Britain: The Secret Underground War Tunnels of Ramsgate

What?
A network of underground tunnels that served as an air raid shelter and ‘secret’ underground city during World War II.

Why visit?

To wear a hard hat, go underground and learn about the social history of a British town during wartime. And to appreciate your warm and cosy house above ground – in peace time.

Where?

In Ramsgate, Kent, the only seaside town in England in which Vincent van Gogh once taught French. Map.


FIRST FOR A little history:

The tunnels were the brainchild of the Ramsgate Mayor (Arthur Kempe) during the 1930s. Alarmed by the threat of another World War, he engaged a local engineer and surveyor, R. D Brimmell, to plan and build a huge underground shelter that would protect the townsfolk of Ramsgate during wartime bombing raids. 

Brimmell built a three-mile network of tunnels underneath the town with public entrances located all over Ramsgate. They were able to provide shelter for up to 60,000 people and when war did break out, it quickly became a secret underground city, even providing shelter for distinguished guests such as Winston Churchill (on a trip to Ramsgate he was forced to take shelter during an air raid).
Tunnel vision?
This underground city was joined onto an existing railway tunnel which had been in existence since the 19th century. Prior to the war this tunnel brought tourists from the main Ramsgate station to the seafront on the romantically named World Scenic Railway (named after the illuminated scenes of famous buildings like the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty that decorated the sides of the long tunnel). Evidence of these steam trains still exist today and I particularly loved the thick line of soot that remained on the roof of the main tunnel.
Today, only a small section of the wartime tunnels is accessible which sadly means there is no access to the ballroom(!), but with hard hats and lanterns we were led on a journey through the network.

This journey spans almost 75 years of history and just over a kilometre in length. There were enough relics from the war era (a rusty bicycle skeleton, alcoves which had housed chemical toilets and primitive wooden bunks) to make you thankful that you wouldn’t be spending the night down there.

The honeymoon suite at the Underground Hotel. 
Some families moved down here permanently after being bombed out of their houses, and there are mock-ups of what their little ‘homes’ were like. Filled with salvaged household items, they provided shelter but little privacy.
Fancy a brew?
This became a vast underground city, complete with its own barber, pop-up shops and schoolchildren trying (not very hard by the sound of it) to continue their lessons. Our guides told us heart-warming stories of wartime camaraderie and sing-alongs. But they also told us of the diseases and stresses of living cheek by jowl in deep, damp tunnels. This wasn’t a Butlin’s holiday camp, it was at times a deep, dark, night of the soul – especially if your bunk was next to the chemical toilet.

When the war ended, the tunnels were abandoned and blocked up, but decades later they became a favourite haunt for ‘urban explorers’. In one part of the network we were guided through a cement lined tunnel which provided a graffiti chronicle of their explorations over the decades. The graffiti is mostly written in the chalk that the tunnels are hewn out of and the rude stuff has unfortunately been erased! Accounts by these urban explorers – and some atmospheric photos - can be seen online in various urban explorer blogs.

The tunnels opened to those preferring to walk leisurely through the entrance rather than abseiling precariously through half-collapsed entranceways in May 2014. Our guides were very knowledgeable and the whole tour provided a fantastic hour of social history as well as tunnel exploration. 

The attraction is unpolished and I mean this as a compliment as I love that it has not been sanitised. It is down to earth (excuse the pun) and gritty; probably how you would describe the people who lived here during the war. There is soot, there are rusted metal signs and there is dampness. A reel of vintage Pathé news is the closest you will come to a slick Prezi presentation about the tunnels’ history. 


Strange objects from the tunnels’ past create interesting tableaus in the main tunnels. My favourite was the re-useable coffin placed next to the deck chair. ‘Last holiday’, ‘holiday in hell’ and ‘that’s the last time I go to Ramsgate’ all vied for attention in my head as suitable titles. See what you can come up with if you visit.

That's the last time I go to Ramsgate.
After being taken back in time and almost smelling the fear and stench of humanity huddled in the dark and damp during terrifying bombing raids, it felt good to be greeted by fresh air and the moon’s rippling reflection on the sea just outside the tunnels. Ah, the romance of Ramsgate.


Getting there:

Located on the South East coast of England, twenty miles from Dover, Ramsgate can be reached from London St Pancras in one hour fifteen minutes via the High Speed link. The Tunnels are located on the seafront, a short walk from Ramsgate Harbour.
Useful links:

http://www.ramsgatetunnels.org/

About the author:

Vicky Turner was born and raised in West Yorkshire in the UK but has gradually been moving South (via the East Coast of the USA) for the last fourteen years. She currently explores in Kent. 

2 comments:

  1. What a surprise; I had no idea these even existed. The last time I was in Ramsgate it was only a brief pass-through on my way to London from Calais. I must return to explore this area a bit, especially as my other half enjoys visiting WW2 sights. I'm sure this is only the beginning...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. HI Linda, glad you enjoyed it- hope you get a chance to visit one day. Yes, one doesn't usually think of WWII sights in the UK, as now fighting took place in Britain. But of course, the War had a massive impact on people's lives so it's great there are sights like these to remind us.

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