Monday, April 6th 2015
Today is a Bank Holiday and we are using it to make a trip to the Isle of Thanet in Kent. We are meeting a friend there who is going to take us to a couple of places of interest.
The Isle of Thanet contains the most easterly part of the county of Kent and three of its best known and loved seaside resorts, Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate. The title of “Isle” recalls a time when this region was entirely separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel and therefore was indeed an island. The watercourse became silted up long ago but the honorific endures. The origin of the name of Thanet is uncertain but thought by some historians to derive from a Celtic expression meaning “bright island” or “fire island”, perhaps indicating that there was once a beacon maintained here. Wantsum, as I discovered when researching the name of Norwich’s River Wensum, which is cognate with it, means “wandering” or “meandering” (see Viewing Manet in Narch).
If, like us, you live in North London, the best way to go to Kent is to travel on the HS 1 from St Pancras. Strictly speaking, the name HS 1 or High Speed 1, refers to the special fast railway track that carries both the international Eurostar on the first leg of its journey from London to the Channel Tunnel and domestic services between London and Kent. By extension, the name is popularly applied to the fleet of high-speed blue-liveried trains that, for a little extra money, shorten your journey to Ramsgate and Margate. Having breakfasted at Giraffe in King’s Cross Station, we set off.
Ramsgate is a beautiful ancient town. Perhaps quieter now than in its 19th-century heyday, it is still a popular resort, not the least of its attractions being the large Port or Harbour of Ramsgate built over the century from 1749 to 1850. King George IV bestowed the title ‘Royal’ upon it in 1851 and it remains the only Royal Harbour in the UK. The name has nothing to do with male sheep but is believed to derive from the Anglo-Saxon Hremmes, meaning ‘raven’s’ and geat (‘gate’), referring to a gap in the cliff.
Before taking us to the first of our visits, our friend proposed having breakfast. As noted, we had had breakfast before we started out but, nothing daunted, we were happy to have another one! The cafe chosen by our friend was called Ship Shape and it is located in an archway under the promenade. Our table was near the back where we discovered these shelves crammed with interesting objects, forming a true cabinet of curiosities.
Suitable (re)fortified, we walked east along the seafront to our next destination. Ramsgate is a delicious combination of the old and the modern but even the modern sometimes has a nostalgically retro feel to it as in the frontage shown above. The tower on the right of the photo is the cliff lift.
This was our destination. It may look like a building site or a works of some kind but it is in fact more interesting than that. The Ramsgate Tunnels are a network of passages dug through the rock. They can be visited but to do so you must join one of the tours and at weekends and bank holidays all available places are quickly taken up.
The first and largest tunnel was dug in the 1860s by the Kent Coast Railway as a way through to Ramsgate Harbour Station. The line was later taken over by the London Chatham & Dover Railway and then by the South Eastern & Chatham Railway but closed in 1926. The tunnel was closed and, as far as anyone knew, would never be used again. But then along came Adolf Hitler and war was declared with Germany.
In what turned out to be a far-sighted move (though many at the time criticised it as wasting money on a facility that would never be used) the council decided to develop the tunnel as a large-scale air raid shelter. It was modified for this purpose and extra tunnels were bored in order to provide entrances to the shelter at various points in town. After the uncertainty of the ‘Phony War’ period, Ramsgate found itself a regular target of Luftwaffe bombers. On hearing air raid warnings, people hurried into the tunnels where they would be safe. As bombing intensified, many took up semi-permanent residence in the tunnels.
You pay the admission charge (£5 for an adult) and your name is added to the next tour that still has places available. When your time comes you are given a hard hat to wear as some of the tunnels are low and that, together with irregularities and outcrops makes it very easy for you to bump your head. You are taken along a route by a tour guide who stops at intervals to explain features and recount episodes in the history of life in the tunnel during wartime.
If you suffer from claustrophobia, this may not be an ideal place for you to visit. The tunnels are far underground and there is limited access: however far you go, you have to return by the same route. Some of the tunnels are quite low (in some sections I had bend to get along) and you have to pack together to listen when the guide is speaking.
Entrances to the tunnels were made in various places in town so that when an air raid occurred people in the streets could quickly gain shelter. Because the tunnels are underground, they would have to go down a flight of steps rather like entering the London Underground.
The tunnels are lit by electricity as they were when in use as shelters. Because of the disruption caused by bombing, the lighting could fail. As well as a hard hats, visitors are given battery operated lanterns, one between two of you. In order to demonstrate the effect of a failure of the lighting, we were at one point asked to extinguish our lanterns and the lights were turned off. For a few minutes, we remained in complete darkness as there was not even the slightest glow from anywhere.
Despite the care taken by the council to provide the necessary facilities, conditions were somewhat Spartan. At intervals along the passages alcoves were cut in the wall to accommodate toilet buckets. These would presumably be primed with Elsan fluid or something comparable. There would have been a modesty curtain also but no lockable door. Perhaps you were expected to sing or recite poetry to indicate your occupation of the toilet.
As the intensity of bombing increased, people found themselves spending long periods underground so they would bring furniture and useful items to make the long stay more bearable and to provide an element of privacy for themselves and the family group. The photo shows a mock-up of a typical underground home from home.
The council’s foresight undoubtedly saved many lives. It’s of course impossible to say how many but the scale of destruction of homes and workplaces suggests that without the tunnel shelter very many more lives would have been lost. Those who asserted that the scheme was a waste of money no doubt changed their minds when the bombing started and took shelter along with their fellow citizens.
We now walked back the way we had come to where our friend had parked his car and to travel by this means to our next destination. Though the weather was dry and bright, the temperature was not conducive to disporting oneself in a state of undress and even less to braving the cold waters of the Channel. In consequence, there were few people on the beach and those that were there were warmly dressed.
As we went, I admired some of the buildings which, though now familiar to me, still hold their attraction. This is the Custom House, built in 1893-4 and now Grade II listed. No longer required for its original purpose, it is now a coffee house.
Though not listed, this Victorian pub, the Queen’s Head, has a charm all of its own. These buildings were designed by architects who deserve that name and who were concerned to create beautiful structures unlike those of today who care only to think up ghastly structures that impress the soulless corporates who finance them but degrade the environment for those of us who have to live in their shadow.
Our next stopping place was the quiet and neat village of Minster or Minster-in-Thanet, to give it is full title. in 597, Augustine of Canterbury landed at nearby Ebbsfleet, which was then part of the parish of Minster, though what Minster was then called I do not know because it really began, as its name suggests, with the founding of a monastic settlement in 670. The Bell Inn was first built in the 16th century and, despite being “reclad mid C19 and extended” (English Heritage), still contains enough fascinating and historic features to have attracted a Grade II listing.
Undoubtedly, the jewel in Minster’s crown is the Church of St Mary the Virgin. It is so large and elaborate that it has come to be called ‘the Cathedral on the marshes’. A church was first built here in 670 both to serve the monastery and to act as the parish church. The original church was eventually replaced with what developed into the one we know and admire today. The oldest remaining parts of it date from Norman times.
Minster is now well inland but when the Norman church first stood, the sea would have come up to its boundary wall. That may explain a strange feature of the tower. From the photo you can probably see a smaller tower that has been incorporated into it (see the centre of the photo). This is thought to have originally been a Saxon watch tower, perhaps set up to observe comings and goings on the sea.
The church is quite large (do they ever manage to fill it these days?) but, apart from that, seems a pretty standard old parish church.
It has a number of stained glass windows of which I show just two…
…and is famous for its 15th-century misericords, 18 in number. Misericords, also known as mercy seats, were sometimes installed in churches where people had to stand for long periods of time during services. Each consists of a short shelf on which a person could perch, rather than sit, to take the weight of his feet while still seeming to be standing.
Preserved in the church is a medieval muniment chest. In a somewhat dilapidated state now, it is obviously of a venerable age. Protected and strengthened by iron hoops it still possesses the important three locks. Such chests are not uncommon and look back to an age when storing parish records and perhaps other valuables posed a problem: who was to be trusted with the key? The answer was to have three separate locks, each with a different key, and to give a key to each of three parish officers. Thus the chest could be opened only in the presence of all three. Did that prevent theft and fraud? Who can tell…? This chest is something of a mongrel because box and lid are of different materials (elm and oak, respectively) and the lid is older than the box. Perhaps the box was broken (did someone attempt to steal from it?) and a new one had to be made to the same specifications to replace it. (It might be interesting to test the locks for age to see whether they are the originals that go with the hasps on the lid.)
After a pause for refreshment at a local inn, we got into the car again and sped off towards Margate to visit a slightly schizophrenic graveyard. I describe it thus because is sometimes referred to as St John’s Cemetery and at other times as Margate Cemetery. Or are there two cemeteries that have fused together? I do not know. This graveyard opened, I believe, in 1856, though it looks a lot older. It has been well used so that one’s first impression upon seeing it is that the graves are scattered about in confusion. There are rows but then they are interrupted and graves appear to have been slotted in wherever space could be found.
We were in fact looking for a specific grave and, happily, because of its unusual nature, it was not hard to discover. The five members of the Sanger family are present in the group of graves but the equine memorial celebrates John Sanger, known also as “Lord” John, a circus proprietor. Mr Sanger, or ‘Lord John’, departed this life in 1889, aged 74 years.
John Sanger was no doubt an admirable fellow (though, not knowing him, I stand to be corrected on that score), but what we had come to admire was the memorial and in particular, the horse atop it. There cannot be many, if any, graves that give such prominence to a member of the equine species.
The horse hangs his head and looks sad which, I suppose, is fitting for a horse on top of a tomb. Is he (and ‘he’ is the correct pronoun as is made clear by the depiction of the horse’s anatomy) a particular horse or a generic horse, representing circus horses or indeed circuses themselves? Whatever the answer, it hardly matters and English Heritage has decided that the tomb is fine enough and historically interesting enough to be awarded a Grade II listing. How could I not concur?
As for quality of artistry and workmanship, John Sanger’s tomb is not alone. Others nearby showed an equal merit, for example the one I show above, done in exquisite detail and finely worked. None, though, quite matched that of John Sanger which, I think, carries the day for showmanship and pizzazz, if one may use that word of a Victorian circus entrepreneur.
Time, however, was getting on. Our train would depart from Ramsgate and here we were in the outer reaches of Margate. Happily our friend could transport us in his car and duly did so. Having taken our leave of him, Tigger and I barely had time to draw breath before hurrying to the platform where our sleek blue conveyance awaited and soon whisked us back to the nosy embrace of London.