Photos by Frank Leppard
A thank you party for funders and supporters of the recently reopened Margate Caves was held last Thursday (October 10).
Previous Cave owners and custodians, artist Tracey Emin and members of the Caves team were among those to arrend.
Wolfgang Heigl the previous owner of the Caves and the Shell Grotto; Iris Harvey a former lease holder of the Margate Caves and another former Caves owner James Gardner joined the party.
Underground expert Rod Le Gear was also present.
The Caves and the new community building in Northdown Road opened in August, marking a fresh chapter in the journey by The Margate Caves Community Education Trust which took on the task of bringing the new community building and caves work to reality, following a six year campaign.
Some 5,000 visitors went through the doors in the first two weeks of the opening.
Caves manager Kayleigh McMahon said: “The party was well attended including three previous keepers of the Caves. Guests were entertained by Amber Butchart DJing, Jonny Hepbir on guitar and Petra Hadjuchova on piano and Rosa Guilfoyle in the caves with voice and harmonium.”
Every day, 10am to 5pm, including Sundays and Bank Holiday Monday. Daily opening continues until Sunday, October 27, when it switches to Winter opening hours, 11am to 4pm Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Adults £ 4.50
Family ticket £10
Where it all began
The site is thought to have originally been excavated as a chalk mine in the late 17th/early 18th century. From 1791-1799, Margaret Bryan had a school house on the site. It was known as Bryan House. In the late 18th century, wealthy Francis Forster bought the site and built Northumberland House.
Local stories say that in the last years of the century, his gardener fell down a hole, rediscovering the Caves. Forster commissioned a local artist to paint some images on the walls, such as George III, various animals and a hunting scene. He also dug pits, had ice wells and a fresh water well to show off his wealth and used the Caves as a grotto and wine store. When Forster died in 1835, the Caves were sealed up once again.
In 1863, an enterprising local man opened them briefly and marketed them to the recent tourists as “Vortigern’s Cavern”. By the latter years of the 19th century, Northumberland House had become the vicarage for Holy Trinity Church. The vicar opened the Caves briefly in 1910, but they were closed at the onset of the First World War. In 1914 a sloping passage was cut from the cellars of the Vicarage so that the residents could use them as an air raid shelter.
After the war the Caves were once again reopened to the public, before being closed again in 1938, with the area scheduled under a scheme called ‘The Zion Place Re-development Plan’.
Once again the Caves provided refuge during World War Two and in June 1941 both Northumberland House and a large portion of Trinity Church were destroyed by enemy action. The site of the vicarage and church was levelled and left derelict for several years.
In 1958, James Geary Gardner, the proprietor of Chislehurst Caves, became interested in the site and sought to locate an entrance into the Caves. A concrete paving slab in the old vicarage gardens was lifted, exposing Forster’s old entrance steps. The entrance was cleared of rubble and debris and a set of steps was constructed. Two wooden huts were erected over the entrance for ticket sales.
The Caves once again opened to the public and remained so under several owners until the site was compulsory purchased by Thanet District Council as part of the scheme to widen Northdown Road.
In 2004, due to poor maintenance of the visitor infrastructure, the Caves were closed after a prohibition notice was issued by the Health & Safety Executive.
The public campaign and formation of the trust followed. The building, designed by award-winning architects Kaner Olette, received planning permission in 2015 and Thanet District Council granted the Margate Caves Community Education Trust a long lease for the historic Northdown Road site in 2017.
The lease meant the Trust could access a £1m grant gained from the Heritage Lottery alongside the £420,000 granted by the Big Lottery Fund in 2016.
Keep up to date at margatecaves.co.uk