Category Archives: The Blog

The Chislehurst ‘Caves’

chislehurst240 metres or so beneath Chislehurst, a pleasant little suburban village close to Bromley, are the Chislehurst Caves. In fact ‘Caves’ is something of a misnomer, these being some 22 miles of man made tunnels that make up an old chalk mine.

Take the guided tour and you will be treated to tales of druidical sacrifices of women and children on an altar, and be shown a map of the Roman and Saxon areas of the mine, but there seems little historical evidence to back any of these claims.

There is also a little bit of ‘sameness’ about the mine; as the tunnels and spaces are all man made and all hewn through chalk, there is a uniformity to the passageways and a lack of the surprise one gets in natural cave structures – there are no sudden reveals of huge caverns or underground streams, no stalagtites, no different rock strata to give colour and contrast.

What can’t be denied though is the utter blackness of the caves when the guide turns off the light, or the echo, like rolling thunder, that reverberates through 22 miles of tunnels when he loudly hit a drum. Nor can you quite escape that feeling of claustrophobia and fear of the dark.

And notwithstanding the lack of ancient history to the Caves, its modern story is fascinating enough. From being used as an ammunition store in WW1 (I hate to think what would have happened to the pleasant suburban village if 22 miles worth of ordnance had gone up in one bang), to a ’60s concert venue for the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones, the Caves have had significant and varied use throughout this century.

The most important and strange of these was as an air raid shelter in WW2. In fact it was not so much a shelter as an underground town, with 16,000 overnight residents at its peak in 1941. You would pay 1d a night (6d a week) for your ‘pitch’ and be crammed into narrow bunks that were themselves crammed into small chambers within the mine. Imagine the smell of 16,000 bodies in the days before deodorant (and with no running water for toilets), or the noise echoing round the tunnels of 16,000 people chattering, snoring and crying.

It’s an interesting place and worth a visit, but take a large pinch of salt for the tour.

6828015630_b86ba4da71

Four foot high front door, Chiswick

four foot high front door, Strand on the Green, Chiswick

A picture from a stroll along Strand on the Green in Chiswick yesterday. The tide comes in across the footpath (one could see the tide mark from the previous evening about 3 inches up the garden walls). Obviously the houses used to flood on particularly high tides, so there are is an array of measures in place to try to stop this happening. At this house a rather extreme route was taken with the front door being blocked up to the level of the window sills and the door reduced to around 60% of its original height.

The Tower Hill memorial

tower_hill_mem_cwgc
The Tower Hill Memorial – picture CWGC

Directly across the road by the Tower of London, hard by the tube station is the Tower Hill Memorial to sailors of the merchant navy and fishing fleets who were killed in the two World Wars and who have ‘no grave but the sea’. (See Google maps.)

There are over 35,000 names inscribed in the Memorial’s two sections; just under 12,000 from the First World War and around 24,000 from the Second. Although overall British casualties in WW2 were substantially lower than in the Great War, the losses of the merchant marine show the dependence of Britain on imported goods and materiel during the conflict, as well as the ferocity of the German U-boat and naval assault on British shipping. Both sides knew that Britain could be defeated if starved of food and resources.

Despite its location, the memorial is not visited much by tourists; walk through the metal gates and you will be in a peaceful enclosed space that seems insulated from much of the traffic and city noise. The original memorial, opened in 1928 by Queen Mary, is quite dark and enclosed, taking the form of a vaulted corridor with 12 bronze plaques on which are listed the names of the dead. Continue reading

“Your lucky day”: the gold ring scam

So, there I am, walking up Chelsea Bridge Road towards Sloane Square. “Look at this!” says a man who has just passed me, “Look what I’ve just found!”

I turn round to see him picking something shiny off the pavement. My first thought was that it was a button off a Chelsea Pensioner’s tunic (we’re just by the Hospital) but then I see it’s a ring.

“Not mine” I say. “Not mine” says the man, “but look at it, it’s gold, look” and he presses it into my hand. “Look, gold” he says again, pointing to a hallmark (although it isn’t a proper hallmark, just two little stamps), “you have it. Your lucky day.”

I don’t want a gold ring that isn’t mine. It means I’m going to have to find a police station and hand the damn thing in, so I try to give it back.

“No, no. You have it. Your lucky day. Your lucky day.”

So I turn to go. Two steps later..
“Your lucky day…so can you give me some money for cigarettes? For food?”

And the penny drops, it’s a scam of some sort. “No, no,” I say, “Your lucky day.” and I put the ring into his hand.

I don’t know what would have happened next; if I’d given him a quid, would I have been hassled for more (“A pound? You’ve got a gold ring!”)?; would someone have come and claimed the ring (although it was almost certainly worthless)?

This is apparently a well-known and long-standing scam in Paris, but it’s the first I’ve heard of it in London. Let’s see if it’s a one-off, or whether we all get familiar with it over the next few years…



“Big problems call for Big solutions” – the Abercrombie plan

“The Proud City” is a wonderful bit of film freely available on the Internet Archive. Made to sell the idea of the Abercrombie plan for London, it is passionate about the need to tackle the unsanitary conditions in which much of London’s inhabitants were forced to live, and about the benefits to all of a planned city where transport moved freely, where children had somewhere to play, and where ‘communities’ would thrive and develop. It also provides a great window onto the people and the landscapes of wartime London. I especially like the ‘men from the ministry’ types in their hats and three piece suits clambering over rubble and into living rooms, tape measures in hand.


The Abercrombie Plan (more accurately ’plans’ – there was the County Of London plan of 1943 and the Greater London plan of 1944) has its roots pre-war, but the same thinking behind the 1941 Beveridge report into social security – that common sacrifice in wartime should result in common benefits in victory – provided a catalyst for the Plan to be drawn up. And like Beveridge, who fought against the five evils of squalor, want, ignorance, idleness and disease, the Abercrombie plan set out to tackle London’s own miseries of “decay, dirt and inefficiency”.

(As an aside, you have to feel sorry for Abercrombie’s co-author, J H Forshaw. Although Abercrombie was the main author and driver behind the plan, Forshaw seems to have been almost entirely forgotten. This blog post will do little to rectify that – I am using ‘Abercrombie’ as a name for the plan itself.)

Further impetus was of course given by the fact that there was almost literally a clean slate where the Blitz had razed whole areas (50,000 homes in inner London were destroyed, over 60,000 in outer London); across the city as a whole over 2 million properties had suffered some bomb damage. In its scale Abercrombie is similar to the plans drawn up the previous time large areas of the old city needed to be redeveloped, after the Great Fire, with Sir John Evelyn’s plans and Wren’s vision of the City both giving long, wide, straight roads linking new urban spaces.

Certainly, the scale and ambition of the Plan would have had no hope of even being considered had not wartime devastation meant that some form of citywide reconstruction had to happen; the Plan prescribed widened roads, factories to be moved, new housing to be built around new public green spaces and the resettlement out of the city of a huge number of the current population. And this wouldn’t just be new build on bombsites as thousands of surviving buildings would need to be cleared to make way for the vision. Continue reading

Charles Dickens and the Newstraid Benevolent Fund

Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago next month. One of his lesser-known roles was as president of the NewstrAid Benevolent Fund and his influence during the charity’s formative years (he was president from 1854 to 1870), ensured an enduring foundation and a charity which now supports over a thousand beneficiaries.

Dickens understood the plight of the “newsman” and was passionate about helping those who brought the news to the masses, when they fell on hard times. Established in 1839 to look after newspaper street sellers when they had to give up work through age or infirmity and had nothing to live on, the charity was initially called the News vendors’ Benevolent & Provident Institution, but the long name soon proved too wordy for most and the charity became  known as ‘Old Ben’ – a nickname that endures to this day.

The newspaper and magazine industry is changing rapidly, but the core of the business remains with the printed word; companies are still reliant on circulation sales and the charity still protects those who are out from early morning to late at night.

To find out more about the Newstraid Benevolent Fund, click here.