Chislehurst Caves – London, England
In July 2014 while I was in London with my girlfriend we made a morning trip to a place called the Chislehurst caves. This wasn’t something I had planned on doing on this trip; I didn’t even know about it until she found it on some travel website. Once she showed it to me, we added it to the list. I have gone on cave tours before; ones that required some gear and a guide and others that were set up for walking groups like these ones. Both were great times and really interesting.
At £6 each for a walking tour that lasted about an hour lit by old paraffin lanterns, how could you not want to go?
The Chislehurst caves are limestone tunnels that network over 35 kilometers (22 miles for my American friends) of tunnels with thousands of years of history. People believe they date back over 2000 years before the Romans were even in England. One of the things that really intrigue me is that the caves were almost in continuous use for this entire period so there weren’t a lot of artifacts to be found. These tunnels weren’t closed off for a long period of time to be rediscovered like the pyramids or other tombs.
The Ancient History of Chislehurst caves
There are three distinct sections to the caves. The sections were originally all worked by separate groups and are now joined together. Each section was named after the tribe or culture that theorists believe to have worked the caves.
The first section we entered was the Roman section. It is believed to be mined between 43 AD and 410 AD during the Roman occupation of Britain. In this section you can see how they mined out in huge straight chunks of limestone, like you would see in a quarry. It is my assumption that the Roman’s would have used this limestone for roads all around England as they had several towns under occupation and forts through the region.
Another area of the caves was the Druid section which they believe predates the Roman section. This area was much different it’s almost as though it was carved for a purpose as the walls are very fluid and smooth. Our tour guide showed us several altars at the ends of some tunnels in this area. He also let out a bellowing chant to demonstrate how the sound travels extremely well throughout this area due to the smooth curved walls. It’s completely unknown if this section was used for some kind of ritual or not so we really only have theories on what everything was used for.
The third area of the cave was the “Saxon” section. Unfortunately we didn’t enter this area of the caves as there was a lot of water present due to rain run off gathering in the area.
Modern history of Chislehurst Caves
In the 1900s the cave has some documented history. During the First World War it was used as an ammunition storage facility. Then in between the wars it was used as a mushroom farm. (Are they even called farms?) Then in September 1940 when the air raids on London began it was turned into one of the largest air raid shelters during the war and housed over 15,000 people safe at night. It was used as an air raid shelter until the end of the war in Europe on May 8th, 1945.
You could see a lot of evidence of people living in the caves, it was also reconstructed slightly for tourism purposes but there’s still a wire strung along the roof of the cave that would have been used for lights. Some cinderblock walls still remain where they would have turned alcoves into makeshift hospitals, bathrooms, storage or schools.
One of the most interesting parts for me was the bunk markers on the walls. Each bunk bed had a letter and a number that was assigned to each person as they checked into the cave. Near all of these markings you could see how people carved out little shelves to rest a candle on or some other belongings.
After the war the caves were in full swing as a bar and rock venue where many huge acts like the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendricks and David Bowie performed. For Halloween 1974 Led Zepplin rented it out for a launch party of their Swan Song record label.
With that unbelievable music history you’d think every rock band would want to play there and we’d be hearing about all of these exclusive concerts in a cave on social media right? Unfortunately it was shut down as a bar. I would guess it was probably partially due to being now under residential neighbourhood but more importantly being a cave probably had some safety issues if a fire were ever to break out.
The tour guide we had was fantastic and told us so many more stories and features of the caves, unfortunately I couldn’t write them all down from memory. These are just a few that stuck out to me. There were lots of carvings on the walls, both old and new all had unique stories you could only imagine.
If any of you ever get a chance to go here, take the opportunity and go, you will not be disappointed, whether you’re into history, ghosts, rock and roll, or even mushroom farming! 😀 It’s got something for everyone! It’s not difficult to get to just a 30min train ride from downtown London and less than a 5 minute walk from the station. I think if you give it a chance you’ll really enjoy it like we did!
If you’ve been and want to share your thoughts, please let me know in the comments.
Tangent Story! On the train ride over to the caves there were several oddly dressed guys in the same train car as us, anywhere in age from 18-30 I’d guess. They were the only other people in the train that I noticed and they were talking very excitedly about dungeons and dragons. I’ve never played so I couldn’t understand what they were saying but they got off at the same stop as we did. We had to figure out what direction the caves were so I lost track of them until we arrived at the caves. The guys on our train met up with several friends and they were now all putting on armor and robes and different costumes. This was a cool sight for me as I’ve never really seen cosplay outside of a few conventions I’ve gone to. I asked the guy working the cave gift shop about them and it turns out every weekend groups of people show up and play real life role playing games in the caves. This is probably the coolest venue available to do this in the world.