It took us over 30 years to finally get around to visiting Chislehurst Caves. Like so many things right on your doorstep, where you think “I should really go and have a look at that”, but never go. There is even a bus that is practically door to door from where we live to the caves. Anyway, I am glad we finally went, the caves are fascinating.
It is difficult, as you walk the short distance from Chislehurst Station to the entrance of the caves, to fathom that beneath those hills and nice family homes in London’s South-Eastern suburbia, lie 35 km (22 miles) of passages and tunnels, dug out over the last few hundred years to mine flint and chalk. So, yes, Chislehurst Caves aren’t really caves, but that’s what they are being called, so who am I to argue about the name? And anyway, the name Chislehurst Caves is already printed on all the merchandise, so I doubt they would change it now to Chislehurst Mines.
(click on images to enlarge)
The single storey building, housing the ticket office, gift shop and café, reminded us of a saloon in a Western movie, with its wide wooden veranda and cabin look. I kind of expected a few horses tied up to the railing, but instead you find a big free car park and a picnic area out front.
Tickets are £6 (adults) and £4 (children & over 60’s) for a 45-50 minute escorted tour which is led by one of the knowledgeable guides (and believe me, you will need a guide). Once you enter the caves you are given an oil lamp per family/couple, which will be your only source of light for most of the walk. The smell of the lamps hits your nose as soon as you enter the caves. I love it, it reminds me of the weekly evening outings spent in a cabin in the middle woods when I was a teenager, where me, my friends and a teacher would talk about everything under the stars.
The caves have been around for hundreds of years, but whether they were really used by the Romans and by druids is debateable, as there is no real proof of it and most of the ‘ancient history’ was written about/made up by just one person. Who knows if the bench you see was a druid’s altar or just somewhere where the miners had their lunch? What we do know is that the chalk, that was mined here, was used in the building of London, that the caves were used for ammunition storage for nearby Woolwich Arsenal during WWI, that mushrooms were grown in the dark passageways in the 1920’s and 30’s (there used to be a mushroom train!) and that during WWII the caves served as an air raid shelter for up to 15,000 people. It was an underground city, keeping people safe during bombing raids from the German army and providing them with services like a post office, a church, a barber and a dentist and even a hospital, where doctors thankfully never had to treat anything serious. Only one baby was born here, a little girl, who was christened Cavenia. You might not be too surprised that she changed her name to Rose as soon as she legally could. Apparently, she is still alive and well and will celebrate her 78th birthday this year. There are tableaus with mannequins to demonstrate what life must have been like underground, but only a few, and it is not too cheesy.
A decade later and the caves became the venue of gigs and concerts, hosting jazz and folk bands and in the 1960’s the likes of David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. On Halloween 1974 Led Zeppelin hosted a decadent (and somewhat infamous) party to launch their record company Swan Song in the caves, complete with strippers, magicians and fire-eaters and Roy Harper, Bad Company and The Pretty Things on the play bill.
There is a piece of artwork hidden deep inside the bowels of the cave. Mystic beasts and skeletons, a tree of life – it looks at first sight like an ancient carving, but it is a modern piece by an artist called Sandy Brown who spent a whole year in the mid-nineties working underground. To make sure nobody gets the wrong idea she incorporated Spiderman and Canary Wharf.
Top tips for visiting the caves:
Wear sensible shoes. I mean it. Forget heels and flip flops. The ground is uneven, like a cobbled street, and even though you have your oil lamp, visibility is limited, and by heeding my advice you will have one less thing to worry about.
Don’t go if you are claustrophobic or afraid of the dark. It is dark down there, and I mean very, very dark. At one point the guide will take your oil lamps off you for a little demonstration of how it would have felt like being in the caves during one of the blackouts while an air raid was going on in WWII, and it is literally so dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your eyes (at least when the kid wearing the flashing trainers finally turns them off). You do get the chance to give this a miss though, if that is too much darkness for your taste. I found it quite a powerful experience as nowadays there is so little occasion to experience true darkness.
Apparently, years ago, there was a contest where people could win £5 (then around 3 weeks’ wages) if they stayed underground with just a few candles and matches from 8pm to 8am the next morning. Of the 300 people, who signed up for the challenge, only one managed it. He was a local policeman, and even he said he would never do it again. That might have been partly down to the ghostly apparition of the White Lady, the ghost of a woman found drowned, in a wedding dress, in a deep pool within the caves who has been seen and felt in the underground corridors and alleyways by a number of people. Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you, these caves are haunted. There are also (reputedly) ghosts of a druid, a lady with a pram, a black dog, and a few more. They must have had a day off when we visited.
Try and keep up with your group (nothing to do with any of the above). There are so many tunnels, that if you lag behind, you might find yourself turning a corner and find yourself facing three or four different options of where to continue. You won’t see their lights and sound can also be very deceptive underground, so it is best not to even get yourself into this predicament. (We did, after taking photos of the music stage. Luckily G has the instincts of a tracker or scout and we soon caught up with the group.)
Are the caves suitable for disabled people and wheelchair users? Absolutely, if you are able to walk and stand for 45-50 minutes (on our walk we had somebody with a stick and somebody else on crutches). And if you have a wheelchair that can cope with rugged cobbly ground, there is no reason why you shouldn’t visit. Though it is probably best to take somebody with you who can push you when the going gets tough or at least hold the oil lamp. But there are no stairs or steep inclines, in fact the walk is pretty much level the whole time.
The caves are dry (though they have flooded in the past as some photos in the ticket hall show) and a constant 10°C, so a cardigan or jumper might be an idea, but you are moving pretty much the whole time, so not strictly necessary. It is a great place to visit year-round.
Before you leave, have look at the historic photos and exhibits in the ticket office; they really give you a sense of what has been going on in these caves. And the café serves good and reasonably priced food and drinks, worth a visit, even without visiting the caves.
The Caves & Café are open from Wednesday to Sunday and every day during local School & Bank Holidays (except at Christmas and the New Year) Tours every hour, on the hour from10am to last tour at 4pm.
Caveside Close, Old Hill
Chislehurst, Kent, BR7 5NL
Tel: 020 8467 3264
And guess what, there is something else going on in those tunnels now: live action role-playing! Check out: www.labyrinthe.co.uk