PUBLISHED: 13:50 20 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:50 20 February 2013
In Kent there are hundreds of attractions that we all know and love, but what about the places we may never have heard of? Kent Life goes exploring
In Kent there are hundreds of attractions that we all know and love, but what about the places we may never have heard of? Kent Life goes exploring
One of the best feelings is stumbling across something new something special. Whether its a sea view from the hotel window or country pub serving real ale, we all know that feeling of excitement when we find something new to us.
There is a whole other world in Kent where only handfuls of people visit, so this is a look behind the scenes to unearth some fascinating nooks and crannies you may not even know exist.
I am bound to secrecy over the location of some of these hidey holes to ensure they are in not publicised - which increases the risk of vandalism - but others are open for you to enjoy.
Maidstone above and underground
A man with first-hand insight into this other world is Nick Ward, a development and fundraising consultant working with Maidstone Museum. He dreams about opening up some of the underground tunnels that weave beneath our county town.
Its proving remarkably difficult to gain access to the tunnels under the town that would create an experience similar to the tours of Parisian sewers, which was my first intention, Nick explains. The Phantom of the Opera experience will have to wait!
There are many other hidden parts of Maidstone Nick that has found. Armed with a photograph he found taken in 1920 of a vaulted crypt, he tracked it down to a shop in Gabriels Hill, where a coffin-shaped hatch leads down to the crypt.
When Nick found the crypt, it was not in use and its last known function was as a cellar for The Chequers Inn that stood there in the 1600s. Before that, its origins are unknown and local historian and Maidstone tour guide, Carol Vizzard, is on the hunt for more information.
Above ground are some marvellous hidden gems. Carol approached Maidstone Museum with her planned tour of medieval Maidstone and it has become increasingly popular.
As you look up at the ancient buildings that line Gabriels Hill, Earl Street, Bank Street and the High Street, you can see plaques and date stones galore. One such stone reads Samuel Pepys stayed here in 1669 and is be found on the building currently housing the shop Lush at the top of Gabriels Hill.
At the bottom of the High Street, Drakes Pub is dated 1636 and it is with mixed feelings that you note that the oldest building in Maidstone, dated 1500, is now the Kebab Shop in Bank Street and originally would have been someones private home.
While the town is full of tales of battle, smuggling and hidden tunnels from centuries ago, one of the most compelling hidden places in Maidstone is a once-secret underground nuclear bunker in the grounds of a solicitors office that has recently been opened up for public tours, thanks to Carol Vizzard and Maidstone Museum.
It has operation rooms, officers dormitories, a contamination cleansing room, a kitchen, canteen and storage rooms and was built when the building was the headquarters of the Royal Observers Corps.
With the vital job of detecting and reporting nuclear explosions, the ROC invested in the bunker when the Cold War was at its height and it still includes much of the machinery that would have been used, including the generator that supplied electrical power and a pump room that disposed of the bunkers waste into the main sewer. You can explore this Cold War relic by joining one of the official tours.
Kents wartime secrets
In a similar vein, there are also hidden nuclear bunkers underneath the public tunnels of Dover Castle. The tunnels are famous for leading to Winston Churchills war rooms where he plotted the Dunkirk evacuation and were designed as a bunker to survive nuclear attack.
Underneath the tunnels open to the public are even deeper tunnels - again built as a nuclear bunker, but health and safety problems mean these lie unopened to the public. Dover is also the site of Western Heights Forts, now derelict but built in 1779 as protection against invasion from the French and Dutch.
The Western Heights Preservation run tours of the forts and the Society also opens the Drop Redoubt fortress in Dover to the public a couple of weekends a year by arrangement. The next big open day and Napoleonic reenactment is 23-24 October (details below).
Fort Darnet on the River Medway can be accessed by boat, although its a muddy landing. The site is overrun by nature and exposed to the elements, but full of history. Completed in 1871, the fort is a single-tier, circular design and would have had 11 guns.
Although a battle never came to this fort, it was used as vital lookout post in the Second World War and now stands as silent monument of precision masonry and engineering.
For a more magical experience, the Margate Shell Grotto is a wonderful find and opens to the public. The grotto was discovered by chance in 1835 and Mike Clinch, from the Kent Underground Research Group, explains just how: The landowner was too portly to get through the hole that had appeared in his land, so he sent his son down the 20 foot-drop to look around!
What he found was a grotto, completely decorated with beautiful sea shells depicting gods, a tree of life and many different patterns.
Mike reveals that there is another underground exotic grotto in Challock, where you climb 30 feet down a spiral staircase. Once at the bottom, a grotto unfolds and is again decorated with seashells but this one is not open to the public.
Having helped survey the grotto, Mike is knowledgeable about underground treasures such as the Challock grotto because of his volunteer work with KURG. Formed in 1981, KURG carries out investigations into the origins, use and history of subterranean areas.
We are a mixture of engineers, miners and historians a bit of everything! says Mike: if a hole suddenly appears, then KURG investigates. He loves the thrill of finding something new but stresses the dangers involved, ranging from an area caving in to the risk of trapped gas in newly exposed underground chambers.
We do have a standard risk assessment, but usually in wells we will do an air test with a miners lamp, he explains. If the flame goes out, the carbon dioxide is too high, if it flares the oxygen levels are high.
Other risks include the fact that people throw things into holes ranging from agricultural chemicals to dead animals and even Second World War paraphernalia such as shells and bombs.
Mysterious holes usually turn out to be deneholes (underground structures consisting of a number of chalk caves entered by a vertical shaft), mines, tunnels, wells, natural caves, ice wells (large ice houses built underground by stately homes as forerunners of the fridge), cesspits, water cisterns or quarries - but occasionally there is a surprise. We found Aylesford sand mine in someones back garden! Mike tells me. Earlier this year, KURG surveyed two chalk mines in Broadstairs that became uncovered due to subsidence linked to the wet weather.
KURG publishes its own findings every couple of years and issues strong warnings to those with an adventurous spirit - a newly opened hole can be extremely dangerous, so it is best to call in the experts.
So what does Mike love about his work with KURG? Its interesting, because you can go to places no one else has been for years. If you find a medieval denehole, no one will have been there since perhaps the 1400s. I go because its there!
KURG has worked alongside Subterranea Britannica a society devoted to the study and investigation of all man-made and man-used underground places. Nick Catford, from Subterranea Britannica, recalls an investigation he attended with KURG. Surveying an area known as HMS Wildfire near Chatham Historic Dockyard, they found a 70-80 foot drop into an air raid shelter from the naval headquarters (now sealed up). Nick broke through a huge steel door to record the tunnels and inside they found a 60 foot ladder to climb down plus a two-level control room complete with plants which had been abandoned and had continued to grow in the damp conditions. With the end of the Cold War, many more sites opened up for Subterranea Britannica to record and interest in their work grew. They now have more than 1,000 paid-up members.
Nick Catford has worked on many Kent projects, including recording parts of Chislehurst Caves. These chalk passageways have been carved out by man over the past 8,000 years and in 1914 the caves became the Woolwich arsenal and in the Second World War, a huge air raid shelter.
In the 1950s the caves were turned into a jazz club and today are a sightseeing venue and a popular location for filming. You may recognise some of the passageways from the BBC series Merlin or even Dr Who. The caves are open to the public and provide labyrinths well worth visiting.
House of Bones
In Hythe there is a completely different man-made structure to admire, one that is both enthralling and chilling. St Leonards Church dates from 1080AD and combines the structural styles of Saxon, Norman and medieval times.
But St Leonards is not just famous for its exquisite design, inside you will find an ossuary called the House of Bones. With the remains of some 4,000 men, women and children, thats approximately 2,000 skulls and 8,000 thigh bones, some dating from before the Norman Conquest and dug up in the 13th century when an extension to the church was created.
A genealogists dream, many of the bones are believed to belong to the conquering Romans, mercenaries and merchants. There is a tour guide in the ossuary and a small charge is levied.
Off the beaten track
Local knowledge is often vital in discovering something new and if you are keen to discover walks off the beaten track, then the Ramblers Associations Walkers guide to Hidden Kent is a great source.
Robert Peel, area secretary, explains that walking is the only way to get the best views. Godmersham Park was for many years home to Jane Austen and it is only by using the public paths through the estate that its magnificence can truly be appreciated, he says.
Swaylands, near Penshurst, was popular with writers such as J M Barrie and John Buchan; now converted to flats there is no public access, but there are fine views from the paths through the estate.
Other walks recommended for something a little special include paths criss-crossing Oldbury Hill, near Sevenoaks which is an Iron Age camp, and from Trosley Country Park the well-preserved Neolithic stone-chambered communal tomb called Coldrum Long Barrow is easily reached.
For a walk with a difference, why not visit Denge, near Dungeness, and enjoy the coastal path that gives you views of the famous listening ears, also known as sound mirrors.
These giant concave, concrete structures were built between 1916 and the 1930s along the coastline as an early warning system against aerial attack, as they could pick up the sound of approaching aircraft up to 15 miles away.
Their service was surpassed by the introduction of radar, which made them redundant. Today, they still stand proud against the English coast and you will have views over to France on a clear day. If you want to get closer to the Mirrors, the Romney Marsh Countryside Project organises guided walks with exclusive access (via the swing bridge) which links the mainland to the island that houses the mirrors.
None of these places are on your average tourist map and many parts of hidden Kent are saved from ruin by diversification. The Crab and Winkle train line from Whitstable to Canterbury is a prime example of this: the trains that used to ferry crabs, winkles and oysters from Whitstable to Canterbury destined for London are long gone, but the line is now hugely popular with cyclists and pedestrians.
Old disused train lines and station often hold a nostalgic fascination for many people and one such group is the Railway Ramblers, who aim to discover, explore and document old railway lines all over Britain and work with local authorities to turn them into public footpaths.
I encourage you to visit the easily accessible Kentish wonders such as St Leonards Church and Margate Shell Grotto, but for a pilgrimage to other sites I have covered, please go through the correct channels listed below and see how you can appreciate some of these hidden treasures for yourself.
Did you know?
Kent has more than 4,200 miles of public footpaths
Maidstone has the largest collection of medieval buildings in one place in the whole of the UK
Chislehurst caves were used as an air raid shelter for up to 15,000 people during the Second World War
The latest underground project being surveyed is a Second World War underground hospital at Chapel-Le-Ferne, near Folkestone. This same site was also a gun battery
Get in touch
Chislehurst Caves information can be found by visiting www.chislehurstcaves.co.uk
The Crab and Winkle Line Trust give you full information on the cycle paths by visiting www.crabandwinkle.org
Fort Darnet information can be found by visiting www.undergroundkent.co.uk
Kent underground Research Group (KURG) information can be found by visiting www.kurg.org.uk telling you more about amazing underground finds.
Margate Shell Grotto open times are from Good Friday to Halloween 10am 5pm and in Winter is open at weekends only from 11am 4pm. Entrance is 3 per adult, 2.50 Senior Citizens or students and 1.50 for children. A family ticket is 8. Tel: 01843 220008. The address is Grotto Hill. Margate, Kent, CT9 2BU and a map can be found by visiting www.shellgrotto.co.uk
Links to the guided walks of Medieval Maidstone and the Maidstone Nuclear Bunker can be found through the Maidstone Museum website with tours costing 7 per adult. www.museum.maidstone.gov.uk
Railway Ramblers information can be found by visiting www.railwayramblers.org and this covers information on the rest of Britain too which could be handy if you are jetting off for a British sight seeing holiday!
Ramblers Association information can be found by visiting www.kentramblers.org.uk and again has information on the whole of the UK not just Kent.
St. Leonards Church and Ossuary information can be found by visiting www.stleonardschurchhythekent.org or calling the Parish Office on tel: 01303 262370. The address is St. Leonards Church, Oak Walk, Hythe, Kent, CT21 5DN.
Subterranea Britannica information can be found by visiting www.subbrit.org.uk
The Western Height Forts in Dover information concerning tours and visitor information can be found by visiting www.dover-western-heights.org or www.whitecliffscountry.org.uk To visit the Drop Redoubt it costs 2.50 per adult and children are free. For the tours there is a meeting point at Drop Redoubt Road, Western Heights, Dover.