Margate has many standout attractions but some of its most interesting are squirreled away from public view, deep beneath our feet...
Just what is it about caves that has fascinated humans since pre-historic times? They have inspired artists, provided homes and refuge, held ancient secrets and are associated with timeless legends of bandits, smugglers and villains.
For many, the appeal of caves is primal. Their darkness offers a link to the magical and the otherworldly. Pre-historic people used them as burial grounds, Ancient Greeks built shrines in them and Ancient Buddhists filled them with beautiful art.
But perhaps the simplest appeal of caves is that they are hidden from the public eye. Uncharted on maps, they are secret, silent spaces tucked away from our busy world, concealing stories, myths and legends.
When it comes to myths and legends the Margate Caves are in league of their own. Hidden beneath the hustle and bustle of an ordinary road in Cliftonville, they open up to reveal a magical subterranean cavern, filled with colourful paintings and murals dating back to Georgian times and stuffed with stories of drunken gentlemen, shameless smugglers, ancient kings and local giants. There are so many myths surrounding the Caves that, despite the best efforts of local historians, nobody truly knows what’s fact and what’s fiction. And that’s all part of the fun!
What we do know is that, back in 1807, wealthy Margate gentleman Francis Forster made an extraordinary discovery. Beneath a pear tree in his garden was an underground cave system, the remains of a chalk mine that had been hidden for many years.
Even the legend of how the caves were found is a mystery. Some claim that Forster’s gardener found them whilst digging, others maintain they were discovered when Forster’s pet rabbits kept disappearing down a hole!
A keen socialiser, Forster saw an opportunity to create a space to entertain the great and good of Margate, fashioning an ice well, as well as a store for his wine collection and commissioning paintings from a local artist. This, along with a few additions over the years, is how the Caves have come to be decorated with a colourful mix of pictures including two soldiers in the uniform of George III, a tableau of the Thanet Hunt at full gallop, a portrait of Viking warlord Vortigern, a glowing depiction of the 7ft smuggling Thanet giant and a lively menagerie of animals including an elephant, a hippo, a crocodile, a lion and a donkey!
The Caves remain relatively unchanged since Forster’s time but before they re-opened in their current 21st Century incarnation, they were used as a Victorian tourist attraction, a wartime air raid shelter and, according to local rumour, a smuggler’s hideout.
Another subterranean secret in Margate is the extraordinary Shell Grotto. Again, concealed beneath an ordinary residential road, this ornate underground passageway is entirely covered in mosaics - an area of 2,000 sq ft, studded with 4.6 million shells.
Discovered by chance in 1835, the existence of the Shell Grotto has been confounding the people of Margate for decades. Was it a place of worship, a setting for secret meetings or an extravagant folly? Nobody knows who built this amazing place, or why, but since the first paying customers descended the chalk stairway in 1838, debate has raged about the Grotto’s origins.
So, what have you got to lose? The next time you’re out enjoying Margate’s above-the-ground attractions – the sweeping beach, majestic Turner Contemporary and vintage charms of the Old Town, why not take some time out to visit the Shell Grotto and the Margate Caves and explore what lies beneath your feet? Who knows what wonders you might uncover!
Here are some fun facts about the Margate Caves.
If this has inspired you for more underground adventure in Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate, head to Ramsgate Tunnels.
Take a guided tour of this unique civilian wartime tunnel complex, set in a Victorian railway tunnel that provided shelter for 60,000 people during WWII.