In the Ramsgate of 1936, you could travel the world by train in five minutes. Part of the Merrie England amusement park invited you to ride the World Scenic Railway, a narrow gauge train that would whisk you through tunnels in the coastal cliffs, past illuminated tableaux of the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland and Egyptian pyramids.
Merrie England also boasted a 'Midget Mansion' where you could 'see tiny people dancing at home', and a Monkey Village replete with bicycle-riding chimps. And possibly the less said about those attractions, the better.
But just three years later, with Hitler stirring up trouble in Europe, the world seemed a more serious place. The 'Mad Mayor' of Ramsgate, Arthur Bloomfield Courtenay Kempe, had the railway shut down, expanding the tunnels into a spidery network of air raid shelters, stretched out beneath the town.
Kempe — a real eccentric, known as the 'Top Hat' Mayor, because he insisted on wearing one — had been lobbying the government for a while, but was initially ridiculed when presenting the plans, drawn up by engineer R. D. Brimmell. Whitehall had reasoned the scheme was far too too spendy, probably a waste of money, and anyway — what was so special about Ramsgate?
Yet by 1940, around 300 Ramsgate families were living in the newly-extended tunnels at night, and during day raids. No one was calling Kempe mad anymore.
The railway begins
Before funfair trains ran through these tunnels, full-sized ones did. The first steam train puffed into Ramsgate Harbour Station in 1863, as part of the Kent Coast Railway. The new line and station involved a three-quarter-mile-long tunnel bored into Ramsgate's chalk cliffs — quite the statement.
The idea was to woo seasiding Victorians to Ramsgate, with a stunning entrance emerging directly onto the seafront. It worked too; postcards from the time (like the one above) show dozens of bathing machines lined up along the sand.
But the line ran into complications—and it didn't help that trains were liable not to brake in time, overshooting the turntable and buffers, before careening off the end of the rails and onto the road below. The World Scenic Railway that replaced it would encounter a similar fate 100 years later.
A parallel Ramsgate, underground
Aerial bombing was nothing new to Ramsgate; as a coastal town 30-odd miles from continental Europe, it found itself on a precarious perch. It had been battered by zeppelin raids during the first world war, but that was nothing compared to what the second world war had in store.
On 24 August 1940, Ramsgate was hit by a formation of Junkers Ju88 bombers, in what was later dubbed the 'Murder Raid'.
Hundreds of houses were left ruined and 29 civilians were killed. The town was left reeling, but the death toll could have been far worse, had the new air raid shelters not been in place.
"Mad Mayor's New Toy Saves Lives of His Townspeople'' ran an Express headline. The 'Top Hat' Mayor had by now become the 'Tin Hat' Mayor, and Kempe's legend was sealed.
It didn't harm him any that when Winston Churchill visited Ramsgate a fews days later, an air raid siren sounded, and Kempe found himself ushering the country's top dog into his prized shelters. Before entering, he had to ask Churchill to extinguish his cigar. No smoking meant no smoking.
For Ramsgate residents, the tunnels became much more than somewhere to take cover: they were a parallel, subterranean version of the Ramsgate above.
'Houses' were erected from blankets and bedsheets, with creature comforts like family photos and kettles added. They even had door numbers and names. Stoves were lit and wirelesses tuned in, while people smoked, knitted, played cards, danced and gossiped. The aromas down here were apparently ripe, but anyone would take that over the potential dangers of the town above.
Running water and electric were installed. A barber trimmed hair beneath a single low-watt light bulb. An 'outdoor cafe' (which one visitor incongruously likened to the streets of Paris) opened up. Kids' Christmas parties were hosted on long tables — paper hats and all.
The children who scurried down here in wartime became known as 'tunnel rats.' One such boy was Ken Gower, who, decades later, happened to spot in a newspaper a photo of himself in the tunnels as a boy, despite living in Australia. Gower was due to visit Ramsgate just before the pandemic struck, and it's hoped at some point he'll still make it back to his childhood haunt.
Visiting the tunnels today
Perhaps in an effort to bolster morale, the World Scenic Railway came back after the war, later scrapping the global theme, and becoming simply the Tunnel Railway. But it was shut for good in 1965 after history repeated itself, and one of the trains overran the track and crashed.
For decades, the network of tunnels was disused. Ramsgate locals have their own stories of clambering around in the pitch black, at a time when it was stuffed with thousands of tonnes of rubbish. A few seconds with the torches off shows you just how scary the place could be if you were left stranded by your fellow urban explorers.
In 2011, a community project began opening up the tunnels to the public again, and now they can be visited year-round. Flashlight tours lead you deep into the depths, which begin just north of Ramsgate's main sands, and head towards Dumpton Park.
Features, such as the makeshift houses, and rudimentary toilet cubicles are recreated, and the walk is peppered with original features — including bumper cars salvaged from Merrie England, coffins with 'face windows' for the less traumatic identification of bodies, and huge vents in the ceiling, which would have at one time emitted great plumes of steam and smoke.
Owing to coronavirus, group sizes are currently smaller than usual, and you can't veer off into the narrower paths bored into the chalk. It remains an utterly fascinating exploration into Ramsgate's dark yet inspiring history, and a must-visit experience alongside all the usual seaside attractions.
Ramsgate Tunnels, £8 adults, £5 children, pre-booking for tours essential.