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Silver Travel Book Club - Book of the Month - August 2019

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So glad I found this thread – sounds like another fascinating book by Robert Macfarlane.

Thanks, everyone, for more fascinating personal stories around this month’s Silver Travel Book Club read – Underland by Robert Macfarlane.

@Hardyplant – yes indeed, how chilling to think that so many people spent so much of their working lives underground, mining whatever the country’s underbelly offered up. I went to school in Sandwich, very close to the Chislet colliery, but I never had the opportunity to experience the mineshaft and colliery like you…now I’m glad I didn’t! And we lived in Cliftonville, next door to Margate, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I remember seeing signs for both the Margate Caves and Shell Grotto, but of course was more interested in crazy golf and ten-pin bowling at the time than history and archaeology. But thanks to your comment, I’ll make sure I go back there soon on a pilgrimage, and learn more about what might have taken place under the earth on the Isle of Thanet all those centuries ago.

@Upstart – what a chilling story you recount of your experience in the Viet Cong tunnels. And thanks for your thought-provoking suggestion that perhaps we instinctively burrow underground when we’re most threatened.

Please keep the comments coming…just a few more days to try and win a copy of the Silver Travel Book Club’s book of the month for August – Underland by Robert Macfarlane.

In Underland, Robert Macfarlane takes us on a journey into the worlds beneath our feet. From the ice-blue depths of Greenland’s glaciers, to the underground networks by which trees communicate, from Bronze Age burial chambers to the rock art of remote Arctic sea-caves, this is a deep-time voyage into the planet’s past and future.

What interesting things have you stumbled across on your ‘deep-time voyage’, whether above or below ground? Dig into the crevices of your own travel memories, and let us know.

In Underland, Robert Macfarlane takes us on a journey into the worlds beneath our feet. From the ice-blue depths of Greenland’s glaciers, to the underground networks by which trees communicate, from Bronze Age burial chambers to the rock art of remote Arctic sea-caves, this is a deep-time voyage into the planet’s past and future.

What interesting things have you stumbled across on your ‘deep-time voyage’, whether above or below ground? Dig into the crevices of your own travel memories, and let us know.

The myths surrounding the Shell Grotto, Margate
Seeing that Margate Caves have re-opened reminded me of the nearby wonderful Shell Grotto about which there has been much speculation over the years: is it a relic of a former civilisation or was it constructed in the 19th century? Reputedly discovered and excavated by a schoolteacher in 1835, opened to the public in 1837 and referred to as a Mithraic (sun-worshipping) Temple it has been the subject of many books and articles. There are suggestions that it was built by Phoenicians, others say that although the chambers cut into the chalk hill may be ancient they were probably decorated with shells by some clever and artistic entrepreneur during the burgeoning tourist industry. We may never know for certain but you can’t get away from the facts; there are serpentine passages, chambers and a dome and over 2,000 sq. feet of elaborate shell mosaics – symbols and flower designs – covering the walls and ceilings, even though they were spoiled pre-electricity by candle and gas lighting. The Shell Grotto website now says there are 4.6 million shells (who counted them?). It’s over 20 years since I last visited so I can’t do a review but writing this has inspired me to see it again.

Just noticed in our local press that Margate Caves, closed for years, reopened yesterday after years of work and pots of money to make them safe. Hope to take a look next week.

Upstart wrote:

shots came from a firing range where visitors pretending to be Vietcong soldiers

Visitors with AK-47’s, the mind boggles at the thought.

London

The forest was a peaceful contrast to the bustle and noise of Ho Chi Minh city (formerly known as Saigon), although equally hot and humid. Peaceful except for the sharp crack of an AK-47 rifle echoing through the trees every few seconds. The shots came from a firing range where visitors pretending to be Vietcong soldiers ‘killed’ cardboard cut-out Americans. Other reminders of life during the Vietnam War were the rusting man traps and gun emplacements hidden in the undergrowth.
Also in the forest were the Cu Chi Tunnels in which the Vietcong had lived, sometimes for months at a time, eating, sleeping, transporting arms, and passing news of the war all the way to their base hundreds of miles north in Hanoi. Living underground was the only way to escape the constant bombing that had turned the forest into a barren wasteland.
Did we want to go into the tunnels? Of course we did.
We climbed down a ladder fixed to a narrow entrance hole. Below, the weak glow of a wall light revealed a warren of passages. A group of Chinese visitors were being led by a guide and we set off after them into the darkness, crouching as we shuffled along, at times crawling on hands and knees.
The tunnels have been enlarged for the comfort of western visitors who tend to be bigger than the Vietnamese people who originally used them. Even so, the sides pressed tight against our bodies and we bent our heads to avoid the low roof.
The woman in front of me stopped. She shouted to the guide. I don’t understand Chinese but I realised she was having a panic attack. The guide shouted back but the group were moving on without us, the voices ahead getting fainter. If she didn’t move we would lose the rest of the group and be alone in the dark. I could feel my own panic attack coming on. Just as I was about to give her a shove on the bum she continued crawling forward.
Finally we arrived back at the ladder and climbed into the sunshine. We’d been in the tunnel no longer than fifteen minutes but I was shaking, soaked in sweat. After the stifling heat below ground, the forest felt as cool as an English garden.
I have to admit I was terrified in the tunnels, yet for the Viet Cong they were a place of safety, just as London tube stations were used as air-raid shelters in WW2. Perhaps in desperate times humans instinctively burrow into the earth, a primitive survival mechanism that thankfully most of us today will never need to use.

`Digging deep` brought back the feeling of fear I felt while waiting to descend into Chislet coalmine in the Kent coalfield. It was 1962 and I was part of a group of Rangers (older girl guides) and Rovers (older scouts) who had organised a visit to the colliery. My worst fears were realised when the brake was removed and we just plunged into the depths, dropping like a very heavy stone, our stomachs still at the top of the shaft. Each of us wearing a miners helmet complete with light we walked through tunnels to the coal face and were told all about how coal was formed and the process of mining it. What a terrible job it must have been – the fear of being trapped if there was a roof collapse, breathing in the coal dust – but worst of all not seeing natural light for hours at a time, even worse in winter. My maternal great-grandfather was an umber miner in Ashburton, South Devon and when the umber ran out he had to move to South Wales to work in a coalmine; paternal ancestors worked in coalmines in Timsbury, Somerset. My sister and I visited Ashburton and Timsbury a couple of years ago while researching our family history but there is little left in either to show that mining was an important industry. One forgets how many mines there were dotted around the UK extracting all manner of metals and minerals in addition to coal. It’s a fascinating subject. I wonder if any Silver Travellers were coal miners.

I had the good fortune of stumbling into a guided tour of an abandoned Cold War era theme park in Berlin. It really was a sight to behold, as eerie as it was fascinating. The gaping mouth of the ‘monster’ swallowing the roller coaster tracks has stayed with me, as has the gentle creak of empty carousel chairs swaying in the wind.

I love the mystery of caves….under the streets of Nottingham there are over 500 caves! A tour of these reflects history back to the Dark Ages and through WWII. Fascinating stuff.

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