Watching Michael Portillo visiting the Ramsgate Tunnels on his train journey through Kent on his recent tv programme reminded me of my visit to the tunnels. I thought I’d do a short review, partly to correct the impression he might possibly have given that the tunnels are entered by climbing through a hatch at the top of the cliffs, whereas nowadays, the paying public have to enter from the promenade through a disused railway tunnel entrance. If you saw the programme you will know that the tunnels were used during WW2 as underground shelters because Ramsgate was heavily bombed.
I visited the tunnels with my husband and adult son in 2016 having booked the tickets online; there are a limited number of slots available each day they are open and it would have been a shame to arrive and find we couldn’t go in. They still operate the same system – booked tickets or turn up on the day – and all the details about opening times and days and prices are on the website but basically it costs £8 for an adult and £6 for a senior ticket and if booking online there is a 50p booking fee. The opening times/days are quite complicated so it’s necessary to check, but during school holidays the tunnels seem to be open every day (www.ramsgatetunnels.org) and are run by volunteers. The entrance to Ramsgate Tunnels can be found by walking to the harbour, then past the Royal Victoria Pavilion (said to be Wetherspoon’s largest pub) and the entrance is facing towards you at the bottom of the cliffs.
I’ve lived in Kent most of my life and remember it as a seaside destination when I was a child; I liked the lovely sandy beach and the `Merrie England` amusement park at the foot of the cliffs, which is near where the tunnel entrance is. The only thing I disliked about going to Ramsgate was the horrible walk from the railway station – it wasn’t so bad heading downhill towards the seafront, but dragging back uphill after a tiring day playing on the beach was no fun at all. The current main station was built in its inconvenient location in 1926 when two rival railway companies joined forces to form Southern Railway, each closing their existing Ramsgate terminal; an extension to the main line was made, continuing it to Broadstairs. This is when `Merrie England` was built, on the site of the Ramsgate Sands (or Harbour) station. The tunnel came into use again in 1936 when a narrow gauge electric railway was built between Dumpton Park mainline station through the chalk cliffs to Merrie England; illuminated tableaux of scenes from around the world were added as an attraction.
For our tour of the tunnels we were fitted with hard hats; only flat shoes are allowed to be worn in the tunnels. We were split into two groups – one set off straight away on the tour while the others watched a film showing the history of the tunnels, which the other group would see at the end of their tour. I particularly enjoyed seeing the old Pathe News clips, much of this is also now available on the Tunnels website. We learned more about the making of the tunnels; how in 1938 the government refused permission for Ramsgate council to excavate more tunnels planned by the borough engineer (there were already some that had been made in WW1) but he and Ramsgate’s mayor persevered and when permission was finally granted in 1939 work started immediately and the underground shelter was officially opened by the Duke of Kent in June 1939 and was to become the most extensive in the country.
Then our guide took us for a tour through the labyrinth of small tunnels, giving a commentary along the way, indicating the entrances from various areas of the town and telling us what was above us at different points along the route. The entrances were situated so nobody in the built up area of the town was more than a 5 minute walk away from an entrance: once inside there were steps leading down to the tunnels, although in the case of the hospital a ramp was installed instead so patients could be wheeled down. Our guide told us more about the use of the tunnels during the war when local residents took shelter from the heavy bombardment, many finding their homes flattened when they emerged after the all clear. There were also tales of looting of the bombed houses that took place, something that was never reported during the war in order to preserve morale. During our walk it was quite damp underfoot in places which is why flat shoes have to be worn. We were then taken back to the large tunnel, the one that was originally a railway tunnel, where we saw mock-ups of cubicles to show what families would construct to give them a degree of privacy when they were in such close proximity to many other people. They made their small space into a home from home with furniture, books to read, knitting to do; there were also makeshift cooking facilities and shared toilets. We were told that between 600 and 1,000 people lived permanently underground, presumably because they had nowhere else to live, their homes having been flattened by bombing – others just used the deep shelters for refuge in times of heavy bombing.
At the end of the war the tunnels were cleared and sealed, but re-opened in 1946 as a scenic railway and then closed permanently in 1965. In the 1950s a sewage pipe was constructed through the tunnels meaning that a large section is now inaccessible. In 2011 Ramsgate Council, supported by Ramsgate Tunnels Heritage Group, successfully bid for money from the the Jubilee Lottery Fund which enabled Ramsgate Tunnels to be reopened as an all weather heritage attraction.
There’s a small tea room and gift shop just inside the entrance to the tunnel. It’s a very interesting attraction, well worth seeing. For those who aren’t able (or keen) to go underground there is a tunnels trail, a walking tour that can be followed above ground with a map to show where there were entrances and lots more interesting information about each place. It can be found at http://ramsgatetunnels.org>Walking_Tour. This is something I shall do as soon as I have time.
“To see times of opening, prices and more information.”:http://www.ramsgatetunnels.org