Seaside postcard: Ramsgate Of the three towns clustered on the Isle of Thanet, Ramsgate's probably the one you'd least likely visit. That'll be because it's the town with the least beach, and few well known tourist attractions. But Ramsgate also has the biggest harbour, much bigger than Margate, and the most history, definitely more than Broadstairs. So I stopped by for a brief visit last week, back when the weather was almost decent. You remember.
Augustus Pugin: His may not be a name you know, this Victorian architect, but you'll know his most famous work. After the Palace of Westminster burnt down in 1834, it was Augustus Pugin who designed its fantastically Gothic replacement. The interiors are his, all the over-the-top Perpendicular styling, plus the design of the Clock Tower commonly called Big Ben, but which all true pedants know isn't really called that. When the world thinks of London, it thinks of golden vanes, turrets and spires created by a bloke from Ramsgate. Augustus moved here in the 1840s, inspired by his conversion to Catholicism to move to the coast where St Augustine first entered England. He bought a patch of land on the clifftop, then outside the town, and built his own little estate with Gothic piety. His house was TheGrange, its homely asymmetry then hugely cutting edge, but later the model for thousands of well-to-do Victorian country homes[photo]. If you book in advance you can take a free guided tour every Wednesday afternoon, but alas if you turn up on spec half an hour later (as I discovered), you can only stare longingly from outside. That leaves the Cartoon Room to visit, with its reverential Pugin display, and an expert Pugin volunteer to chat to about the great man. Nextdoor is St Augustine's Church, designed from scratch, and again only open to the public for two hours on a Wednesday afternoon. It has an impressive interior, all lofty ceilings and High Catholic ornamentation, with just a hint of House of Lords throughout. The font was exhibited at the Great Exhibition, and has an unfeasibly tall spiky wooden lid that can be raised, mechanically, with one finger. Augustus died at the young age of 40, and was laid to rest in a side chapel (which has typically gorgeous Puginesque tiles across the floor). It's the 200th anniversary of his birth this year, somewhat overshadowed by Charles Dickens bicentenary three weeks earlier. But Ramsgate still remembers its famous son, and his innate ability to combine faith and architecture, which still resonates far beyond the town today.
The Royal Harbour: It's all King George IV's fault. Ramsgate was little more than a fishing village when he sailed from here on a visit to his beloved Hanover, but so pleased was he with local hospitality that he bestowed upon the harbour a regal title. It's still the only Royal Harbour in the country, commemorated by a (rather bland) obelisk by the quayside. Two breakwaters poke out into the Channel like the curved claws of a crab, protecting a large enclosed space within. Much of this is taken up by Ramsgate's Marina, a semi-exclusive maritime enclave full of high-masted yachts and expensive motor cruisers [panoramic photo]. The council's also found room for moorings for a few heritage craft, including a London steamship and memories of the Dunkirk Little Ships (many of which sailed from here). The Clock House is now home to the Ramsgate Maritime Museum, recently reopened after a lengthy hiatus, but only at weekends so I didn't get inside. The best view is from the coast road [photo], curving high around the bay, up where the better hotels are located [photo]. A steep flight of flip-flop stairs links the two, named Jacob'sLadder, if you can't be bothered to walk the long way via the pavement slope. Or there's a delightful lift - restored Edwardian - which rises up an ornate-toppedshaft behind sash windows [photo]. Just don't look too far to the right, because that's the less gorgeous Port of Ramsgate, an artificial expanse of concrete laid out with occasional rows of parked-up lorries [photo]. You can still escape to Belgium this way, with three sailings daily to Ostend, should you ever want to.
Ramsgate Tunnels: Bear with me on this one. Ramsgate's main railway station is a mile out of town, but there used to be a station on the seafront, Ramsgate Harbour, which trains approached down a long tunnel. That closed in 1926, with the platforms and approaching tracks covered by a funfair called MerrieEngland. They also ran a miniature railway up to Dumpton Park for a while, but that's long gone, and in 1998 the amusement park itself was destroyed by fire. The tunnel mouth was sealed up, and still is, but there are grand plans afoot to turn the first 150 metres beyond into a major tourist attraction - the Ramsgate Tunnels[photo]. First in, a shop and cafe, then an exhibition, then a virtual reality theatre. And if you're thinking, what the hell, it's only a railway tunnel, well, there's much more to it than that. Ramsgate was first in the line of fire from German planes during WW2, so the townspeople spent the summer of 1939 digging a network of chalk tunnels beneath the streets to provide underground shelter. Four miles of tunnels were dug, complete with electric lights and first aid posts, and 23 entrances opened up all around the centre of town. The tunnels saved hundreds of lives, and were visited after the first night of the Blitz by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. If the new attraction goes ahead as planned you'll be able to visit these air raid tunnels too, although only after donning all the protective equipment that 21st century health and safety deems necessary. It's a brave idea, which'll either catch the imagination of tourists or fall flat - one hopes the former. It's hoped to open up the first stages in 2014, using the 75th anniversary of the war for publicity. And if nothing else I've written has enticed you to visit Ramsgate, maybe this will.