Except they are not really caves. Chiselhurst has a 22-mile long network of quarries, where soft chalk and flint has been mined for hundreds of years. The site is part of an independent Heritage Trail, rather than part of a national park or historical site commission. Some archeologists claim that the site was originally used by Saxons and Druids, but no independent evidence has been located prior to 1250 CE.
I was in London a couple years ago to attend the second TAM held in the UK, which was coordinated by the amazing Tracy King of London. I spent a few days before and after the meeting on some sightseeing. My friends Eric and Janet suggested Chiselhurst, so we took a train to the town to see it. Strangely for me, I took no pictures except a few with my phone, none of them in the caves, so the pictures with this post are from public sites.
A short walk from the Chislehurt train station, the entry to the caves lies against a tree-covered hill. As this was mid-week in October, we were the only people, so had our tour guide all to ourselves. The gentleman has been roaming the corridors of the caves for many years, and walked through the twisty passages without a map, and gave us both a tour and a history lesson. Quarried extensively after the past 9o0-plus years, in the 20th century the caves served as an ammo depot during World War I.
During World War II, the caves became the shelters for people fleeing the bombing of London and southern England. Part of the tour includes mock-ups of the small rooms that were created in the quarry to house and feed the population, as well as medical rooms, work details, a school for the children. Much of the museum contains photos, letters, and abandoned articles left at the end of the war. Each person is given an oil lamp, and in one point in the trip the guide assembled us in one of the rooms, and asked us to turn out the lights. Using his own light, he walked out of site around the labyrinth, to give us a sense of the total darkness. We waved our hands about: your brain tricks you into thinking you can see motion. After a few minutes in the darkness, we (or maybe it was just me) got a little nervous and found myself giggling and talking a bit much. I speculated that the tour guide had probably sneaked back and was standing right in front of us. Which, of course, he was.
One of the stops in the caves was a location where an artist, Sandy Brown, had been asked to carve a wall. Coming from the U.S. with a “don’t touch anything, don’t change anything” attitude, I found this a bit off-putting. The caves have frequently been used for filming, including 1972 Doctor Who episodes and scenes from the mini-series “Neverwhere” based on Neil Gaiman‘s book of the same name. In the 1960s, concerts were held in the caves, which include performers such as the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. As can be expected, there are special Halloween/spookfest events, which I notice are already sold out for this year.
Cost for adults is £5, and last about one hour. The floor is naturally uneven, so people with unsure footing, or in wheelchairs, might have some trouble negotiating the caves. Also, while the tour is quite child-friendly, anyone who panics in complete darkness might not enjoy the few minutes spent without light. In a small group, you could probably ask to skip that particular treat.
This being England, there are several nice pubs in the area around the train station. If you visit London, and want a relaxing day that is off the main tourist drag, I recommend a trip to see a tiny bit of British history and a quiet afternoon trying out pulled cask ales!
- Beckenham in England (taxilondoncab.com)
- One of The Deepest and Dangerous Caves In The World (oddstuffmagazine.com)
- caving and spelunking (hemelwandelaar.wordpress.com)
- Nottingham’s wondrous caves (boingboing.net)
- Blind Cave Catfish Sees With “Skin Teeth” (buzzfeed.com)
- Mapping the Mysterious Cave Network Under Nottingham (theatlanticcities.com)