Margate Caves

Vortigern Cave


Useful Information

an old entrance to the cave.
© Mick Crowhurst, with kind permission.
Location: Margate, Kent. Lower end of the Northdown Road, near the Margate War Memorial.
Open: All year.
[2020]
Fee: Adults GBP 4.50, Children (4-16) GBP 2, Children (0-3) free, Students GBO 4, Seniors (60+) GBP 4, Unemployed GBP 4, Military GBP 4, Family (2+3) GBP 10..
Groups (10+): 10% discount.
[2020]
Classification: SubterraneaEnigmatic Cavern
Light: electric.
Dimension:  
Guided tours: self guided, L=100m.
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Harriet Crawford (1979): Subterranean Britain, Aspects of Underground Archaeology, John Baker, London, 201 pp numerous illus., pp 185-187
Address: Margate Caves, 1 Northdown Road, Cliftonville, Margate, Kent CT9 1FG, Tel: +44-1843-838035. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

29-JUL-1807 house purchased by Francis Forster.
1808 caves rediscovered.
31-AUG-1854 house sold at auction.
02-APR-1863 opened to the public.
1893 Northumberland House converted into the vicarage for nearby Holy Trinity Church, caves closed.
1902 Canon Michael Pryor appointed to Holy Trinity, starts cleaning up and revitalising the caves.
1914 new entrance from the cellar of the vicarage built.
1939 caves closed due to World War II.
01-JUN-1941 vicarage badly damaged when a bomb explodes on the lawn.
MAY-1958 caves reopened by James Geary Gardner.
1962 purchased by Margate Council.
1990s James Geary Gardner hands back lease, multiple shorter-term lets.
2004 closed due to subsidence.
2011 the owner, Thanet District Council, destroys the entrance.
2011 Friends of Margate Caves and The Margate Caves Community Education Trust (TMCCET) began a campaign to save the Caves and reopen them to to public.
2013 Margate Caves Community Education Trust established.
SEP-2019 Margate Caves finally reopened.

Description

the main hall.
© Mick Crowhurst, with kind permission.
two soldiers in the uniform of the era of George III.
© Mick Crowhurst, with kind permission.
passage with the Thanet Giant to the left and a wild pig.
© Mick Crowhurst, with kind permission.
chamber with paintings.
© Mick Crowhurst, with kind permission.

Margate Cave is a series of large rooms, artificially hewn out of the soft chalk. It looks like an old chalk quarry, but this obvious explanation does not really fit. The rooms are simply impractical for a quarry, also the original access through a vertical shaft. The highlights of the tour are the Smugglers Refuge, the Torture Chambers and Dungeons. All those names are funny, but not very plausible as explanations. The Dungeon is a curious double chambered excavation below the floor of the main cave. The cave is not very useful for smugglers, as there is no connection to the sea, and the only way to get into the caves originally was down a shaft. How and why those caverns were created is completely enigmatic, that's why we classified them as an SubterraneaEnigmatic Cavern. And beneath the original use, the age is also completely unknown. Unfortunately its impossible to date a void, and the content including the paintings on the walls is more or less Victorian. So we only know the caves were dug and then forgotten, were lost for at least 100 years.

In the 18th century a large building was constructed on top of the caves and bought by Mrs Margaret Bryan who ran a Boarding School for Young Ladies. In 1807 Bryan House was put up for auction and purchased by Francis Forster. He was heir to a substantial estate in Northumberland and named his new house Northumberland House. How the caves were discovered is as enigmatic as anything else concerning the caves. One version of the legend was told by his great granddaughter a century later, obvioulsy not a first hand information. She claimed that his gardener, digging behind the house, rediscovered the caves.

Another version of the story tells that Forster’s pet rabbits kept vanishing. In search for his pets he discovered a small rabbit-sized hole at the foot of a pear tree. Further investigation revealed a large cave. This version of the the discovery is reported in newspapers around the UK in 1863. Its the year in which Lewis Carroll is writing about another rabbit and another hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The discovery must have happened between the 29-JUL-1807 when he purchased the house and 1808. The second date is set by an engraving in the wall of the caves which says CFF 1808. CFF is obviously Charles Francis Forster, the son of Francis Forster. At this time the straircase into the cave, odered by Francis Forster, was obviously already completed. Francis Forster takes the opportunity to adapt them to suit his lifestyle. He used the caves to serve as an ice well and wine cellar, and to impress friends and influential local residents.

The house was sold on 31-AUG-1854 at an auction, and the Notification of Sale Notice contains the first written mention of the caves. It says: “Under a portion of the garden is a curious cavern, part of which is fitted up as a wine cellar; it also contains an ice-well, and well of excellent spring water, &c. &c.”.

The new owner leased the caves to John Norwood, who was a natural salesman. He was a local postman, bill-poster, and owner of a grocery and hardware store in Cecil Square. He operated the caves as an entertainment venue, changed the name to Vortigern Cave, claimed they date to 454 AD. He claimed it was created during the reign of King Vortigern, who gave the area around Margate to the Saxons as a reward for helping him fight the Picts and Scots. To make it more plausible he created the fantastic paintings on the walls, the elephant, the crocodile, the lion, and two more which were destroyed. A lot of the misinformation about the caves is the legend he created. He opened his venue on 02-APR-1863, made a show of the Vortigern legend and charged a threepence admission per visitor.

In 1885 Keble’s Gazette mentions smugglers for the first time in connection with the caves. Another legend which is just a romantic notion but persists for a century. The cave was even named Smugglers Cave for some time.

In 1828 Holy Trinity Church was built nearby. In 1893 Northumberland House was converted into the vicarage. It seems the cave was closed at that time. But in 1902 Canon Michael Pryor was appointed to Holy Trinity and was obviously fascinated by the caves. He started cleaning up and revitalising them as a tourist attraction. This included the construction of a new entrance from the vicarage cellar in 1914.

The cave was closed due to World War II, and in 01-JUN-1941 the vicarage was badly damaged when a bomb exploded on the lawn. In 1943 the Holy Trinity Church was severely damaged by a bomb, and was never rebuilt. But finally in May 1958 the cave was reopened. James Geary Gardner, owner of the Chislehurst Caves and President of the Speleological Society, took the lease. Students from the Margate School of Art helped with cleaning and restoration. Existing paintings were restored and new paintings created, like the Thanet Giant, wich was rendered in ultra-violet paint. He kept the lease after the site was purchased by the Margate Council 1962, until he finally handed back the lease in the early 1990s due to his age. Multiple shorter-term lets, poor maintenance, and security issues finally led to the closure in 2004

Margate Cave was officially closed because of the instability of the soft chalk, in other words: a few pieces of chalk were falling from the ceiling. The locals founded a campaign group called Friends of Margate Caves in 2008, who wanted the caves re-opened. In January 2011 the owner, Thanet District Council, destroyed the entrance to the cave by sealing it with concrete and demolishing the entrance building. The council announced, that it could not afford to restore the caves, and at the same time they created a fait accompli. In 2013 the Margate Caves Community Education Trust was established and sufficient funds collected. A new entrance and a new visitor centre with community rooms was built. In 2019 the caves were finally reopened.


Margate Caves Gallery