This revived resort on the Kent coast now offers plenty of exciting ways to explore its historic and natural wonders. Words and photographs: Danny Burrows
Ramsgate, like many of Britain’s coastal resorts, fell from favour in the package-holiday boom of the 1950s, its Georgian and Victorian fabric shunned and allowed to decay. But a fast rail link from London, a wealth of affordable period properties and a host of home-grown initiatives are fuelling the town’s renaissance. One such scheme is Active Ramsgate, which aims to rebrand the town as a sporty destination. There are certainly ample beaches and sea in which to play and lots of historical sites to visit when the weather is less clement. Ramsgate is, after all, where the Vikings, Romans and Catholicism made landfall in Britain and it was from the town’s harbour that the bulk of the fight force for the Napoleonic Wars and the armada of ‘little ships’ heading for Dunkirk, in 1940, departed.
10AM TUNNEL VISION
During the First World War, Ramsgate was bestowed the unenviable title of ‘most bombed seaside town in the UK’ after German Zeppelins caused widespread damage. So, when in the 1930s the spectre of war again darkened the skies of Europe, the town was determined to prepare for the worst. Mayor A B C Kempe and the borough’s engineer R Brimmell hatched a plan to build a warren of deep shelters under the town, which eventually opened in 1939. A year later, Ramsgate suffered what was described at the time as ‘the world’s worst assault from the air’: in one night, German bombers dropped 500 bombs, destroying 1,200 homes and leaving 31 people dead.
‘The death toll would have been much worse had it not been for Brimmell’s foresight,’ declares our guide, as we shuffle through the stark chalk tunnels in hard hats, guided by a daisy chain of dim bulbs. Closed off after the war, the tunnels lay deserted until this year when they were again opened after a determined local initiative. Volunteers now guide groups on the Ramsgate Tunnel Tour, a mile-long underground circuit, during which they deliver a potted history of Ramsgate during the war. After an hour, it’s a relief to surface to a hot cappuccino at the tunnel’s makeshift café. This is the first year the tunnel experience has been running, and the enthusiasm of the volunteers and their extensive knowledge make it a must-do. Tickets are £5 for adults and £3 for children. Book in advance ramsgatetunnels.org
1PM UNDER THE ARCHES
Strung out along the harbour’s edge is a row of arches that once housed an array of maritime craftsmen. Now they are giving way to restaurants, bars and retro shops. We lunch at the Arch Bar on a vast tide-and-turf platter, washed down with a frosted glass of local Gadd’s Beer. The food is delicious and, where possible, locally sourced. There’s also a range of continental wines to whet the palate.
2PM WALK THIS WAY
Ramsgate is a great destination for walkers, and with Active Ramsgate designating three new routes – The Contra Trail (Ramsgate to Pegwell Bay, just over six miles), Sea It All (Ramsgate to Broadstairs, five-mile round-trip) and the Ramsgate Town Rounders (just over a mile) – there are many mapped miles to amble. We set out on the Sea It All trail that snakes north out of town along the demarcation line between sand and cliffs. These 80 million-year-old chalk walls define the coast of Kent and hold enough fossils and signs of their formation to fascinate any budding geologist. Edibles also grow in abundance on the beach’s wave-cut platform, with kelp and gutweed ready for picking. It’s winter and the sands that we walk on are deserted but for the odd dog-walker. But in summer, these Blue Flag beaches are teeming with sun worshippers, swimmers and kitesurfers.
8PM FISH DISH
Il Tricolore is a diminutive, brightly-lit Italian restaurant in the heart of the old town. The food and wine is authentic and tasty. We opt for the swordfish, which is delicately cooked and fresh iltricolore.co.uk
10AM ROWING ON THE WILD SIDE
A light northerly is made tangible by flecks of rain; the sea chops against the chalk walls of Pegwell Bay. We stride out across open water in a tandem kayak between Ramsgate and the mouth of the River Stour, plying the newly-opened Canoe Trail. Our tandem kayak, supplied by Canoe Wild, is referred to by our guides Andrew and Harry as the ‘divorce boat’. Despite the nickname, it’s stable and, once we find a rhythm, easy to handle. By the time we reach the mouth of the Stour Nature Reserve, a paradise for birds and seals, we’ve earned blisters and worked up a sweat. ‘Getting out into open water makes this trail a great challenge,’ says Andrew. ‘It’s great for opening up the lungs.’ Our three-hour round trip is not only physically invigorating, but also incredibly rewarding because of the unspoilt nature we access under our own steam. It is by far the most challenging activity we undertake on our visit to Ramsgate but well worth the effort canoewild.co.uk
1PM A REGAL LUNCH
The location of the Royal Harbour Brasserie, at the end of the harbour arm, is second to none, with the Channel on one side and a panorama view of the marina, town and chalk cliffs to the other. Headlining the menu are locally caught fish; the yellow sole in beurre blanc sauce we try is outstanding royalharbourbrasserie.co.uk
3PM VIKING CYCLING
We meet Bernard from Kent Cycle Hire and Sky Ride’s Lee on the cliffs south of Ramsgate, mount up, and then ride through town and out along the seafront parade. We’re cycling a section of the Viking Coastal Trail between Ramsgate and Botany Bay, passing through the historic town of Broadstairs. The route is well signed and incorporates both on and off-road tracks. It’s an invigorating taster of what the 32-mile long Viking Coastal Trail has to offer. Above Broadstairs Harbour, we cycle past ‘Bleak House’, where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield, and skirt the cliffs above the surfing beaches of Stone Bay and Joss Bay. The going is suited to riders of all levels with great scenery and stunning beaches to visit. At Botany Bay, there is a bike-friendly pub where we fuel up for our return journey. Kent Cycle Hire kentcyclehire.com rent out bikes for £18 a day, while Sky Ride goskyride.com arrange free cycling events and guided rides.
NEED TO KNOW
THE ROYAL HARBOUR HOTEL
This family-run boutique hotel occupies three large Georgian houses on a well-kept crescent with fine views of the marina. A cosy drawing room, an honest bar, complimentary newspapers and magazines, as well as a snug and secluded garden, give it the feel of a colonial stately home. The Empire Room restaurant serves delicious, hearty food royalharbourhotel.co.uk
FAIRHOLME GUEST HOUSE
Located 200 metres from the seafront and award-winning Blue Flag beaches, this homely B&B is housed in a Victorian-style building. The owners’ friendly service and the comfortable rooms offer excellent value for money fairholmeguesthouse.co.uk
WHERE TO DRINK
Around the corner from The Royal Harbour Hotel is the Queen Charlotte, one of Ramsgate’s finest pubs.
HOW TO GET THERE
From London, a car journey to Ramsgate takes around an hour and a half via the M2. High-speed trains between London St Pancras and Ramsgate take just over an hour. For more information, visit ramsgatetown.org/activeramsgate