The Subterranean Secrets of Dumpton Gap
Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Secluded, unspoilt Dumpton Gap, a mile westwards along the coast from Viking Bay, is popular amongst locals and holidaymakers in the know. Lined with a few pretty beach huts and graced by a single cafe, it's a great place to visit and really get away from it all. If you pick your time right, it will only be you and a handful of dogwalkers enjoying the peace.
The beach is accessible by either walking round from Viking Bay or by approaching along the clifftop, where there really is a gap in the chalk coastline. A steep pathway leads down to the bay, originally a cut used by local farmers to bring cartloads of seaweed up to fertilise their fields. The high tide comes all the way up to the promenade at the bottom of the path and goes far out at low tide, revealing a multitude of chalk rock pools.
The vegetation along the path is left to grow, making it a wildlife haven for birds, bees and butterflies. Brambles, dog roses, crab apples, samphire and wild flowers line your descent, adding to the natural feel of the bay. Many a child has rushed down the steep incline towards the sand and wearily trudged back up later after a day of seaside fun.
At the top of the path sits an old brick hut, its door and windows filled in, the hedges growing up around it. The only thing that gives you a clue as to its function is the large yellow diamond 'Telephone Cable' sign atop a wooden telegraph pole rising high. Now rusting and weatherbeaten, it faces out to sea to warn ships of the many telecommunication cables criss-crossing the seabed to the Continent.
Famous Broadstairs engineer and philanthropist Thomas Crampton - who you can read about in our Louisa Bay blog - was responsible for the laying of the first international submarine cable in the world in the Strait of Dover. The first messages were carried on 13 November 1851 heralding a boom in the telegraph industry. Before long Dumpton Gap was indentified as another suitable site for the Submarine Telepgraph Company and by the early 1900's it was a fully-functioning telegraph station.
At the same time, thanks to the innovations of the Marconi brothers, the telephone had begun to seriously compete and the two operated in tandem for many years. The telegram remained an important means of communication for a while yet. A newspaper report from 1921 shows a new undersea telephone cable, having been laid across the seabed by cable ship, being hauled up the Dumpton Gap slope by a long line of workers.
There is a mysterious feel to the hut, and one wonders what might be inside. Over in Cornwall at Porthcurno there is a similar cable hut that is now part of the Telegraph Museum. Inside the Porthcurno hut are the original cable termination points, preserved in time, conserved and recognised as an important part of British history. Speaking of history, few still know that the first recorded use of anti-submarine magnetic indicator loops was at Dumpton Gap in 1918, leading to this sophisticated line of defense being rolled out internationally. Both cable huts are still used to this day for subterranean fibre-optic telecoms cabling across the globe.
In 1918 telegrams and telephone calls will have been passed through Dumpton Gap's unassuming cable hut, the most significant of all in times of conflict. Specialist ships carrying huge reels and hoists were developed to lay the cables on the sea floor.
One such cable ship was HMTS 'Target', built by famous shipbuilders Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson in 1918. In 1945 she was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk near to the Goodwin Sands. It had been repairing the telegraph cable that ran out of Dumpton Gap to La Panne, Belgium, essential for military communications.
Many of the sailors serving on the 'Target' lived locally and a memorial plaque has recently been put up on the side of the Old Harbour Master's House on Broadstairs jetty, dedicated to the entire crew of 59 who lost their lives. The disaster would have greatly affected the residents of the Isle of Thanet, already subjected to major bombing sprees throughout WWII.
Nowadays you can spend some time at Dumpton Gap and soon see what a special place it is. Only a 15-minute walk from Broadstairs apartments, you could even just nip down to enjoy a coffee looking out to sea. On your way back up the slope remember to make some time to look up at the cable hut and its old yellow signalpost. A sense of atmosphere lingers about the place along with a little of the marvel that people must have felt at being able to send telegrams all over the world - the texting of the 19th century!