BENEATH the streets of a south-east London suburb can be found an extraordinary and mysterious network of tunnels, hewn from chalk and in total more than 20 miles long. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the story of Chislehurst Caves, with a cast of thousands including Adolf Hitler, Doctor Who, Jimi Hendrix, battling historians, David Bowie, mushroom farmers, Lonnie Donegan, wartime refugees and Led Zeppelin.
During World War II, the Chislehurst labyrinth acted as an air-raid shelter, with as many as 15,000 people at a time huddled together safe from German bombs. Families had their own alcoves, or pitches, and some spent years underground.
There was electric lighting, shops, a chapel, a hospital, a theatre and communal bathrooms. Every facility you could find above ground was down there too, I am told, although I have struggled to find evidence of a pub.
In April 1941 a baby born 30ft beneath the streets of Chislehurst was christened Cavena Wakeman in the chapel – she changed her name to Rose at the age of 18 while keeping Cavena as a middle name.
A nightly charge of a penny per person was made to cover the cost of sanitary arrangements. A set of rules at the entrance read as follows:
1 No admission or re-entry to the Dormitory Section after 9.30pm.
2 Shelterers already asleep in the Main Caves must not be disturbed by persons coming to their pitches.
3 Pitches must be kept clean.
4 No furniture admitted.
5 Stoves of all kinds are prohibited.
6 Rubbish must be placed in the bins.
7 Children must be on their pitches by 9pm & remain there.
8 Unauthorised sale of goods is prohibited.
9 There must be reasonable quiet by 10pm.
10 Lights out and absolute silence by 10.30pm in the Dormitory Section.
11 Pitches must not be changed, exchanged or sold.
12 Four days’ absence may involve loss of pitch.
As Hitler’s bombs rained on the capital, thousands of Londoners took the train from Victoria to Chislehurst seeking safety. Often the sign ‘Caves Full’ had to go up and they were turned away.
Such was the orderliness and community spirit within that many families came to love their temporary home and when the shelter was closed shortly after VE Day, some were reluctant to return to daylight.
The history of the caves remains murky to this day. In 1903, the Vice President of the British Archaeological Association, William Nichols, suggested that they were made by the Druids, Romans and Saxons. There is said to be a mention of mines and lime-burning kilns in the area in a 9th-century Saxon charter, and then again in the 13th century. A chalk cave was documented in 1737.
However in 1938 an antiquarian named Arthur Bonner dismissed the ‘Chislehurst Cave Myth’ in response to an article in the Times which described ‘30 miles of explored passages, hewn out of the chalk with deer antlers, the marks clearly visible’. The piece referred to an ‘Elizabethan villa with a spiral passage to the caves’.
Bonner said that expert analysis had dated the workings as 19th century. His Majesty’s Inspectors of Mines, he said, were ‘amused at the idea of antiquity for them’. He added: ‘The conclusion is clear – that the caves are chalk mines and show no early date; and, incidentally, that the so-called “deerhorn” pick marks are fanciful.’
The spiral passage, he said, ended in the garden of Woodlands, a Victorian (not Elizabethan) house and was made in about 1860 by G H Baskcomb, proprietor of a brick and tile works, who owned part of the caves and of the land above. A so-called ‘Roman’ well was made by him about 1864. At that time the caves produced lime which was burned in kilns and used for building.
During the Great War, they acted as an ammunition store for the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. In the 1930s they became a mushroom farm with the damp, dark conditions ideal for fungus rearing.
Following World War II they became a venue for skiffle and rock and roll acts including Lonnie Donegan, Adam Faith, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Marty Wilde. The Rolling Stones played there in the 1960s along with Pink Floyd, the Yardbirds, the Animals, the Troggs, the Shadows and, four times, the local singer-songwriter David Jones (later Bowie). Jimi Hendrix and the Experience were there in December 1966 and January 1967, and you can only imagine the noise echoing along the tunnels.
Among a bunch of television programmes filmed in the caves was The Mutants, a 1972 Doctor Who story.
In October 1974, Led Zeppelin held a media bash there to mark the launch of their own label, Swan Song Records. Shouldn’t imagine there was much debauchery that night.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there were many reports of supernatural events down below and these featured in two episodes of the TV show Most Haunted. A book, The Ghosts of Chislehurst Caves, was published in 2011 containing testimonies from guides and owners over half a century.
The caves were a firmly established tourist attraction when we moved to nearby Beckenham in 1991 and we visited several times with the kids, who loved them. A 50-minute guided tour took us round the smelly, claustrophobic tunnels and sections including the well-preserved hospital and family pitches. The most memorable moment was when the lights went out and the guide hit a huge metal tank with a hammer to demonstrate the echo effect which reverberated for what seemed like minutes and was still ringing in my ears that night after several G and Ts.
Visitors are still welcome between Wednesday and Sunday. Attendance was obviously badly affected during the Covid fiasco but things are getting back to normal and I can highly recommend a visit to this strange subterranean world.
Old jokes’ home
From the great Tommy Cooper: ‘I said to the gym instructor, “Can you teach me to do the splits?”, He said, “How flexible are you?” I said, “I can’t make Tuesdays”.’
A PS from PG
He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg.
PG Wodehouse: A Damsel in Distress