A superb historical asset has been restored in Thanet, namely the Margate Caves. An intriguing and unique place in the centre of Margate, the caves are open to the public again after 15 years. Broadstairs Apartments paid them a visit recently to see just how impressive they are and we weren't disappointed. Descending into the caves one certainly gets a sense of the ancient past, making it a fascinating experience.
The history of the Margate Caves and the site they sit within is one of mystery that continues to reveal itself to this day, thanks to ongoing exploration. In fact, recent archaeological digs have unearthed relics going back to the stone age, the remains of an iron-age hill fort and even an ancient skeleton. Just how old the caves themselves are is not clear, although the most popular theory is that they were a 17th century chalk quarry. The hill fort foundations suggest that the location had been of strategic importance since time immemorial.
It is only from 1798 that references to the caves have been been easier to establish. The story goes that wealthy Northumberland gentleman Francis Forster built himself a nice seaside residence called Northumberland House on yes, you guessed, Northumberland Road! If you're wondering, this road became the Margate end of Northdown Road, leading to Trinity Square. His gardener chanced upon a hole in the ground leading to the caves, imagine that! Their subterranean discovery stretched beyond the house to below the Georgian terrace adjacent and underneath the Trinity church grounds which are now, not very romantically, Trinity Square car park. Forster embraced the opportunity, inviting a local artist in to paint the murals and had a wine cellar installed. And why not.
Northumberland House eventually became the vicarage for Trinity Church. Even back in the day, the caves piqued peoples' curiosity, resulting in them being open to public from 1863 and dramatically christened Vortigern's Cavern, a nod to the ancient history of the area. One can imagine Victorian visitors enjoying it as a delightful seaside curiosity. From then on the caves changed ownership several times, including a new entrance being cut in during 1910, via the vicarage cellar. World War 2 took its toll on the many buildings in Margate, including both Trinity Church and its vicarage. In the grand scheme of things, repairing the caves' entrance would have been low on the list of post-war rejuvenation, in fact much of the flattened Trinity Church site lay derelict for some time. In late 1950's with the traditional British holiday industry still booming, the caves became popular again until anecdotally its fortunes waned. Anyone of a certain age growing up in Thanet will remember the slightly shabby huts and overgrown vegetation surrounding them.
Significant in the caves' 21st-century renaissance are the efforts of The Margate Caves Community Education Trust (TMCCET) and Friends of Margate Caves, the determined and hardworking groups behind this important restoration. By all accounts it has been a long and testing journey, ever since the caves were closed by owners Thanet District Council for health and safety reasons in 2004. Both groups have tirelessly spent the last 15 years raising awareness and funds, with great success. A pivotal moment was securing both Big Lottery and Heritage Lottery funding. When you go and see the Margate Caves for yourself, a brand spanking new Visitor Centre will greet you, along with a great little cafe and a landscaped garden.
A look at the social media pages of Margate Caves will show you that the current custodians are keen not only to conserve this historical Thanetian gem, but also to make strong connections with the local community. Whether it be education or entertainment multiple projects are up and running, promising something for everyone (especially if it's a rainy day by the seaside!) Conveniently, you can catch a Thanet Loop bus at the end of Gladstone Road - home of Broadstairs Apartments - and it stops right outside the Margate Caves on Northdown Road.
"The building provides access to the restored Caves, and features a shop and community cafe. Here we tell the story of the Margate Caves and how landscape, ecology and geology have impacted on the town's rich social and cultural heritage."
- The Margate Caves 2019
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