Tales from the City- Mucking about in a London Cave.

photo of cave lamps

Iphone photo of the lamps to light our way in Chislehurst Caves
(c) susansheldonnolen

Ah ghosts, war, rock and roll, and not forgetting those Druids, means only one thing -Chislehurst Caves. The caves are actually a series of man-made tunnels, hand dug, scoop by scoop, to create rooms and caverns, burrowing some 22 miles long under the leafy suburbs of London, at Old Hill, Chislehurst in Bromley Kent.

The utter darkness of the cave.
Photo taken with my Iphone.
(c)susansheldonnolen

Although our purpose today was to scare ourselves silly in the dark when the tour guide took away our lanterns, lime was the reason the first miners descended into the utter black around 6,000 BC. The chalk was first used for plaster and whitewash paints, and perhaps that’s where the term Chalky emulsion comes from. The chalk layers were also rich with flints that were used for the manufacturing of tools, spear heads, axes, and other items that were crucial to early man’s survival. I’ve always wondered why we mined chalk and apparently when it is burnt, it produces Lime, which is the basis for plaster.

Although the caves are difficult to date, the mines appear on a charter of 1250, as well as in local church records of 1737. The actual age of the caves is in massive debate, some say they originate back to the Saxon, early 400 and 500 ad, and others believe they go back 8,000 years to  6,500 B.C. when Great Britain floated off from mainland Europe to become the island it is today.

The cave is split into three sections, the oldest the 6,000 and credit given to the Druids, which I rather doubt, but I think it is better to say the Neolithic Britons. I can’t image the Druids underground for some odd reason. The next tunnel is said to be 2,000 years old and claimed by the Romans in 43 AD. Other tunnels date back to the arrival of the Germanic Saxons.  All this is very interesting, but so far there is no archaeological evidence to support these claims, I’d love to read some if you know of any.  But all that aside, it was an active Lime mine through the middle ages and was last worked in the 1830’s.

Chislehurst Caves were neglected from the 1840s when chalk mining ended, but in 1865 the laying of a railway in the vicinity opened the mines to tourism, and they quickly became  a popular destination for the Victorian’s family grand day out. In 1902/03, the landlord of the Bickley Arms, installed coloured electric “glow” lamps in the entrance of the caves. A prime example of early marketing, as the entrance to the caves lay in his grounds.  Many a Victorian father would have steadied himself with a pint after experiencing the dark gloom of the caves. That dark was perfect for the Mushroom farming which proved lucrative in the caves between the two great wars.

But leaving the murky world of the Druids and mushrooms far behind, the most exciting aspect of the caves was it’s use during the World Wars. During the Great War, Chislehurst Caves were dusted off as an ammunition depot for London’s Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. The caves were fitted out in October 1914 with wooden stores and corrugated metal sheds. A narrow gauge railway was used to move shells and other materials through the inky dark tunnels. The popular Victorian family attraction was soon stockpiling more than 1000 tons of TNT. The store room was ventilated by three air shafts that surfaced in nearby domestic gardens. Not something you’d get at just any old family attraction!

photo of blue plac

Photo taken using the iphone as an explorers tool in caving in London
(c)susansheldonnolen

Although it was used in World War One as a munitions storage house, the magic happens during the Second World War, when the cave became an underground city. The cave had its own cinema, chapel, canteens, washrooms, and gymnasium. It had a well equipped Medical Aid Post, known to everyone as the ‘hospital’, which was staffed by the local Red Cross detachment. Some 15,000 people lived in the caves, a safe place away from the noise of bombs exploding over head. Some families whose homes had been destroyed, actually lived in the caves, and only came out to go to work or take the children to school.

The caves held the country’s first permanent Citizens’ Advice Bureau, shops, and even Scout and Guide troops. A rail service from Cannon Street station in the City served the shelter nightly.

In April 1941 during an air raid, a baby girl was born in the cave’s hospital and the proud parents named the girl ‘Cavina’. Normally, pregnant women had babies at home with a midwife, or the nearest hospital, but with the blitz raining down bombs, it was just too dangerous. So Polly Wakeman gave birth in the caves. Polly named her little girl, Rose, and could not think of a middle name. The midwife who helped deliver the little girl, suggested “Cavina” as a reminder of her birth place.

Photo of the rules of the cave camp

IPhone Photo of the Cave rules
(c) susansheldon nolen

The shelter was very well organised by the ‘caves committee,’ and a system of volunteer ‘cave captains’ looked after the nightly refugees. One captain looked after a section of the cave containing 60-100 shelterers. With over 100 feet of cover in the Druid section, it was an effective bomb shelter and on at least two occasions, stray bombs landed in the woods above. The electric lights dimmed only for a brief second and were barely noticed underground.

The cave closed as a shelter shortly after VE day and soon saw life again with the sounds of rock and roll in the 1960’s. David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd all played concerts in the Chislehurst Caves until health and safety shut down the venue.

And of course the cave is dark and spooky, when the lights go out, you cannot see your hand in front of your face. It’s an experience that words cannot describe. All your senses suddenly strain to see, and there is nothing to see, not even a thin dull thread of light. You quickly reach out to feel the damp wall of the cave so you do not lose a sense a reality. Voices echo confusingly, and you cannot really be sure of which direction to go. Nervous giggles come from where? You’re not sure, but you know you are all lined up against the wall. Suddenly, a breeze lightly touches your skin. You scream. The tour guide laughs, and the lamps are turned back on again. Everyone this time laughs; alleviating the palatable tension created in just a few seconds of utter darkness.

Ghost stories abound in the cave, and terror is easily created. One only has to imagine being lost in the dark and falling prey to a Druid sacrifice, or even an angry lover following behind you. Silence, dark, a sound, echoes of voices so far away, a slight brushing of your skin, a hand around your throat, and…there you go…a great day spent in the dark tunnels underneath leafy London. Murder, Mystery, Romans, Ghosts, Druids, Rock and Roll, sounds of “We’ll meet again,” sung by Vera Lynn, all that’s just a normal day in Chislehurst Caves.

About susan sheldon

I am an explorer. It's taken me awhile to realise this. But I love capturing bits of our wonderful world with my camera, travelling through time and history, always returning to write, or paint what I've discovered. I use my Leica and my iPhone to capture images, and with those images I try to hold on to a feeling, a moment in our busy lives. Sometimes those moments bring me into the past, others into the studio to paint, or back to the old typewriter to try to use words to capture what the camera has done for me already. One of my goals in my blog is to have a space to take a breath away from our frantic world. I hope you enjoy your time here. It’s such a privilege to have readers.
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2 Responses to Tales from the City- Mucking about in a London Cave.

  1. crubin says:

    Oh my kids would have loved to have seen this when we were in London. Next time, I guess. 🙂

    • they would love it! the tour guide turns off the lanterns and gives everyone a good scare. (yes that was me screaming) it’s a super easy walk from the station and the kids can have a snack in the cave rest or in the pub nearby! its a must for families! 🙂

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