On the Isle of Thanet, Ramsgate’s stone-built harbour goes back to the start of the 18th century and was the navy’s main point of departure during the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1821 King George IV was so well-received by the people of Ramsgate that he designated it a Royal Harbour, the only one of its kind in the UK. Many of the civilian craft used during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 were based in Ramsgate, and one, Sundowner, is a museum ship moored just outside the town’s maritime museum.
As a town that came to the fore in at the turn of the 19th century Ramsgate has a sophisticated Regency streetscape, with Blue Plaques labelling houses where figures like Charles Darwin and Vincent van Gogh stayed.
1. Ramsgate Tunnels
In the Second World War, Ramsgate was vulnerable to air raids and even a possible land invasion as a frontline town, so a whole world of tunnels was excavated from the chalk beneath the streets.
The mayor at the time , A. B. C. Kempe, battled for permission from the government before these 2.5 miles of deep shelter tunnels were finally started in 1939. During the Battle of Britain in 1940 more than 300 families were living almost round the clock in this system.
The Ramsgate Tunnels have only been visitable since 2014. From Wednesday to Sunday you can go on a guided tour, hearing anecdotes about the tunnels’ construction and wartime life in Ramsgate.
The network also adapted a 1.3-mile railway tunnel, dating back to the mid-19th century, which you’ll enter at the start.
This initial tunnel is free to visit and is installed with touchscreens, an exhibition of wartime artefacts and a cafe.
2. Ramsgate Royal Harbour
Ramsgate’s port is officially the only Royal Harbour in the UK. It achieved this distinction in 1821 when King George IV used the harbour to depart and return with the Royal Squadron, and was impressed by the hospitable reception he got from the town.
Soon after, the architect John Shaw and his son John Shaw Jr were put to work designing the Clock House, which we’ll talk about later, as well as the lighthouse on the West Pier, the princely Jacob’s Ladder stairs and an obelisk by the quay commemorating the king’s visit.
The Royal Harbour has lots of little surprises, a cosmopolitan choice of restaurants, and will reward anyone who feels like wandering aimlessly for an hour or two.
At the very end of the East Pier is the Royal Harbour Brasserie where you can survey the marina from the sea.
3. Main Sands
Side-by-side with the Royal Harbour, Ramsgate Main Sands is the resort’s central beach and is very inviting on a sunny day.
Thanks to the location, you’re in touching distance of arcades, amusements and places to eat, not to mention the resplendent Victorian Royal Pavilion on the south side (now a Wetherspoons pub). You can hire a sun lounger or deck chair on the beach and even brave the frigid waters.
Out of the summer season you could walk the promenade to feel the wind in your hair.
The temple-like bandstand here is backed by the cultivated Regency townhouses of Wellington crescent.
4. Sights around Town
Ramsgate has upwards of 900 listed buildings, a big chunk of which are congregated around the harbour.
As a Royal Harbour and a key embarkation point in the Napoleonic Wars, the town is graced by an unusual amount of Regency architecture and it can be rewarding just to potter around residential streets that have terraces of flat-fronted houses, still decorated with iron gaslights.
And thanks to the harbour’s status, a whole cast of famous 19th-century figures spent time in the town.
There are blue plaques for Vincent van Gogh (he had a room at 11 Spencer Square in 1876 while working as a teacher), Charles Darwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Karl Marx and novelist Wilkie Collins.
5. Sandwich and Pegwell Bay National Nature Reserve
This 1,520-acre nature reserve just southwest of Ramsgate is crucial internationally for its birdlife.
Belonging to the wider Sandwich Bay and Thanet Coast Ramsar Site, Pegwell Bay has a spectrum of habitats like chalk cliffs, shingle beaches, woodland, saltmarshes, inter-tidal mudflats and dunes topped with the only dune pasture in Kent.
It’s impossible to detail the full tally of wildlife that visits this environment and makes a home here.
But, to be brief: In spring the woodland echoes with birdsong by warblers, cuckoos and nightingales.
Ringed plovers nest on the shingle beach in summer, while waterfowl pause in the saltmarsh on their migrations in autumn.
And in winter, head to the Stour estuary where dozens of seals rest on the banks.
6. Micro Museum
The only museum in Kent devoted to home computing and technology, the Micro Museum has a serious collection of devices from the 1940s to the present.
The museum’s owners have spent the last 40 years saving and restoring typewriters, computers and consoles.
For many visitors this will be trip down memory lane, remembering consoles and games from childhood and even playing them again for the first time in decades.
Included in the admission fee are unlimited games on the Micro Museum’s many classic consoles.
To list some of the hardware, there’s a series of a Ataris, a BBC Micro, a ZX Spectrum, a Commodore 64, along with Game Boys and all the SEGA and Nintendo consoles from the late-80s onwards.
The Micro Museum is open on weekends as well as weekdays during school holidays.
7. St Augustine’s Church
The Gothic Revival architect who designed the Palace of Westminster built himself this church atop Westcliff to be his chantry chapel (personal memorial chapel). Augustus Pugin was a devout Catholic, and planned the church beside his newly-built house with the dream of living out his life in a Medieval-style Catholic community.
Work started in 1846, and after Pugin died in 1852 his sons continued the project over the next few decades.
As a personal project, building was intended to express Pugin’s true architectural principles.
You can visit his tomb, which has an effigy designed by his eldest son, Edward.
This is a functioning Catholic church, and is the shrine of the missionary St Augustine of England (the first Bishop of Canterbury), who landed nearby in Pegwell Bay in 597.
8. The Grange
In the same complex is Augustus Pugin’s Grade I-listed home, which was raised in 1844, a couple of years before work began on the church.
Work on the interiors would continue until 1850, while Pugin passed away soon after, aged just 40. The house has a Gothic Revival style, a complete departure from the Neoclassical Georgian residential architecture that came before.
Prominent Victorian architects like Edwin Lutyens were influenced by this building, which was scheduled for demolition in the 1990s before the Landmark Trust stepped in.
Tours of the ground floor are given every Wednesday from 14:00 to 16:00, although you may need to contact the Landmark Trust in advance to guarantee a place.
9. Maritime Museum
The grand Georgian Clock House on the quayside in the Royal Harbour is the town’s Maritime Museum.
This building from 1817 is right on the Ramsgate Meridian, exactly 5 mins and 41 seconds ahead of Greenwich Meantime in the confusing days before time was synchronised in the UK. You can dive into several different themes in the galleries, like the development of the harbour, lifeboat rescues, fishing, navigation and the long history of shipwrecks on the treacherous Goodwin Sands.
There are lots of artefacts from ships that foundered on this sandbank, like the 17th-century 32-pounder demi-cannon from HMS Stirling Castle, wrecked in 1703. Docked a few steps from the Clock House are two museum ships.
One is the motor yacht, Sundowner, which was a “Dunkirk little ship”, a civilian vessel that participated in the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940. Close by is the ST Cervia, a seagoing tug built in 1946.
10. King George VI Memorial Park
Ramsgate Council acquired this sumptuous cliff-top estate on the way to Broadstairs after the Second World War.
This had been East Cliff Lodge, the home of the wealthy financier Sir Moses Montefiore in the 19th century.
Although his house was demolished in 1953 there’s a fabulous relic from his estate in the Italianate Glasshouse, which was in fact bought from Bretton Hall in Yorkshire.
The glasshouse was restored to its Victorian majesty in 2005 and sits against the outer wall of the stables courtyard, another holdover from East Cliff Lodge.
Go for a refreshment in the elegant surrounds of the tea garden, and take a turn along the cliff-top path to survey the North Sea.
11. Sailors’ Church
Somewhere to pop in while poking around the Royal Harbour, the Sailors’ Church (1878) is in a brick-built compound with another Victorian building, the Ramsgate Home for Smack Boys (trainee sailors from the workhouse). The school and church are linked by a cute weatherboard bridge.
Initially the school was set above the church, before moving into its own building next door in 1881. The church still holds services, but also doubles as a little maritime museum, with black and white photographs, models of boats and paintings.
The lectern, wooden seats and pulpit inside are all original, as is the four-bay commandment table.
You can get down here via John Shaw’s Jacob’s Ladder, a refined dog-leg stairway built into the Westcliff in 1826.
12. Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum
There’s a defunct international airport and former RAF base a few minutes away in Manston.
A forward base in the Second World War, RAF Manston was bombed many times in the Battle of Britain n 1940. So this is an apt place for a museum commemorating the war.
On the north side of the airfield, in two halls you can view two of the most celebrated British aircraft of the conflict.
One is a Spitfire Mk XVI (LF) TB752, which actually has a combat record and entered service in 1944. Next door is a Hawker Hurricane IIc LF751, also from 1944 and used as a training plane immediately after the war.
There’s masses of absorbing artefacts in cases around the halls, like engines, propellers, a refuelling truck, radios and a Hispano-Suiza Mk5 20mm cannon, the kind fitted to most British fighter aircraft in the war.
13. Ellington Park
Investigating Ramsgate’s Regency and Victorian residential streets you may happen upon this town park about a minute on foot from Ramsgate railway station.
Ellington Park is a typical turn-of-the-century park with a bowling green, ornate Edwardian bandstand and a fenced playground for Children.
The park’s Victorian landscaping was lost over time but in 2017 the council and a local trust announced a three-year plan to reinstate these formal gardens with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
In the meantime you bring little ones on summer weekends to ride the tiny steam-powered miniature railway.
14. Monkton Nature Reserve
In the Isle of Thanet’s rural hinterland there’s an enchanting nature reserve in an abandoned chalk quarry.
The reserve is 16 acres, and within this compact space are habitats like ponds, chalk grassland and woodland.
Some of the statistics associated with this environment are staggering: The reserve supports more than 350 species of flowering plant, including eight different types of orchid.
Some 25 butterfly species make a home here, while the reserve features the UK’s first ever man-made bat cave.
There are lots of spots just to sit and soak up the views, while the study centre has archaeology and natural history displays.
Light pollution is low in the reserve, which is great for stargazing, and an observatory was built from scratch in 2015. A club, the Monkton Stargazers puts on regular viewing evenings all year round.
15. Viking Coastal Trail
Ramsgate is on a 25-mile cycling and walking trail looping around the coastline and pastoral interior of the Isle of Thanet.
The Viking Coastal Trail is mostly traffic-free, particularly on the coastal portions where you’ll travel on waterfront promenades, and the low-lying terrain makes it a family-friendly route.
Striking out from Ramsgate you could follow the coast by heading north towards Broadstairs, passing the spectacular North Foreland headland, or you can cut inland at Pegwell Bay.
There you could stop to admire the Saxon-style cross erected in 1884 to commemorate the arrival of St Augustine at Pegwell Bay in 597.