Can you believe that hundreds of families from Ramsgate in Kent set up home in a network of underground tunnels during the Second World War? They lived a subterranean existence below Ramsgate for many years as the war raged on overhead. Although it may sound like the plot of a science-fiction film it’s a true-life event that saved many lives in war-time England. We took a family visit to the Ramsgate Tunnels in Kent to see the hidden underground town for ourselves.
Find out how we got on at the tunnels, what you can expect to see and learn, plus some practical information for your visit.
A visit to Ramsgate Tunnels
The tour of Ramsgate Tunnels begins in a 150-year-old Victorian tunnel. Black and white photos on the walls and cabinets displaying wartime memorabilia serve as a reminder of the tunnel’s time as an underground town.
Firstly, a guide met us and showed our group a short film about the history of the Ramsgate war tunnels. It is important to get some background into why the tunnels were there and their contribution to the town’s safety. It was the first we’d even heard of it!
After watching the film, the guide issued our safety equipment, a hard hat and torch, and we were ready to go.
Although the complex of Ramsgate Caves stretches about 5 miles in total, the tour covers less than a mile. However, the tour guide makes regular stops to narrate the tunnel’s history and wartime stories about its inhabitants. He also explained some of the engineering considerations and the post-war story of the Ramsgate Tunnels.
A brief history of Ramsgate Tunnels
So why did they create the UK’s largest network of civilian wartime tunnels in Ramsgate?
It really was a matter of location and resources. Ramsgate sits on a bedrock of chalk, for centuries inhabitants had been digging down into the chalk to create cellars, smuggling tunnels and even a ball room. A railway tunnel had been created to transport Victorian holidaymakers to the seaside. Opened as part of the Kent Coast Railway in 1863, the railway took the steam trains all the way to the Kent coastline. Unfortunately, the trains sometimes overran and didn’t always stop at the terminal. Eventually the railway went into decline.
Ten years after the closure of the railway, the tunnel reopened in 1936 to connect people to the amusements at “Merrie England”. It became known as the “World Scenic Railway”.
However, it was short-lived. As the threat of the 2nd World War became increasingly imminent, Westminster asked the council to start considering how to protect the people of Ramsgate from the impending blitz.
The townhouses of Ramsgate often had little or no gardens and the chalk rock was too hard for the inhabitants to create buried Anderson shelters. The mayor of the time “Top Hat Mayor” Arthur Kempe working with a local architect therefore proposed a series of tunnels below the town for the townsfolk to shelter.
Ramsgate’s location on the Kent coast looking out at France made it a prime target for aerial attacks. The Kent town is directly opposite Dunkirk in France.
The mayor knew his townsfolk would be under threat from bomb attack and wanted somewhere they could reside safely overnight. He was instrumental in pushing forward the plans to extend the tunnels into an enormous air-raid shelter for the inhabitants of Ramsgate. Despite the initial rejections he persisted with his proposals until they were accepted.
Little can he have imagined as the war progressed that this giant series of underground tunnels would become a hidden underground town for over 300 families who had completely lost their homes.
What to see in the tunnels
Although it was only intended as temporary accommodation, over 1000 people eventually lived in the air raid shelter permanently. The families hung sheets and towels to create their own private zones. Then, they brought along home comforts to make the tunnels more comfortable and homely.
In the main entrance tunnel, you’ll see replica living spaces so you can imagine what it would have been like. The inhabitants created a community in which everyday activities such as cooking, socialising and school still took place.
Water and electricity were connected to the tunnels and the hidden town even had its own barbers, doctor, and postman.
After the war
After the war, the tunnels were closed and abandoned for the next 75 years. The tunnels became a general dumping ground, and you can still see the abandoned dodgem cars and other debris. The tunnels became the playground of the local youths in the 1970s and 80s. The graffiti on the walls is a testament to this and is now considered a historical record.
Eventually the council bricked up the entrances to the tunnels on the request of the local fire and police services. Apparently they were fed up having to launch rescue missions for drunks who had got into trouble down there. They also repurposed some of the tunnels to run the sewage pipes for a new housing development.
The tunnels did not open again until it became a tourist attraction in 2011.
Today, you can see the clever engineering that went into the tunnels’ design and discover the unusual lifespan of the tunnels. It’s a really interesting place to visit and we’d definitely recommend it as one of the best things to do in Ramsgate.
Practical information for your visit to the Ramsgate Tunnels
How to get to the Ramsgate Tunnels
Ramsgate is a seaside town in Kent in South-East England. It is between the coastal towns of Broadstairs and Sandwich. The tunnels are on the sea front near the Harbour. They are really easy to find.
You can get there by car on the M25/M2. It takes just under 2 hours from London. There is a car park along Marina Esplanade, which is a short walk from the tunnels. The postcode is CT11 8NB.
Direct trains from London depart from Charing Cross or St Pancras. The fastest train takes 1 hour 14 mins.
The tunnels are open all year 7 days a week.
A visit to Ramsgate Tunnels is one of the best things to do on a rainy day in Ramsgate. After all, it is all undercover!
If you visit in the summer, it is worth taking something warm to wear, as the tunnels are a constant temperature of 11 degrees Celsius.
How long does a visit to Ramsgate Tunnels take?
You should allow about 1.5 hours for your visit.
Are the tunnels accessible?
Due to the nature of the tour, the tunnels are not very accessible. They are not suitable for buggies or wheelchairs.
Have you been to the Ramsgate Tunnels? We’d love to hear your comments below.
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