I have been living in the southeast of England for the last seven years, and still exploring the rich history the area has to offer.
A Little History: Why Was Fan Bay Deep Shelter Built?
After the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-1945), Winston Churchill was visiting the Kent coast near Dover. When you are in this part of Kent on a clear day, you can see the French coast perfectly, and so could he. In fact, he could see enemy ships passing along the English Channel without any apparent difficulties, and that caused him some irritation to say the least. What is more, there were now gun batteries on the French coast which could, and did, fire on Dover.
He ordered the set up of gun batteries all along the Dover stretch of coastline, and you can still see the results of those orders to this day. One of those batteries is the Fan Bay battery, also known as the Fan Hole battery because of the dip in the cliffs at this point.
Deep under the cliffs, they built shelters for the soldiers manning the batteries.
Where is Fan Bay?
Fan Bay, sometimes known as Fan Hole, is a part of the White Cliffs of Dover, the backdrop to Dover and its port. The surrounding land is owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. There is a charge for car parking but pedestrian access to the cliffs is free.
How Was Fan Bay Deep Shelter Built?
Construction of the battery consisted of three 6-inch guns, an accommodation block, and a deep underground shelter. This shelter housed the soldiers, four officers and 185 other ranks. They would have used the shelter during the heaviest bombardment which was between 1940 and 1943, but this bombardment eased off in the later war years. During quieter times they would use the nearby accommodation block.
A regiment of the Royal Engineers created the tunnels by excavating under the cliffs. They managed to complete the task in 100 days over the winter of 1940/41 in spite of being hampered by poor weather conditions. Some of the graffiti in the tunnels was also created by them and it can still be seen today!
What Were the Tunnels Like in Wartime?
The iron tunnel supports, or girders, lining the tunnel were exactly those found in mines and were manufactured in Cardiff, a big coal mining area at the time. These supports were covered with corrugated iron sheets, with the gap between the chalk face and the sheeting being back-filled with loose rubble. This is a common mining practice. It pre-stresses the supports and makes them stronger.
The soldiers would have gone down into the tunnels via steep staircases during heavy bombardment. It would have been very noisy and crowded.
There were rows of bunk beds lining each side of the tunnels, three deep. There were a couple of small water reservoirs which had to serve for all uses. There was a primitive air-conditioning system, another similarity to mines of that era.
What Happened to the Tunnels After the War?
After the war, naturally, the gun emplacements and tunnels were no longer needed and fell into disuse. During the 1950s, some efforts were made to salvage anything useful, mainly metals. Because of the difficult access, the attempts to salvage metal from the tunnels were abandoned. The evidence is still there in one of the tunnels where you can see the bits and pieces that had been gathered together.
It's to our benefit today that they did abandon things before they stripped the tunnels. A number of artefacts were found during excavation, things that allow us to glimpse what life might have been like then. These were items such as original light fittings, football pools coupons, a book, needle and thread, as well as the inevitable graffiti.
Later, in the 1970s, local people backed a movement, Project Eyesore, to get rid of the remaining evidence of what must have been a painful time. So the cliffs were cleaned up and the tunnels covered over.
The National Trust
The National Trust has owned parts of this south east coastline for a number of years but it was in 2012 when, after a very successful public appeal for funds, they finalised the purchase of the strip of land around Fan Bay (1.35 km or just over three quarters of a mile) to link the parts of the White Cliffs. Once that purchase was completed, work started to enable the excavation of the Fan Bay tunnels below the gun emplacements.
This wasn't a straightforward undertaking. The tunnels lie in an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) so they had to take great care to disturb the surroundings as little as possible, and to restore the land after the work was completed.
Excavation Work in Progress
I love this video showing, from the air, the early stages of excavation and restoration. Especially exciting is the point that they show how the sound mirrors were revealed. But more of that later...
Hidden under the earth and chalk which was used to cover the "eyesore" were two First World War sound mirrors.
Sound mirrors were early attempts at an early warning system, a pre-cursor to radar. They were built around the south and east coasts of England to pick up the engine noise from approaching enemy ships and aircraft. They consist of large concrete dishes.
The two at Fan Bay are angled slightly differently, presumably one for aircraft and the other for shipping. The smaller one, at 17 feet high, dates from about 1917. The larger one dates from about 1929.
If you want a photo of them, the best view is after you leave the shelters and start on your way towards the lighthouse. Keep looking back, you'll get a great view!
Can We See Any of the Tunnels Today?
Until the National Trust excavated the tunnels, nobody but pot-holers knew they were there. There are a lot of pictures and some description on Subterranean History. It shows the state of the tunnels before excavation.
Now, after excavation, the tunnels are open to the public. Small, escorted parties can see the tunnels for themselves. There has been no restoration. Everything has been made safe and relatively accessible but otherwise what we see is a part of history.
Visits to the site can be booked online, free for members of the National Trust, currently £10 for adults. You can also pick up tickets on the day but, of course, you cannot be sure they won't be sold out. The number of people allowed underground at any one time is strictly limited.
There are a number of things you should note if you are hoping to visit:
- Not only do you have to descend 125 steps into the tunnel (and back up again), the site is a 45 minute walk across the cliffs from the visitor centre.
- You will need suitable footwear.
- Children under 12 are not allowed.
- You will be provided with a protective helmet, mainly because the roof is very low in places, but also to light the way.
- It is very cool underground where the temperature is fairly consistently between 12 and 15°C (53 to 60°F), and damp.
With your ticket, you will be given an information sheet with a map of the cliffs showing the route to Fan Bay, a map of the underground tunnels during the war, and a potted history.
Points to Remember
Do allow yourself plenty of time for the walk from the Visitor Centre to the tunnels because you'll want to stop and look at the spectacular views.
You don't necessarily have to go back the same way. A further 10 to 15 minute walk will take you to South Foreland Lighthouse, worth a visit in itself. There you will be able to visit Mrs Knott's Tearooms for delicious refreshments, both savoury and sweet.
If you are in any way interested in history, and enjoy a good walk in lovely surroundings, I think I can guarantee that you will enjoy a day here.
I commend the National Trust for not restoring the tunnels in a "Disney-like" manner, with sound effects and so on. What you will see is more like finding an original document, evidence of what actually happened and not someone's imagination.
Please leave a comment if you have seen it for yourself or want to ask a question.
Jasmeet Kaur from India on January 30, 2016: