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History has it that Vortigern gave Kent to the Saxon Hengist, in return for marrying his daughter. Hengist landed at the isle of Thanet, which is now dominated by the town of Ramsgate. But were the caves of Margate really connected to Vortigern?
NOTE: Due to structural instability, the council has decided to close the caves for the time being.
The Margate Caves are a most extraordinary curiosity. There are 20-30 showcaves in Britain, but one would hardly expect to find one in this sleepy corner of Kent, where nothing much seems changed since the 1950s. However, this town, where most visitors to and from the continent normally rush through, has not one, but two! There is Margate Caves, and its neighbour, the Shell Grotto. As it remains unclear which of the two is supposedly conncted with Vortigern, I will describe them both, as they are close together in the chalk hill of Cliftonville. Situated at the lower end of the Northdown Road, near the Margate War Memorial, they penetrate for a considerable distance under the sites of the one time vicarage of Holy Trinity Church, and the Church itself (now Trinity Square car park) - both having been destroyed by bombs during World War Two.
The origins of these caves, which are not natural but built by man, is shrouded in mystery. The caves may take their name from Vortigern, who supposedly gave the area around Margate to the Saxons as a reward for helping him fight the Picts and Scots. Rediscovered by accident in 1798, the caves are considered by some to be of Saxon origin, consisting of a series of natural passages, which have been artificially enlarged. However, few experts think these 'artificial cavities' (as they are called) go back that far. The first time they appear in history is fairly recent. The guide book would have the visitor believe that the caves are over a 1000 years old and possible even of Phoenician origin! The more likely explanation would perhaps be a more modest medieval origin, or even a Georgian folly. Locally they put the Shell Grotto down as a Victorian folly built at a time when the local shell fish industry would have produced enough shells for them to be freely available (being a by-product).
Somewhere near the close of the 18th Century, a man of eccentric habits, named Francis Forster, built a large house in Margate which he named after the county of his birth - Northumberland House. In or about the year 1798 his gardener, digging behind the house, made the discovery of the Caves. A private entrance was cut. It was during this time that the cave murals were created. In 1914, a new entrance was made from the cellar of the vicarage and this is the entrance used today.
Margate Caves is a small cave, a single tunnel only, consisting of the steep entrance, leading up to a circular chamber called the 'Rotunda', a kind of roundabout. Beyond that is the 'Serpentine Passage' to a rectacular room called the 'Altar Chamber', which terminates the cave at the far end.
The Shell Grotto, being much larger, is a series of large rooms, artificially hewn out of the soft chalk, for reasons unknown. It quite looks like an old chalk quarry, but that does not mean that the caves were created for that purpose. Most of the explanations are interesting but not very plausible. Such explanations include use as a Dungeon, a Smuggler's Hideout and a Georgian Folly.
The cavern dubbed as 'Dungeon' is a curious double chambered excavation below the floor of the main cave. It certainly was not a mining operation but the original purpose is not known. Also, for primary use as a dungeon it is not convincing. The cave is not very usefull for smugglers either, as there is no connection to the sea, and the only way to get into the caves originally was down a shaft, which would not fascilitate the stealthy use needed for smuggling operations.
A folly, then? In the 18th century, a man of eccentric habits, named Francis Forster, built a large house in Margate. He named it 'Northumberland House' after the county of his birth. In or about the year 1798 his gardener, digging behind the house, (re)discovered the caves. Soon after a personal entrance to the caves was cut. Were these caves actually present at the time, or were they dug by Forster himself? Against this last explanation surely speak that such an operation would hardly have gone unnoticed in the town at the time.
In 1914, a new entrance was made from the cellar of the vicarage, which is the entrance used today. The vicarage (being integrated as part of Northumberland House) was part of Northumberland House and was destroyed during World War II. The original entrance was a simple shaft from the cellars, and a steep flight of stairs takes the visitor down to the main cave today.
The conclusion, then, is that the evidence must be inconclusive. A use before 1798 must be accepted, but then any use must have been so far back in time, that it does not show up in any record. That should take us back, at least, into the Middle Ages, but I would even make a (very) bold suggestion here, and propose an origin of some of the caves (a mining purpose, in that case) dating back to Roman times, though I realise that any evidence for this would be next to impossible to retrieve.
Very interesting features are definitely several cave paintings in the Shell Grotto, created after the rediscovery. One is called the Thanet Giant. According to folklore, they were painted by a local artist named Brazier, but whoever he was: in order to obtain a surface on which to paint, the painter smoothened the great chalk wall. To many modern archeologists this act is nothing less than vandalism, or at least a wilful act of destruction of cultural heritage. However, this modern viewpoint was not a concern for anyone at the time: he therefore innocently destroyed many interesting and valuable tool marks by this action. Some of the artworks created by him, or at another time are unusual paintings, such as that of two somewhat faded soldiers in the uniform of the era of George III. They appear to be guarding, one on each side, the entrance to a narrow and gloomy passage. Vortigern's secret passage, perhaps?
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