diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 03, 2015

Seaside postcard: Ramsgate      (previous visit)      [13 photos]

Ramsgate Tunnels: The story of how Ramsgate's population survived World War Two is a fascinating one, and also eminently visitable, in a year-old underground attraction ably run by volunteers. And the story begins 150 years ago, with a railway. Ramsgate's main station was a mile out of town, wholly inconvenient for daytrippers, so the Kent Coast Railway decided to extend a completely separate line down to the seafront. The underground incline ended at a four platform station by the sands, named Ramsgate Harbour, and was initially remarkably successful at drawing in the crowds. After WW1 the station closed and was replaced by a funfair called Merrie England, which reused the subterranean tracks to run a miniature railway up to Dumpton Park. That's long gone, and in 1998 the amusement park itself was destroyed by fire and is now a building site, awaiting cash to turn it into beachside apartments. But the tunnel mouth has been reopened, and visitors can wander inside (past a half-decent cafe), pay a fiver and don a hard hat to explore further. A line of soot is still clearly visible on the tunnel roof above the up-line, where the engines had to work a lot harder to reach the top and escape towards Broadstairs. And if this were all there was, that'd be interesting but not great. Instead it's the smaller of the Ramsgate Tunnels that's utterly compelling.

Having been plagued by Zeppelins during WW1, the people of Ramsgate were particularly attuned to the risk of aerial bombardment should WW2 take place. The town's engineer drew up groundbreaking plans for a series of shelters beneath the town, dug deep into the chalk, and managed to persuade the mayor and council to fund the scheme. They worked in haste, beginning in March 1939 and completing two and a half miles of tunnels before Christmas the same year. A complex subterranean network was created, with 23 entrance points across the town, the aim being that residents would never be more than five minutes walk from a portal to safety. Initially the project looked foolhardy, but a major air raid at the end of August 1940 proved its worth, with casualties minimised as tens of thousands of residents decamped to the tunnels. And here they returned, and indeed stayed, in a linear underground village filled with bunk beds. Never let it be said that risk mitigation is a pointless exercise.

And now today, in groups of no more 30, you can enter the old railway portal and see the wartime tunnels for yourself. The tour starts with a video, to set the scene, then proceeds a short distance up the aforementioned railway line. And it's then that your guide flicks on the light switch to reveal the narrow side tunnel carved into the chalk. And it goes on and on and on. The tunnels were dug following the line of the town's roads, to avoid potential litigation, wide enough only for a line of beds plus space to file past alongside. Every so often there are small alcoves, which housed the toilets, nothing especially sanitary or private. And less occasionally there are right-angled turn-offs that lead to flights of steps, over 130 in one case, which are the connections to the surface. Whilst the first deep sections are pure head-ducking chalk, the less deep tunnels had to be lined with concrete and are now covered with graffiti after the town's postwar teenagers repeatedly broke in. Expect to walk further than you'd expect too, almost half a mile in, and then the same distance back.

The guide on my tour was excellent. With her lively dramatic delivery I'd lay good money she was once a schoolteacher, and she managed to hold the attention of a group containing restless children and elderly couples. We paused at regular intervals for additional background information and anecdotes, like the time Winston Churchill came down, and how the street signs removed from roads above ground to confuse the enemy were relocated down here. The first section of the tour was lit by electric light, beyond which got to rely on torches and lanterns, eventually turning back after more than 500 metres incursion within. The tour is an absolute bargain for a fiver, lasting an hour and a half in total, and the volunteers who've managed to bring the tunnels back to life deserve commendation. But closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, in case I've tempted you to come down.

Thanet South: All eyes will be on Broadstairs and Ramsgate this week as one of the most important battles of the election reaches its climax. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is standing for the constituency of Thanet South, having judged that its electorate gives him the best chance of being returned to Parliament, and he may just be right. Ramsgate is a relentlessly over-50's kind of place, if not a particularly migrant-packed town, indeed I see more evidence of immigration in five minutes in East London than I saw in an entire day in Thanet. Few UKIP supporters revealed themselves, although a grey-cropped bloke walked past in Ramsgate wearing a particularly frilly purple rosette, and three UKIP flags fluttered from the masts of boats in the marina. At UKIP HQ in King Street a couple of workers milled around behind closed doors, in front of a list of pledges to "Bring back Manston Airport" and "Stop overdevelopment", with a line of St George's flag bunting hanging in the front window. But at the nearby crossroads a one-day Say No to UKIP protest was underway, and getting considerably more attention. A coalition of other activists had grouped together to hand out leaflets and stickers bearing the campaign's name, and to urge voters to mark their cross beside anyone but Nigel. With opposition currently broadly split between Labour and Conservative, such tactical voting may still allow UKIP to nip through the middle. I spotted Labour HQ on the harbourfront, its front door wide open and a larger than life cut-out of their candidate in the window. Meanwhile the candidate for Bez's Reality Party had parked up a double decker bus by the harbour and was cycling up and down broadcasting his policies via megaphone (doing things better than all the other corrupt politicians seemed to be his gist). Of the Green Party I saw one window sticker in an outlying street and a 'Vote Green' request chalked into the clifftop promenade in Ramsgate West. And I started to think I'd never see anything Conservative, until I finally came across a big blue poster on the edge of a large rape-field a couple of miles out of town. All in all, insufficient visual clues to make it clear who might eventually win the day. But the people of Thanet South could slam the door on Nigel Farage's parliamentary career, or lay out the red carpet and welcome him on board. Watch this space. [6 photos]

Pegwell Bay: To the west of Ramsgate, where the cliffs end and the coast curves round towards Deal, lies the broad sweep of Pegwell Bay. When the tide's out the estuary forms an extensive flat expanse of sand and mud, and hence one of the most welcoming spots in East Kent for migratory birds and invading armies. Roman emperor Claudius landed his armies on beaches hereabouts in 43AD, as did Hengist and Horsa in the 5th century and St Augustine's Christian mission in the 6th. The Saxon invasion is commemorated by a replica Viking ship on the shore at Cliffsend, unveiled by the Prince of Denmark in 1949, now fenced off to resist English boarders. It's barely a tourist attraction these days, but provides a focal point for the small dog-friendly cafe and picnic site nextdoor. But follow the steps down to the shoreline and a particularly peculiar location awaits. For this was once the site of the International Hoverport, a futuristic attempt to get Britons across the Channel on air. The terminal was opened in 1969 by a Swedish company, Hoverlloyd, whose fleet of four beskirted vehicles traversed the waves between here and Calais. Alas they survived only until 1982, for the last year merged with their closest rival, before operations at Pegwell Bay were closed down and facilities abandoned. All the buildings were removed, but the concrete deck remained and has been slowly reclaimed by wildlife over the years. It's now possible to walk around this eerie expanse unchallenged, across former car parks to the sloping ramps from which the hovercraft once departed. A few lines of paint remain, and holes into which landing gear must once have plugged, but the desolate site is now little more than a memorial to 1960s aspiration, 1970s glory and 1980s reality. I loved it, obviously, as must the seabirds who now have this unique departure point to themselves. [3 photos]

Seaside postcards: Here's where I've been along the southeast coast so far (plus where I ought to go next)
» Kent: Dartford, Gravesend, Cliffe, Allhallows, Grain, Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham, Sheerness, Faversham, Whitstable, Shivering Sands, Herne Bay, Reculver, Margate, Broadstairs, Ramsgate, Sandwich, Deal, St Margaret's, White Cliffs, Dover, Folkestone, Hythe & Dymchurch, Dungeness.
» Sussex: Camber Sands, Rye, Camber Castle, Winchelsea, Hastings, Bexhill, Eastbourne, Beachy Head, Seven Sisters, Seaford, Newhaven, Peacehaven, Brighton, Hove, Shoreham, Worthing, Littlehampton, Bognor Regis, Selsey, Chichester.

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