A-Z of the Margate Caves
As we're still closed we thought we would do something different- the A-Z of the Caves (be patient some may be a bit tenuous!). There are so many for some letters, so we've tried to pick the highlights!
A is for Ammonite. Though lost now, we know a large chalk ammonite was found near the lion in the Caves. Look out for them in local cliffs as every now and then a new one comes to light. Ammonites can also be found in the chalk reef of Thanet.
B is for Bear! Our dancing bear in the Caves has the remains of a ghost painting next to him- some think this is a mastiff dog, and our dancing bear was actually being baited, whilst others think it is the remains of a much older painting of a donkey in a box.
C is for Chalk. The Caves started out as a chalk mine in the 1700’s. The chalk was mined to help build the burgeoning town of Margate. In some areas of the Caves you can still see the pick marks from when it was a mine. The Caves past as a chalk mine are what have given them their shape- a different view of our wonderful chalk arches.
D is for Disco, of the silent kind, throwing back to February 2020 when we had silent discos in the Caves. They were so much fun and we're looking forward to another one when it is safe again.
E is for Elephant- one of our favourite animals in the Caves. Margate has a history with elephants, both live and mechanical! Elephants would have been a regular sight in the Margate of yesteryear.
F is for Francis Forster, one of the more well known, and eclectic, previous residents of 1 Northdown Road. Forster owned the house above the Caves, called Northumberland House at the time, when the Caves were rediscovered. Forster never opened the Caves to the public, though he did have a proper entrance created, the ice wells excavated and the first paintings done. Forster used the Caves as a unique entertaining space and a way to show off his wealth- we'll meet Francis' son in a post tomorrow! The picture shows Northumberland House later in time- it is in the middle of the greenery to the right of the picture. Picture courtesy of the Britain from Above archive from Historic England.
G is for Graffiti- this is our oldest verified graffiti in the Caves. It was etched by Francis Forster's son- Charles Francis Forster, in 1808- we like to think he got bored at one of his Fathers parties and resorted to etching his initials for entertainment- so bored in fact that he did it twice, there is a similar, smaller inscription further down the wall. We have a lot of graffiti in the Caves but we do ask visitors today to refrain from adding their names.
H is for Hounds of the Hunt., the Thanet Hunt to be precise. Hunting with dogs is no longer legal, but it would have been a big thing in the area when this scene was first painted in the 1800s. It is thought the hunt scene may have originally been chasing a hare rather than a fox. We still haven't managed to count the hounds as they chase after the fox as one mass.
I is for Ice Wells- these pits were excavated for Francis Forster and would have been used to store ice (one would have possibly been used to store food). Over the years some truly 'orrible tales have been told about the wells actually being torture pits, oubliettes or prisons- we have no factual evidence to prove this, but for the guides of yesteryear the gruesome tales earnt them some good tips! We can get into the bottom of the pits now through this tunnel under King George, however in Francis Forsters time access would have been from the top, just like a traditional well.
I is also for Iron Age- we know that there was an Iron Age settlement in the area, from our own excavation as well as previous excavations carried out in the local area. We found hundreds of pieces of Iron Age pottery during our excavation, though the most unexpected find on our excavation was this Iron Age crouch burial. Analysis of the remains was carried out by the Kent Osteological Research and Analysis team at the University of Kent. Thanks to the team we know that the skeleton belonged to a male aged between 30 and 40 who would have stood at around 5'7". Thanks to David Worsley from SWAT for this image.
J is for joke! Francis Forster used to tell a joke about a Donkey in a box, unfortunately the joke, and the original painting that went with it are long forgotten, however we still have a Donkey on the walls of the Caves to this day as a nod to the long forgotten jest.
K is for King George- one of the older paintings in the Caves. We don't know if it looked exactly the same but a King George painting has been in the Caves since the time of Francis Forster.
L is for Lion! We know from postcards that our Lion used to have more of a Chinese Guardian lion styling to his face before he was overpainted, this could also explain his raised paw. Male Guardian lions are usually portrayed with a globe under one of their front paws. Though he has been overpainted, if you look at our lovely Lions tail you can see how delicate the paintings were before their various touch ups in the 1900s.
M is for Margaret Bryan, former resident of 1 Northdown Road in what was once called Bryan House. Margaret lived in Margate in the late 1700s and was somewhat ahead of her time, a respected astronomer and natural philosopher, she ran a small girls school from Bryan house, specifically focusing on teaching them science. As far as we know Margaret did not know about the Caves
beneath her garden, we can only imagine she would have been fascinated by it. This portrait, from the Herschel Museum in Bath, shows Margaret and her Daughters.
N is for Norwood. In 1854, Northumberland House was sold at auction to John Norwood, a local postman, who also kept a grocery and hardware store. It is from Norwood that we get many fantastical tales of the Caves, he named them 'The Vortigern Caves' and claimed they dated to 454 AD.
An account of the opening makes the first reference to the Caves’ wall paintings, describing the elephant, the crocodile, the lion and two works which haven’t survived of a tiger and some Chinese prisoners in chains.
O is for Outside! We can’t wait for summer days in our lovely garden, at the moment it is being enjoyed by the local wildlife!
P is for Pachiderm! Never fear we haven't forgotten our emerald friend, he just fits further down the alphabet than expected. We don't know why he is this particular verdant hue, some people even say he isn't a hippo, but some other sage creature instead. What do you think?
Q is for Quirky! The Caves are a weird and wonderful quirky adventure underground. We also have a quirky experiment for you to do from home- making your own foodie fossils. Find instructions on our website- https://www.margatecaves.co.uk/post/foodiefossils
R is for Richard Joy. Erroneously called William Joy in this print, Richard was also known as the Thanet Giant or the Kentish Sampson. This local legend who is buried in St Peters Churchyard is said to have stood at over 7 feet tall and had Herculean strength. A farm worker who turned to smuggling, when caught he was given the option of prison or the navy. Joy chose the navy where he carried a cannon across the ships deck to prove his strength and earn an extra rum ration. After the navy he returned to smuggling and this is how he is thought to have met his end in a shipwreck He is the inspiration for our giant in the Caves.
Print is from the British Museum, Museum number 1851,0308.378
S is for Soldiers! These are some of our older paintings in the Caves, though they had a very heavy repaint between the 1950s and 1980s.
T is for Toby Philpot! The fictional character of Toby Jug fame served as a caricature of excess through the late 1700s and beyond. Seen here in an illustration from Punch, he cannot be seen in the Caves today but we believe he may have once sat in the alcove by the soldiers. Our painting may have been based on this illustration- we're not quite sure why he's been so violently removed from the Caves, though it has been speculated that such a character did not sit well with the vicar who lived above the Caves in the late 1800s.
U is for Ultraviolet! Here is our giant glowing in all his UV glory on one of our torchlight tours. The giant was painted by students from Margate Art School for Gardener when he reopened the Caves. The paint has degraded so he is not as visible as he was in the past, but our jolly green giant is still there if you look carefully enough!
V is for Vortigern! The Caves were first opened to the public as 'Vortigern's Cave' in 1854, at this time tales were told of Thanet residents taking shelter from the Vikings in the Caves, there is no evidence to support these tales but it was just the right gimmick to lure visitors to Victorian Margate. Our Vortigern dates much later, the newest of our paintings in the Caves he dates to the 1980s and was painted by Karol Edward Osten-Sacken, more commonly known as KEOS.
W is for well. When Northumberland House was sold in the 1850s the 'spring water well,' was listed as one of the assets of sale. When Northumberland House was bombed in 1941 the well was filled with rubble and debris that stayed there until it was removed in the 1990s. Whilst removing the rubble the team were shocked to come across a skull- they soon calmed down though when they realised it was carved from chalk!
X is for (e)Xtinct! Some of the animals in our Caves have been in extinct in the UK. One such animal is the Wild Boar, which went extinct in the UK in the late 18th Century, however they are now roaming freely in Kent again after a successful reintroduction programme.
Y is for You! We wouldn't be here without you and we miss you. We'd love to see your pictures and memories of the Caves.
Z is for Zoo! We know we're pushing it with this one, but we think our selection of animals on the wall make us a subterranean zoo 😉