I had wanted to visit Margate Caves for a long time, probably since my son did some filming there with an amateur film group, but they closed down for 15 years, for health and safety concerns and I doubted they would ever re-open.
The caves were originally dug as a chalk mine in the early 1700s . In 1797 a building was constructed on the site; it was used by a Mrs Bryan as a boarding school for young ladies. In 1807 the house was auctioned and bought by Francis Foster as a family home and he changed its name to Northumberland House after his county of birth and carried out many alterations. The caves were rediscovered in the mid 1800s with various stories of how this happened, and Foster then used them as an ice well and to impress influential friends. In 1854 it was again sold, to a local businessman who started charging entry – and at this time the cave paintings were first mentioned – elephant, monkeys, crocodile etc. It was the start of a long period as a popular visitor attraction throughout the Victorian period, passing to different owners and being called different names – `Vortigern Caves` and `Smugglers Caves`. In 1893 part of Northumberland House was converted to a vicarage for the nearby Holy Trinity Church and in 1902 the vicar, Canon Pryor, had another entrance cut into the Caves and revitalised them as a tourist attraction. The Caves were forced to close in WW2 – in 1941 the vicarage was hit by a German bomb and in 1943 the Holy Trinity Church was severely damaged in a raid. In 1958 the Caves re-opened when James Geary Gardner, owner of Chislehurst Caves (also in Kent) took the lease. Paintings were re-touched and a new one `The Thanet Giant` was added, using ultra-violet paint, probably left over from the War. However, in 1962 Margate Council compulsorily purchased the site and Gardner handed back the lease in the 1990’s and short-term leases were issued. But in 2004 the Caves were closed by the Health and Safety Executive.
However, in 2008 talk of the local council considering filling them in so housing could be built on the site galvanised local people to form The Friends of Margate Caves and the Margate Caves Community Education Trust and a campaign was begun for the Caves to be re-opened. Fundraising began and major funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Lottery Community Fund meant that conservation specialists could be brought in to restore the Caves and save the paintings. The Caves re-opened in 2019 and the Community Building now provides space for various local activities as well as containing a shop, cafe and exhibition space for the Caves. The cafe serves drinks, light lunches and cakes and the shop sells a really good selection of gifts and mementoes. The small exhibition space has displays and pictures of the history of the caves.
The Caves are situated on the edge of the Cliftonville area of Margate and are not far from the Shell Grotto, another wonderful, but privately run, underground tourist attraction: both are only a short walk from the seafront and centre of Margate. There is limited one hour parking right on the road outside the visitor centre and the No. 8 and Loop buses go right past the Caves.
Out of season the opening hours are 11.00am to 4.00pm (last entry 3.30) from Friday to Sunday but summer opening hours are much longer. There are special Santa events in the run up to Christmas (see the website for more details). Prices for entrance to the caves are: £4.50 for adults, £4 concessions, £2 for children and £10 for family tickets. Special tours for groups can be arranged. The Caves are definitely NOT accessible to wheelchair users or anyone with mobility issues as there are uneven floors and steep steps.
Once we’d had a quick look at the history of the caves we set off down some steps and into a narrow tunnel through the chalk but after only a few yards into the tunnel my adult son had to go back to the cafe as he was suffering from claustrophobia, which was a shame but he had been there before some years ago. My husband and I just carried on and after a while the tunnel opens out into a very large, high ceilinged cave. Several raised areas can be accessed by steep steps, giving views over the areas of cave paintings on the walls. Two volunteer stewards were in the main body of the large cavern and, once we asked them some questions and showed an interest, they had a lot of very interesting stories and information to share and were clearly passionate about the Caves. We explored every part and thought it was really interesting and well worth the drive to Margate.