Posted by: madkentdragon | April 4, 2011

An Underground Railway, Turner and a Shell Grotto. Quirky Kent 8

Before we leave Ramsgate for good, something in my last post bothered me, the railway tunnels under Ramsgate! I’d never ever heard of them;
I knew about the urban tramway (more about that later), but what was this tunnel? Well, I’ve done some research and it appears that Ramsgate had its own underground railway!

It had various names, Ramsgate Cliff Railway, The Tunnel Railway, The Ramsgate Tunnel Railway and the Ramsgate Underground Railway;
after the railways had been restructured in 1926, the line between Broadstairs and Ramsgate Harbour was abandoned including the tunnel. The abandoned station at the sea front was sold off for a funfair and the Thanet Amusements and zoo opened there over the next few years before being sold to Ramsgate Olympia.

To utilise the tunnel the enterprising new owner decided to run a small gauge electric railway from the new Ramsgate Station at Dumpton
Park down to the sea front, opening in 1936. This proved very popular even though the whole thing ran through tunnels from Dumpton Park until it emerged at the sea front. It closed during the war and was added to and adapted as an air raid shelter as I told you last time. It re-opened after the war and the line finally closed at the end of the 1965 season. Earlier that year, the only major accident on the railway had occurred, when a loaded train ran away down the line and crashed into the booking office at the harbour. The driver was injured as his
cab was crushed between the locomotive and coach.

The then owners, Pleasurama, decided not to open the following year, and the locomotives were scrapped. However, several of the coaches still exist at the Holycombe Collec­tion, in Hampshire, hauled by steam locomotives. The sealed-up tunnel mouth by the harbour is all that remains of the railway.

Right, to quote Chas & Dave lets go “Down to Margate”, of course if it had been in 1900s, we could have taken a tram which linked Broadstairs, Margate and Ramsgate. On the 4th of April 1901 The Isle of Thanet Light Railways (Electric) Company, later known as the Electric Tramways & Lighting Co. Ltd opened a new electric tram service to link the three towns, it had up to 60 double decker trams running the route, but due to council pressure it closed in1937 as the councillors preferred buses to trams on their streets.

The town, originally known as Meregate in 1264 was, like its neighbour Ramsgate, mainly a fishing village and its name had changed to Margate by 1299. It is thought that the name meant a gap in the cliffs where pools gathered. The town was a “limb” of Dover, but added to the Cinq Ports in its own right in the 15th Century.

The town is primarily a bucket and spade resort with beautiful sandy beaches but suffered when the cheap package holidays appeared, it further suffered when  the fun fair park – Dreamland – was closed down and the scenic railway caught fire; however as this is a Grade II
listed building, being Britain’s oldest roller coaster, it is being rebuilt. Some questioned the fire as it was hoped to sell the ground off for redevelopment, which has now been shelved; instead the plan is to build a retro theme park there.

The Turner Contemporary Art Gallery opens this month, April 2011; originally designed to look as if it stood in the sea but then re-designed to its present day site, it is several years late in opening but it is hoped that it will bring some life and revenue back to this much depleted town.  If you are hoping to see Turner’s works, you may be disappointed as, unless one is lent to the gallery, you will not see one. Tracey Emin, a daughter of Margate will be one of the artists on display.

JMW Turner was sent to Margate to be schooled at a young age and fell in love with the place; he started exhibiting his paintings in his father’s barber shop windows at the age of 13 and painted the harbour and other sea-scapes at Margate throughout his life.

There are a series of caves under Margate but one of the most unusual discoveries was the Shell Grotto, which was discovered in 1835 by a James Newlove who, whist digging a duck pond drove his spade through the roof of this amazing structure. He discovered an underground complex completely covered in shells which were arranged in patterns. The “who, what or why?” debate still ranges on, the complex covers some 2,000 square feet and is now designated as a Grade I listed building. No-one knows the age of this grotto nor why it was
built, and had it been public knowledge at any time surely the tale of what it was would have been passed down over the generations.

Unfortunately Mr Newlove lit the whole area with gas lighting when he opened it to the public and the deposits from these lights have made carbon dating of the shells impossible, even the structure of the glue attaching the shells to the walls is a mystery – scientists can only say
that it is a fish based substance.

The shells form patterns which some say contain “hidden wisdom” and others think are connected to the Knights Templar, the so-called “altar”
room was slightly damaged by a WWII bomb, but you can visit them yourselves and form your own opinion.

Next time, Broadstairs, Mr Dickens and the last bits of Thanet.


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