Margate Caves – restoring and reopening the caves

Neglected, closed and forgotten for ten years, Margate Caves will soon reopen to tourists keen to explore its fascinating chalk caverns. This time though, it won’t be a commercial operator reaping the benefits, it will be the community – local people who have campaigned long and hard to save the caves and restore them to their former glory.

When they set out four years ago, Friends of Margate Caves saw their project as a way of improving the economic prospects for the places they lived in – Cliftonville and Margate, two of the most deprived areas in the country. But today, it has grown beyond their original vision and has turned into the focus for a grass roots regeneration driven by local people and the growing pride they have in their own communities.

The catalyst was a community-led move to reopen the derelict Dreamland amusement park on a prime 16-acre site in Margate. When the £20 million Turner Contemporary gallery was opened on the seafront in 2011, there was an explosion of interest in the arts and many thousands of extra visitors to the Margate ‘Old Town’ area. But the ripple of benefits caused by this impressive redevelopment didn’t quite travel the short distance up the hill to nearby Cliftonville and according to Sarah Vickery who owns the Shell Grotto, the residents there might as well have been living on the moon, so unlikely were they to see any local improvements reaching their neighbourhood.

The Margate Caves project took on more importance as against this background, public consultation took place, and it became clear that residents wanted to harness some of the energy created by the large-scale regeneration around the Turner development and put into action some of their own plans for their community.

As a new organisation, Friends of Margate Caves had to prove their commitment and ability to the landowners, Thanet District Council. They persevered, putting in four years of hard work, planning and fundraising, they ultimately won the support they needed. Now the newly formed community-led charitable organisation The Margate Caves Community Education Trust CIO is preparing to take on the caves, manage their repair and upgrades, and run them as a tourist attraction fit for the 21st century.

Supported by a £42,000 grant from the Government’s Community Led project Support fund, planning permission is being sought for a new community building to be constructed next to the caves. This will not only serve as a café and shop, but will house a high-quality interpretive centre exploring the cultural heritage of the caves as well as the area’s rich geological assets and unique coastline. And as if to underline the community’s determination to shape its own future, the building will also include much-needed meeting space for the many local groups that have formed in the wake of the Caves project looking to save other notable sites from decay and finding ways to improved Margate and Cliftonville for the people who live there.

Updated November 2014