Exploration of “HMS Fervent”, Naval Coastal Force Patrol, 1939-1945
Ramsgate, Kent. January 2008
Over the years, whilst unsuccessfully trying to research and subsequently explore every tunnel and cave in Ramsgate ever known to man, I have come across many fleeting references to an alleged cave and tunnel system beneath Wellington Crescent, on the East Cliff of Ramsgate.
Aerial view of Wellington Crescent in the 1930's
Sometimes referred to as “Wellington Caves” or “Granville Caves”, all I could find was that this system was used as shelters during both World Wars, but apparently were around long before then. However, concrete evidence of these tunnels have long proved elusive. The earliest solid reference was on an ARP air raid shelter plan from the First World War.
More recently though, as good fortune would have it, large cracks began to appear in Ramsgate’s Eastcliff, right above where the Pleasurama amusement arcade used to be (or right below Wellington Crescent, whichever way you look at it!). As a result, some urgent cliff reinforcement work was needed. As the local Council came to the rescue to stop the upper east side of Ramsgate disappearing into a pile of rubble, they commissioned a “Seismic Survey” of the cliff face beneath Wellington Crescent, presumably to check the stability, but were most surprised to see that it revealed some large voids behind it... could these be the cave network previously alluded to?
Some further tantalizing research was then turned up in the book “Thanet at War”:
“HMS Fervent was commissioned as a shore base on 10 October 1939, with, according to naval custom, a small motor boat as its ‘name ship’. The large amusement building, Merrie England, was recquisitioned for the accommodation of ratings and stores. Army-type huts were erected in the grounds for office and administrative accommodation. It was not long before the tunnels under the cliffs had been utilised as protection from the air raids and for the base ammunition magazine...”
So here was definite proof that there were tunnel systems in this area, which perhaps had originally served as Fishermen’s caves and later shelters during World War 1, and had then been requisitioned by the Naval Coastal Force patrol during the second world war, and became part of HMS Fervent?
The “Merrie England” amusement arcade mentioned above later became Pleasurama. This was then destroyed by an arson attack in 1998, and the site has lain derelict and overgrown ever since. However, in early 2008, site clearance began, in preparation for the cliff reinforcement works to begin, and also the building of a luxury apartment complex. As the site was now open & empty, and not wanting to waste an opportunity, I went to investigate.
Without too much difficulty we located the old entrance to HMS Fervent, in the back wall of the concrete cliff face, at the far corner of the site. It was now wide open, with just a wooden board covering the entrance. It appeared to have been sealed with chalk backfill, which had only very recently been dug out – perhaps by the builders, or some other suitably well-informed explorers. Unable to believe our luck, we climbed up beneath the newly erected scaffolding, and into the tunnel entrance itself. However, we were completely unprepared for what we saw next!
The tunnel system we had just entered was like a sealed time capsule, preserved almost exactly as it was, during the war!
On entering the tunnel, it sloped gently downwards, and continued straight ahead for about 30 feet, before turning right. It was of chalk construction, and around 2 metres high. Before turning at right angles, there was an old metal water tank in a large alcove, as well as a couple of old jerry cans laying next to it. The look and feel of this tunnel was similar to that of the other WW2 air raid tunnels beneath Ramsgate.
Old Water reservoir
After turning right, the chalk tunnel continued twisting and turning for about 50 metres. The most interesting part here was the chalk walls, which were absolutely covered in wartime graffiti, from many different regiments and naval squadrons that had been temporarily stationed there.
There were also some incredibly artistic carvings made in the chalk, such as three dimensional human faces, skulls, and even a couple of ornamental crucifixes.
All around these were the names of people who had served here, as well as their places of origin, such as: “M.J.SZELYNSKI, POLISH NAVY”, “W. REID, H.M.S. SPITFIRE III, Ramsgate, 24-Sep-1940”, “Sgt. D. Cumming – “gone but not forgotten” – Ramsgate 1940” and many other similar messages. It was absolutely fascinating to see so many people’s names and histories frozen in time like this. Many of the carved signatures here were from August 1940 – at the height of the Battle of Britain. Perhaps these soldiers were frantically running to and fro, keeping a ready supply of ammunition flowing up to the two ‘big bertha’ guns pounding above them, on Wellington Crescent. Or perhaps they were sheltering down here during those dark days of 1940, as the bombs exploded above them to the incessant throbbing of spitfires and Messerschmitts. One thing was for certain, this was definitely not a civilian shelter, and it had certainly been a hive of activity during the early years of the Second World War.
The floor of the tunnel was covered in about 6 inches of sand, mixed with canvas fragments. It was clear these had once been sand bags, which over the years had burst or rotted, spilling the sand over the floor. The chalk walls of the tunnel were dry, and every few feet the rusted remains of electrical or gas fittings could be seen, which would have provided the illumination.
After walking along the twisting chalk tunnel, we passed through a solid metal blast door, which was held open by a rusted iron chain embedded into the chalk wall.
After passing through this, we soon came to an alcove off to the left. Inside was a well preserved “Elsan” chemical toilet! It’s wooden seat was still intact, on top of a coloured oil drum. There was even a rusty toilet brush holder and other metal containers. The remains of a privacy curtain could also be seen hanging above it.
As the chalk tunnel curved around to the left, we came to “Scotch Corner”. This was a chalk outcrop in the wall where the carved graffiti was particularly extensive, with barely a square inch not covered.
There was a large crest several inches high carved into the chalk here, as well as several other very ornate carvings, such as the crest of the royal engineers, and a Scottish Thistle. In large lettering was written “Scotch Corner”, with many carvings all from August 1940 around it, with the slogan “Scotland Forever”. It seemed like this had once been the home of several Scottish regiments.
After proceeding on further, the chalk tunnel then opened out into what was once a large chalk cave. Within this area, the Navy had constructed three large rooms, built from brick. The chalk walls also gave way to concrete, with a concrete corridor passing along the outside of these strange rooms.
The first room appeared to have once housed racks of communication equipment. Rows of shelving appeared to have lined the walls (although just the brackets remained), and there were the remains of some large batteries and other rusted equipment on the floor. Some pencil graffiti in that room stated “Naval Communications Centre”. It felt very strange walking into what would once have been a top secret facility! The other two rooms appeared to have been store rooms, with the third room opening out onto the cliff face, although this entrance had long since been bricked up.
A short section of tunnel then linked with two further brick lined rooms.
This section of the tunnel system was also strewn with old glass bottles. On examination of their painted labels, these had been bottles of “Thatch” beer – brewed by the old Ramsgate brewery Tomson & Wotton! This was the oldest brewery in Kent, from 1554 until its closure in 1969. This local brand of tipple was clearly a favourite of the men that had been stationed here, and judging by the number of empty Thatch bottles, perhaps it had been their final farewell party before the base was “paid off” in September 1945!
At the end of this short section of tunnel, it opened out into some more brick store rooms. The walls here were very damp and water was now dripping from the roof.
Inside the first room was some large metal cans, a couple of them with ARP stencilled on them. This looked like an Air Raid Patrol store room.
The second brick room was even more interesting. It appeared to be an old storage area used by the Merrie England amusement arcade, when it had been there. The main attraction here was a large 1950’s pinball table, which had seen much better days, and a couple of fire extuingishers.
Also there were old metal cash boxes strewn across the floor of this brick cavern, which would have been taken from the old slot machines (or were they old ammunition cases? It was hard to tell).
Interestingly, there were also several crates full of hundreds of clear glass phials, or small bottles (of a laboratory type, rather than of the drink kind!) This room had also opened up onto the cliff face, with the entrance sealed up. It seems that this store room had perhaps also been sealed off from the rest of the tunnel system, and the contents of this room appeared to be from the 1950’s to the 70s’, and were definitely related to when the site was an amusement arcade directly after the second world war.
Opposite these brick rooms, the tunnel went up a couple of steps, and opened into a huge chalk cavern. It was at least 15 feet high, roughly circular, and around 10 feet in diameter. There was a large wooden pole (possibly it was once a ship’s mast) in the centre of the cavern, appearing to support the roof.
Water was positively seeping through this section of the caves, and large cracks stretched across the entire dome-like room. Some fairly large collapses had already taken place in this part of the system. Directly opposite the tunnel we had entered from, on the other side of the circular cave, was another chalk tunnel, of much rougher construction. There was a large metal grille that had once blocked this passageway, but was now swinging open, rather temptingly! The rusty barred gate creaked open further, and we were able to continue our adventure!
On passing through another rusty metal blast door, this tunnel was much narrower, and more roughly hewn out of the chalk. It certainly appeared a lot older than the rest of the system we had so far explored. Perhaps the Navy had only used the tunnel up until the domed room, and had gated off this section with the large metal grill.
The chalk tunnel continued round in a large semi-circle, and came back to the cliff face. Again, this exit had been bricked up. There were also wooden supports holding up the roof in this area, although many of these wooden beams had completely rotted away. Large piles of damp sawdust seemed to be all that was left for many of these.
Half way along this semi-circular section, another chalk tunnel intersected it at a right angle, and climbed steeply upwards. The ceiling of this chalk tunnel was much lower now (about 5 feet high) and was only just wide enough for one person to squeeze along in single file. More large cracks appeared, somewhat disconcertingly, as well as more loose chalk falls. This whole section seemed so much more unstable than the areas before the metal grille, and it now seemed obvious why the Navy had not extended their operations this far into the tunnel, even back then! As this tunnel climbed upwards, the air was noticeably poorer. There were occasionally some very worn steps assisting the climb on the steeper parts. These were definitely the older parts of the cave system, and perhaps were once used by fishermen to transport their catches up and down the cliffs quickly, or possibly later, even by smugglers. It certainly had the same look and feel as some of the smuggling tunnels around Pegwell Bay and other areas, and was of the same dimensions. It is hard to know exactly how old this part of the tunnel system was, as there was no graffiti at all in this spur tunnel, except one reference to 1860. Old pick marks covered the walls.
After about 30 metres, there was a spur tunnel heading off the main shaft at right angles, towards the cliff face. This was blocked at the end, but would have opened out about halfway up the cliff face. An old oak door stood ajar at the opening of this short spur tunnel.
Continuing along the main shaft, the ascent became even more hard work, as the oxygen was becoming even less. The temperature also seemed to increase here, but that may have been due to the increased effort it was taking us to explore this section of old tunnel!
After a further 30 metres, a second spur tunnel branched off in the same direction as the first, and opened out onto the cliff face. Again, this was sealed up, preventing some much needed air flow into this part of the tunnel. Another oak door lay open, half hanging off it’s rusty hinges.
Back out onto the main tunnel again, it continued to climb even more steeply. It was necessary to stoop even more, as the ceiling became lower too. More steps appeared, again these were worn almost completely away by time and years of use... and finally the tunnel came to an abrupt end. The floor gradually came up to meet the ceiling, and it was blocked by chalk and mud infill. Roots of trees and shrubs could be seen penetrating the ceiling here, so it was clear we were now at the surface... somewhere! This possibly emerged into someone’s back garden, who was perhaps innocently unaware that the entrance to a large and historic tunnel system was actually on their property!
The end of the system, blocked at the surface
And so it was... the exploration of HMS Fervent, having been sealed up for over 60 years, to be re-discovered for a brief moment in time, before being sealed up again, possibly for many years to come.
It is not often that we are fortunate enough to re-discover and explore a system of that scale in this part of Kent that has been virtually sealed up all these years, providing a living museum for us to explore. It’s fascinating remnants and graffiti re-telling the story of old Fishermen’s caves and smuggling tunnels, and then HMS Fervent – hastily forged out of battle to play a key role in the protection and defense of the Kent Coast, providing much needed support for the main Naval base at Dover, the notorious Hellfire corner.
It is also rather ironic that had these chalk tunnels once been used for smuggling in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is amusing that the same tunnel system was later used against itself, forming part of the Navy’s Contraband Control Service at the outbreak of world war two!
Plan of HMS Fervent / Wellington Caves
Here is reproduced some of the original graffiti that was recorded during our visit to HMS Fervent in January 2008:
ALEX SMITH, M.J.SZELYNSKI, POLISH NAVY
E.P.DAVIS, JANUARY 29, 1944
T.C.MILLER - RAF GUNNER, 1940
"Lord Rodney Lt. 344"
Parts of the system were very unstable, with large cracks in the walls
The well preserved WW2 "Elsan" chemical toilet
Another carved face in the wall!
And another one - an eerie skull!
** THIS TUNNEL SYSTEM HAS SINCE BEEN PERMANENTLY SEALED BY THANET COUNCIL **
Labels: HMS fervent, wellington caves