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🌹 🎶 Over and Underground Tales and Treasures of Margate

🌹 🎶 Rambling Rose Blog:

Over and Underground 

Tales and Treasures of Margate




A sandy bay carved in the elbow of the Kent coast, rumours that Margate has become a coastal artist hangout earned it a place on my friend Gabi’s British Bucket List and I was game for a day trip.  We’d both seen Sam Mendes’ lingering, intimate portrait, Empire of Light, a movie set within the movies at the Dreamland Cinema, which we stumble across just minutes after arrival.  It takes some moments and a bag of chips on the beach to adjust our sense of proportion from long dreamy pans to the real-life vision of Londoners fresh off the train.


Aside from a solitary desolate concrete high rise, Margate’s seaside staples of amusement arcades and fish and chip shops closely hug the coastline.  A low-rise chalk cliff floats at one end of the bay whilst the mirrored windows of Turner Contemporary shimmer next to the Georgian Information Centre in the crook of the Harbour Arm, as Sunday tunes froth from a colourful bar over the sparkling waves.  We pause to view folks taking the air through a transparent panel amidst the bold, bright, bountiful shapes of Beatriz Milhazes’s stained glass window, their afternoon perambulations rendered film-like.  As the Autumn exhibitions are currently being assembled, we’re already planning a return visit.


Margate’s overground delights conceal underground wonders - caves and secret grottos lie beneath the twisting streets.  In the 1800s, both art and life took a long drop into magical underworlds - Alice fell down the long hole into Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Frances Forster’s gardener or possibly his rabbits, disappeared down a 40ft shaft into a chalk mine.  Today there is no need to fall into Margate Caves - you can descend via smooth tunnels to marvel at the canny miners who lowered themselves below ground to chip away a cavernous chalky chapel by candlelight around 1650. In 1720 they sealed up their underground secret, leaving no records, possibly because they conducted their business illicitly, plying a trade in chalky treasures thought to have been used to build much of Margate.


Meanwhile, overground the site became a groundbreaking school for girls built by pioneering female scientist and astronomer Margaret Bryan (1759-1836) who published her Compendious System of Astronomy from Margate in 1797.  When she moved her school to London, Frances Forster acquired the building in 1807, renaming it Northumberland House. Following the discovery of his rabbits/ gardener, he turned the caves into a giant fridge to show off his wealth and wines. His young son Charles carved his initials on the walls and gambled his strange inheritance away after his father’s death in 1835 and the estate eventually passed to John Norwood around 1854. This enterprising Postie filled the cave walls with paintings of prisoners and exotic creatures, successfully piquing the macabre Victorian imagination with false legends of his supposedly Stone Age tourist attraction The Vortigen Caves.  Some of these pictures, including one of the rotund Toby Philpott, namesake of the Toby Jug, were considered unsuitable when the caves passed in to the ownership of the church and were reopened Rev Michael Pryor in 1907.  Whilst the overground church and vicarage was toppled by the World Wars, the underground caves survived as an air raid shelter and were finally rescued from neglect by The Margate Caves Community Education Trust in 2013, whose friendly guides illuminate the tall tales of the multilayered ‘ghosts’ of the caves with their torches.


Even more mysterious and just a chalk boulder’s throw from the caves, lies The Shell Grotto.  Speculation abounds as to how, why and when it originated. Wandering the curves of an underground flower shaped tunnel clad with some 4.6 million shells, we meet some Libyans who think it must be Phoenician, because of similar things they’ve seen back home.  Others declare it must be a 1700s status symbol, an ancient pagan fertility temple or a Christian altar.  If these underworld walls could speak they might well say that the aboveworld tells tales to suit itself.  The faces and exclamations of visitors traversing top-to-toe intricate patterns of trees, rivers, flowers and deities, declare it to be a staggering phenomenon, however it came about.  Like the caves, the grotto was discovered accidentally - officially by James Newlove, owner of Belle Vue Cottage aboveground, but unofficially by his children - his daughter Frances wrote that her brother found it before it was discovered and rapidly turned into a tourist attraction around 1838.  Discolouration by Victorian gas lamps transformed the grotto into a black and white time capsule whose shell codes are yet to be cracked.


It’s as if someone has turned all the colour up bright as we return back aboveground. Streams of late afternoon sun dance in rainbows over the sparkling shells and trinkets in the treasure trove gift shop.  A shell lady stands at the door, a nod to Ann Carringtons’s Harbourside bronze sculpture of Mrs Booth, the ‘handmaid of art muse, patron and lover of JMW Turner, who stayed at her Margate guesthouse during painting trips and exchanged his surname for hers after her husband’s death in 1833.  The tales of overground are as tangled as those of the intriguing underworlds.

The seagulls have no concern with any of this as they arc in joyful formation over the bay that scoops us up once for a final sun-kissedflower-shaped embrace. As we tunnel our way back to the smoke, we are left with the distinct feeling that there is much more than meets the eye both over and underground in Margate.