least on this day I had a vague excuse as the place I wanted to visit was no more than about five minutes walk away. Come to think of it I don’t really need an excuse as I was eating well after a good sleep during reasonable hours and generally recovering quite well.
When I started visiting Thanet all those years ago, I had heard of a series of tunnels dug into the cliffs in Ramsgate which had been a railway and then converted into air raid shelters during the Second World War. I believe that, even then, it was possible to visit but very difficult as it was by appointment only and you had to have a party of a certain size and book a long way in advance so the council could provide a guide and so I never got to explore there. As the years went o I had heard word on the Thanet grapevine that there were plans to re-open the tunnels as a visitor attraction but I never enquired too much further into it until 2019 when I discovered that it was indeed open to the public, complete with guided tours and this is what I was doing here. The tours start every two hours and I had decided that the midday one sounded good as it gave me an opportunity to catch up on my internet and have a leisurely second cup of coffee in the very pleasant surroundings of the Pavilion.
I took the short walk along the seafront where I was slightly saddened to see that there was a plain blue hoarding covering the seemingly interminable building works here where previously there had been a series of lovely murals under the general umbrella of “the Great Wall of Ramsgate”. Still, it had been eight years since I had last walked along here so I suppose times change but I have included a couple of examples of the artworks including one of the tunnel when the railway was still working.
I went into what was very obviously the entrance to a railway tunnel and quickly located the ticket office / giftshop which is situated in what looks like a rather overgrown garden shed. The guy on duty was very helpful and promised to look after my rather heavy daysack which was a relief. I had a bit of time and so I had a look round, ignoring the lure of the rather tasty delights on offer in the coffee shop because I was still full of breakfast. There are a few exhibits from the wartime period but not many.
Just before midday one of the guides, who are all volunteers, called us forward and issued us with hard hats before ushering us into another large garden shed where we sat down for what was an absolutely fascinating monochrome film about the Blitz produced by the famous Pathé News group. Everybody associates the Blitz with London and to a lesser extent cities like Birmingham and Liverpool and the area of the East End of London where I live suffered horribly but Ramsgate was saturation bombed before any of these, the first “Blitz” of the War against the UK. I suppose it is logical as it is in such close proximity to the then occupied Continent and also due to it’s importance as a port. The German bomber pilots could have flown over, bombed Ramsgate and been back on the ground before their coffee had gone cold!
I was particularly interested in the measures the Government suggested as being effective against heavy aerial bombardment. The contraption you can see in the large image above is called a Morrison shelter, named for the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison which, as you can see, is little more than a reinforced dining table which is what it was designed to serve double duty as. Allegedly, two adults and one child could sleep in it but I would not have thought there was much sleep to be had but by 1945 there were over one million of them in use.
The second shelter with the faux grass roof is an Anderson shelter which was designed to be erected outside and seems marginally more comfortable and safer to my untrained eye. About 1.5 million of the self-assembly shelters were distributed before the war and a further 2.1 million during it of which a mere 13 remain in their original sites as detailed on the fascinating website I have linked here. I love the concept that someone loves such an unusual thing as a particular air raid shelter so much that they have created a website about them and people all over the world can learn about them.
Undoubtedly the worst raid on Ramsgate was on 24th August 1940 and I have read a couple of different versions of the events that terrible day. The Germans had flown over to bomb nearby Manston RAF base and one report claims that there was so much smoke and dust from a previous bombing run that the bomb aimers could not see the target and so jettisoned their ordnance on Ramsgate. A second, and to my mind less likely, scenario is that their lead aircraft had been shot down over the town and they all bombed the defenceless populace in a gesture of vengeance. I find it unlikely that highly trained pilots would do this on the outbound run and thereby ignoring the main target but it is feasible that they jettisoned ordnance on the target of opportunity that Ramsgate presented on the return journey. No doubt the loss of their lead aircraft did not encourage them to jettisoning the ordnance over the Channel rather than on civilian targets.
However, I am getting way ahead of myself here but do remember that date as the guide encouraged us to do. We were issued with torches, donned our helmets and the tour began with a history of the railway and the tunnel were were then standing in. I do not propose to go into minute detail of the history of the tunnels which is wonderfully covered in the official website here but merely give you a brief overview and I do recommend you check out the website for the full nuts and bolts. Better still, visit the tunnels if you get the chance.
The story starts in 1863 at the height of “railwaymania” when the Kent Coast Railway built a tunnel to serve a station at Ramsgate Harbour. The long view was to make it a gateway to Europe via steam packets to Oostende in Belgium in much the way the hovercraft did a century later.
The problem with the Harbour Station was the steep gradient to reach it along the 1.124 yard tunnel and there was always the problem of a runaway train, a terrible event that happened in 1891 and 1915. The population of Ramsgate was expanding although the station could not (there was nowhere for it to expand into) and so it was eventually closed down in 1926 with the railway being serviced by a new station which is some distance form the town (it still is, I have walked it before!). Being of no further use to the railway company, they sold the station to a leisure company who turned it into a zoo and amusement arcade called “Merrie England” and you can still see some of the cars from the rides in the image above. They turned up when the tunnels were re-opened.
I have mentioned that the new station was a long way from the front and therefore not much use to a town wishing to attract holidaymakers and daytrippers. The amusement park owners tried to get the railway company to re-open the tunnel but they refused, claiming it was too costly. Eventually a compromise plan was reached to use some of the existing tunnel and dig a new, shorter extension tunnel to emerge at Hereson Road about 250 yards from Dumpton Park station. It was all run on a narrow gauge and powered by overhead electric and served by two specially commissioned trains each capable of carrying 108 passengers.
To make it more of a holiday attraction, illuminated scenes from around the world were placed along the length of the tunnel and gave rise to the name “The World’s Scenic Railway” which had good passenger figures for the next few years but there were momentous events taking place not so far away with the rise of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy and general uncertainty about the future of Europe. It’s strategic position and proximity to nearby RAF Manston, not to mention the Continent, made it a prime target for bombing and / or invasion.
The Borough Engineer at the time was a man of great vision called Brimmell who had long been working on a plan for a series of tunnels based on the existing railway tunnels which would serve as a place of refuge for the populace. The plan was placed before the Council who, in the manner of local government worldwide, firstly turned it down on the basis of cost and then decided not to make a decision at all but merely defer the matter.
The Mayor was a larger than life character called Alderman A.B.C. Kempe, permanently attired in a top hat and much given to wandering about the town chatting to visitors, handing out ice creams and the like. He was in favour of the plan although it ran counter to general Governmental thinking and so he enlisted the help of the local MP H.H. Balfour who just happened to be a highly decorated (M.C. and bar no less) First World War “flying ace” and could well see the danger posed by Hitler. He exerted pressure in Parliament and Ramsgate received permission to construct the tunnels on 20th March 1939.
Work began immediately and at a great pace with the first section of tunnels being opened as soon as 1st June by the Duke of Kent. Fortunately, chalk is easy to quarry as it is so soft and work continued at a rapid rate until there was a huge network of tunnels underneath most of the town with access points to street level at many locations. It is a testament to the efficacy of the system that fewer than 100 people lost their lives to bomb and shellfire during the war and 29 of those were during that August 1940 raid. I had not previously even thought of shellfire in the context of “the Blitz” but the Germans had heavy artillery quite capable of lobbing shells across the Channel and they did it regularly.
All of the above was imparted to us by the two excellent guides who changed over half way through as indeed was all the subsequent information but I want to tell you about the tour itself at this point.
The first thing to say is that it is utterly brilliant and I am so glad I did it. I will be honest, there are not a lot of artefacts to see but the atmosphere of the place and the encyclopaedic knowledge of the guides, all volunteers as I said, coupled with their humour and obvious love of what they were doing, really brought the place to life.
I had seen a sign saying that photography was only permitted in “lit” areas and I was a bit unsure about this as it was all lit despite us all having torches in case of emergency so I did not take images for most of the tour. In any event, I was too busy watching my footing as the ground is pretty uneven so please do wear sensible footwear. Also, the temperature is a constant 11 degrees Celsius so dress appropriately for how you feel at that level.
Wheelchairs are permitted although they may be hard to manoeuvre, ditto baby buggies. I did see a special wheelchair with large pneumatic wheels so it may be worth enquiring about that. There are no toilets in the tunnels but there are public conveniences a minute or two walk along the front. The reason there are no toilets now is that there were no toilets during the war and you will get the full graphic details of the sanitation from the guides! The tour takes about 90 minutes although ours was a little longer all told as everyone wanted to chat with the guides as it was so interesting. The guides, in their turn, seemed only too happy to talk about a subject they were obviously passionate about. In total it is a touch over a mile and there is only one gradient of any note so make sure you can handle that distance although it is really not strenuous.
Of all the fascinating things the guides told us, I think there are two that will stick in my mind and which are slightly connected. Remember the 14th August 1940? There were people who fled into the tunnels on that date and who were so traumatised they did not emerge into the daylight again until the war was over or at least until the Germans had been pushed back far enough that they were no longer a threat. Many families took up residence here either because of this fear or because their homes had been destroyed and you can see above a couple of the different types of “homes” people constructed. It was all very organised and you were allotted a space by those in charge where you set up camp, in some cases for over four years. Once you had your “pitch” number you could even have your mail delivered down here, how crazy is that? The town of Ramsgate literally moved underground and the street signs were even re-located downthe tunnels a) to confuse the Germans should they invade and b) because far more people used the safety of the tunnels to get about than risk being caught in the open should a raid occur.
With the defeat of the Germans in 1945 the tunnels were cleared out, the new tunnels which had saved so many lives were blocked off and the main rail tunnel reverted to use as the scenic railway. In 1950 a large section of the wartime tunnel was used to “house” a main sewer so that can never be re-opened to visitors although there is another even larger section, currently blocked off by a cave-in which they are currently assessing for re-opening which will make for a very interesting longer tour.
In the 50’s and 60’s there was a different “war” going on, the Cold War with the Soviet Union and there were serious plans to use the tunnels once again although what use they would have been against a nuclear strike is debatable if, indeed, Ramsgate was still a target. These plans were never implemented and what finally saw off the Tunnel Railway was yet another runaway train in 1965. The line closed at the end of the season and the tunnel was once again sealed up.
Throughout the post-war period the newer dug tunnels and the Railway tunnel were all favourite haunts for the towns youth and there is a huge amount of graffitii. Apparently it was a complete party town down here for years with the emergency services regularly being called out to extricate youngsters who had climbed down into the tunnels and then proceeded to get too drunk / stoned to get out again. Again, the guides will regale you with some great tales, one or two from personal experience!
There was a 1988 plan to re-open the tunnels as a tourist attraction but it came to nothing and it was not until 2011 that a group was formed by the then Mayor which, some time and a lot of hard work and fund-raising later, led to the excellent attraction it is today. The guides are at pains to point out that it is still very much a work in progress and they have several plans in the pipeline to improve the visitor experience. Frankly, I think it is great as is but any improvements can only be a good thing.
When we had finished the tunnels it was back into the main railway tunnel where there was another talk mainly referring to the various “homes” I mentioned above and a lovely story concerning a newspaper photo from the War showing a little boy in a bunk bed in the shelter with his Mother standing beside him. Somehow or another they have traced the boy, now an old man who has lived in Australia most of his life, and he is hopefully returning in 2020 to visit. That will be worth seeing.
I have left the most sombre of my images until last because it seems appropriate that they should be last and also because they were about the last images I took on my tour. It is obvious they are coffins but look closer and you will see oval hatches where the face of the deceased would be. That was so identification could take place without the family having to see what nastiness may have happened elsewhere on the body. A grisly thought but that is war for you.
I had enjoyed a brilliant and hugely educational couple of hours and thought it worth every penny of the £7 entrance fee and I know you might find this hard to believe if you know me from when I ate virtually nothing but I was hungry again so straight back to the Pavilion for the delicious pizza you see above. I only ordered the small 8″ pizza which Wetherspoons very sensibly do as I was hungry, not ravenous and it was just the right portion size for me. Before the pizza purists start, don’t! I know that the thought of the Hawaiian pizza is utter anathema to any Americans, never mind the Italians, but I happen to like it. I have mentioned in previous posts here that my favourite pizza of all (my own construction obviously) is tuna, banana and garlic so pineapple is positively normal by those standards.
I had decided to head back to Broadstairs as it was Friday and I fancied catching a bit of music and it was whilst walking back to the bus that I saw what you can see in the image above and is a building I stand beside regularly and I had somehow not heeded my own advice that I have given often on various websites and in many conversations and that is always to look up at buildings. In truth, it is not my own advice but was learned from a wonderful teacher called Mr. Jeffrey (Fred as he was affectionately known) in either 1978 or ’79 and I can date it because it was during a sixth form lecture. I suppose the fact that I still remember it 40 years after being taught it shows how good he was, especially as I did not bother to take in much at school.
I really was very impressed by the architecture although I have not the first idea what style it is and also the condition it is in. If you look closely you will see it is a Sailors Rest and it does overlook the Royal Harbour. I know a couple of sailors “dosshouses” near where I live in the East End of London and they are ugly post WWII affairs, nothing like this although it is all flats (apartments) now and I bet they cost a pretty penny.
Back to Broadstairs then and an uneventful evening before bed. It had been a great day.
The next post will be quite a number of days rolled into one as not too much of interest to the reader happened so I shall whizz through that until we get to something that is interesting! At least it gets me into October and therefore catching up on myself so stay tuned and spread the word.