40 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.