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Margate on the Isle of Thanet, Kent, England, boasts two remarkable underground visitor attractions, the Shell Grotto and the complex of decorated man-made chalk cathedral-like galleries and chambers known as Margate Caves which has been a popular tourist attraction since the 1860s, when it was first opened to the general public.

The Caves are situated on Northdown Road, Cliftonville, to the east of the old town of Margate.


The Caves consist of several interconnected hand-dug tunnels or galleries on two levels. The main galleries are in the order of 8 - 9m high and 2.5 - 3m wide at floor level. At the end of the northern chamber a short passage leads to a well shaft over 13m deep which also continues 8m upwards to the surface where it is capped. This chamber also contains the bricked-up remains of an old entrance stairway. Openings in the floors of the two western galleries lead into two ovoid shaped former ice wells. The two ice wells are linked together by a small passage at a lower level and joined to the main caves by a similar short passage. The original excavator's rectangular shaft access can be observed in the roof of the main east west gallery.

Over the course of some two centuries the walls have been boldly decorated with paintings depicting various animals, soldiers, old kings, an icon, a giant, and a hunting scene.

The present entrance to the Caves is via a long sloping passage from a modern visitor building.


The Caves were dug as a chalk mine to procure chalk to burn into lime in nearby lime kilns. Some of the chalk (and the lime) was sold to local farmers as a fertiliser but most of the lime was used to make mortar for building work.

The layout and method of working the chalk at Margate Caves suggest an excavation date of around the mid to late 1700s. This coincides with the building of a Horizontal Corn Mill, the two mansions Hooper's House and Bryan House (later known as Northumberland House), and also houses on the east of Trinity Square.


The Caves lie under what then was the rear garden of a large 18th-century red brick mansion, originally named, Bryan House, after Mrs Margaret Bryan (c.1757/1758-1836), schoolmistress, author, and amateur astronomer, who ran a school for young ladies there throughout most of the 1790s. In about 1807, the property was offered for auction and acquired by Francis Forster (1771-1835), a gentleman, who renamed the house ‘Northumberland House’, after the county of his forebears. Soon after his arrival, the Caves were ‘discovered’, c.1807-1808, not 1798, as previously thought, and his son’s initials ‘CFF’ (Charles Francis Forster (1795-1851)), along with the date ‘1808’ can still be seen carved into the chalk.


Following the discovery of the Caves, Forster had a proper entrance made with a set of stairs leading into the cave system. Having adapted the Caves for his own private purposes and pleasure, he also had an ice well dug and used some of the space as a wine store.

After Forster's death in 1835 his family and subsequent owners of Northumberland House ignored and neglected the Caves until, in 1863, they were rented by a flamboyant local shopkeeper named John Norwood (1815-1889), who opened them to the public for the first time under the name Vortigern Caves. Sadly, after a few years, the enterprise foundered, and the site was neglected once more.

Several years later the western half of Northumberland House was taken over as the vicarage for the nearby Holy Trinity Church and in the early 1900s, the vicar at the time, Rev. Dr Michael Prior (1857-1929), renovated and reopened them to the public, whereupon they once again became a popular Margate attraction. This stimulated research into the Caves origins, history and use, research which included those of a local historian, Charles James Fèret (1854-1921). It is upon interpretations and misinterpretations drawn from these researches, that much of the prevailing received wisdom has up to now been based.

After the death of Rev. Dr Prior, in 1929, access to the Caves was once again restricted. On Sunday 21st September 1941, the vicarage was badly damaged by enemy action and consequently abandoned. The vicar at the time, Reverend James Brassey Cowell, said the Caves saved his life, as this is where he and his family sheltered from the bombing.

Subsequently, the entrances to the Caves were blocked with debris. The house remained derelict until early 1958 when the ruins were finally pulled down. At this time, James Geary Gardner (1903-1987), the owner of Chislehurst Caves and other underground tourist sites in Kent, became interested in the Margate site and obtained permission to reopen them.

The entrances were cleared, a wooden ticket office erected, and the Caves opened to the public once more in May 1958.

The site was compulsorily purchased by Margate Council in 1962 and Gardner gave up the lease in the early 1990s after which the site was leased on shorter-term lets. A lack of investment over the following decades led to poor maintenance of the visitor infrastructure and, in 2004, safety concerns caused the Caves to close. By 2010 there was a substantial risk of the Caves being lost forever as the landowner, Thanet District Council, sought planning permission to build on the site.

The local community objected strongly, and the Friends of Margate Caves was formed to save the Caves from being sealed. In 2013 a The Margate Caves Community Education Trust, registered charity number 1155904, was formed to secure a long lease on the site and raise the funds needed to re-open the Caves. Having secured sufficient funds from various sources, including the National Lottery’s Heritage and Community Funds, remedial work was undertaken so that the Caves fully complied with modern safety regulations. In conjunction, an archivist (Christopher Pearson, 30 December 1952 – 13 February 2021) was appointed to collate artefacts and archival material relevant to the Caves and research its history, testing, and challenging as necessary, the hitherto perceived wisdom. This occasioned a major revision of its history, the results of which, with referenced sources, now form part of the Margate Caves Archive.

A new purpose-designed building, designed by Kaner Olette architects, was erected as a visitor centre incorporating ticket office, café, community rooms and an interpretation room, which gives the full history of the Caves and their context in the local landscape.

The Caves re-opened to the public on Thursday 22 August 2019. Over 5000 people visited during the first two weeks of opening.

On 11 June 2020, Margate Caves was declared the winner of the South East Region RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) Social Impact Award for heritage. Margate Caves have also been nominated for a Civic Trust Award.

The Caves are managed and run by The Margate Caves Community Education Trust. The full history of the site can be found on the Cave's website:


In 1885 an advertisement appeared in a local guide book which mentions the Caves being used for smuggling, describing them as 'The Immense Smuggler's Caves'. Whilst, in theory, this would be possible, there is no direct evidence that the Caves were ever used to store contraband, despite the idea being extensively exploited, over the years since, to draw in and entertain visitors.

A persistent local legend is of a hidden tunnel leading from the Caves to the Clifton Baths (The Lido) on the coast. A sketch plan of the route of this supposed tunnel hung in the old wooden ticket office for many years. No evidence of it has ever been found although a smuggler's tunnel leading to the coast was discovered in nearby Zion Place in 1832.

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