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A British Tunnel Network Designed to Shelter 60,000 Opens for the First Time in 75 Years

The Ramsgate Tunnels (all photographs by the author)

The Ramsgate Tunnels in England were reopened this May after 75 years of lying dormant. Originally known as the “Tunnel Railway,” a narrow gauge track that connected neighboring Broadstairs to Ramsgate, it went through a variety of guises over the years, from WWII facility to tourist attraction.

In 1939, after much campaigning and persuasion, the tunnels were expanded as an air raid shelter, a system that extended beyond the initial narrow gauge tunnel and into a whole series of offshoots. The entrances were spread across the town enabling anyone, at any place in the town, to enter the shelter in under five minutes should the alarm sound. They were also cleverly concealed in order to not stand out in the event of a blackout and could accommodate up 60,000 people — Ramsgate’s population was only approximately half that. Though they were built as a preemptive measure, and were thought by some to be an unnecessary luxury and an indulgence by the “Mad Mayor” Aldemore, the Ramsgate tunnels proved invaluable during the war.

Being a costal and port town, facing France, Ramsagate was a clear target for aerial attacks in WWII. On one particularly memorable air raid, 500 bombs were dropped in under ten minutes causing devastation to the town, but incurring a fatality count as low as 11 because of the sheer expanse of the network. The vast majority of the townspeople were so far underground they could not even hear the bombs going off overhead.

Some markings left by old and new visitors

The tunnels were initially intended to provide a place to hide safely and sleep overnight in one of the pre-bookable bunks; it became more of permanent settlement than many intended. When you go and visit the tunnels today, you can see some reconstruction settlements at various stages. As you approach the mouth of the tunnel you are met with a WWII era café — “The Ratz” — playing 1940s music and offering hot drinks and tea cakes, necessary if you have braved the walk along the beach on a winter’s day. The tour itself is led by a team of enthusiastic locals who are more than willing to share anecdotes they have acquired over the years, many by living in the tunnels. You are lent a hardhat and flashlight and led through the railway tunnel and then down part of the offshoot tunnels.

It is a truly fascinating place to visit, especially if you happen to be in Ramsgate in the pouring winter rain like us. It is essential that you book in advance due to high demand for the newly accessible subterranean site.

All photographs by the author.