Caveside Close, Old Hill,
Chislehurst BR7 5NL
Wednesday September 20 2017
My previous experience of caves has been of the damp rather drippy variety where we are encouraged to admire the stalactites and strange rock formations so to walk through man made passages and spacious ‘rooms’ was a very different experience. We were lucky enough to join an outing arranged by the Friends of the British Library which set off from the very welcoming (and informative) visitor centre really not far from Chislehurst Station and village.
We started with the obligatory health and safety chat – mind your head if tall and beware the (not very) uneven floor and you should be OK. I would add, stick to your party because the ‘caves’ are very labyrinthine and it would be very easy to take a wrong turning and get lost. The guidebook I bought indicated that there used to be a sniffer/guide dog who went round finding errant children at the end of the day. However the Friends of the Library are very well behaved and there were no waifs or strays today – in fact we had a participant whose father lived in the village during the war and almost certainly would have sheltered here.
There is limited electric lighting in the system, restricted to the various tableaux, so many of us were armed with paraffin lanterns complete with the smell so redolent of my childhood where we had paraffin stoves to supplement our meagre heating.
The different sections of the caves have different names – the Saxons, Romans and Druids, which according to a Mr Nicholls was because each period had inhabited a different part of the cave system. Though colourful this seemed extremely fanciful and what is much more likely is that these ‘caves’ were in fact dug out in the 18th and for sure the 19th centuries partly for the chalk, but almost certainly for the flint . Although Mr Nichols belonged to the local Archaeological Society there was little proof for his theory. Mr Nichols and his detractors debated their theories in public (or at least in the Bickley Arms where station approach joins the main street) and the public came to listen and then to visit the caves. Very soon it became an Edwardian tourist attraction and with the local railway offering better connections the visitors came in large numbers. Apparently the caves were enhanced by a colourful display of what sounds like fairy lights.
There was certainly flint in the rock faces and this was pointed out to us. Its extraction and processing, like most underground minerals, are both dangerous and lengthy requiring much hard labour. Flint knapping, as it was called, was broken down into different stages of breaking the seams of flint into the slivers which were suitable to provide the spark to ignite your powder in your guns. As the British Army used flintlocks for over 100 years this would have been a going concern, except for the poor knappers who would have died a premature death due to the sharp particles they inhaled while they worked.
With this link to the British Army it is not altogether surprising that the not so distant Royal Arsenal based at Woolwich got to hear about these caves and decided it was a good dry place to store their explosives, TNT amongst them. The local population became alarmed and protested about living above a potential explosion but some tests carried out showed that no booms reached the surface so the Army increased their store. In order to transport it safely to the surface they constructed a small underground railway and there was a permanent if bored guard roster on duty here – leaving some graffiti to keep themselves and future generations amused.
Once the risks of the First World War seemed over the underground passages were leased by the Kent Mushroom Company whose manager, the aptly named Mr Gardner, finally bought them in 1932, and the attraction stays within the same family to this day. Mr Gardner had not been the first horticulturist as a local resident with a large house above the site thought it would be interesting to sink a vent /passage and construct a night garden for asparagus, celery and rhubarb. He seemed to retain enough staff to carry out the amount of digging out this project required; even more impressive was the need to have water for the garden and a well was sunk to reach the water table well (sorry) down. Originally crystal clear and drinkable it now has a blueish hue, due to the number of ‘lucky’ (copper) pennies dropped into it for wishing purposes.
The mushroom farm thrived till 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War. Almost immediately the caves were ear-marked as shelters and used initially by the local families when there were air-raids. However as the raids increased through Kent and South-east London the numbers taken shelter rose quickly to 6-8,000 nightly, and at the height of the Blitz there were 15.000 people taking shelter, sometimes staying for days at a time and also providing temporary homes for those who had lost everything. The cave system was divided into pitches with bunks three high (those in the top bunks must have hit their heads). Originally the wooden bunks were provided by the Mushroom company and Mr Gardener organised his work force (mushrooms were long gone) into guides/supervisors for the caves. This was the most interesting part of the visit as Darren our guide told us how the numbers of those sheltering rose from the original few thousand into a whole community which had, at the height of the Blitz, shops, a Post Office, a church and a hospital plus a couple of canteens. As the numbers rose so did the temperature from an ambient 10° (caves tend to have the same temperature whatever it is outside) to 30° generated by the massed body heat requiring an improved ventilation system to bring conditions back down to the bearable. With all those people water was needed and of course toilet blocks, though we were told these were only chemical and pretty unsavoury. In the early days the shelter was run by the Mushroom company but as the powers that be recognised the numbers the government did take over and provided the metal bunks to replace the rather makeshift wooden ones. We were told that everyone was treated equally – you had a pitch. If your family was large enough you could be given a whole small cave but money did not talk and the better off had to bunk down like everyone else.
Apparently there were ledgers and records – of which families were where – but these, along with the whole infrastructure of wiring and plumbing were destroyed once the Second World war was over. The lack of records is quite sad as there are often visitors who remember coming to the caves as children but their ‘exact location’ cannot be pinpointed. Mostly pregnant women were transferred to an outside hospital for delivery (unless there was an air-raid actually in progress) but one baby was born underground only to be named ‘Cavina’ by her parents – no surprise she later called herself Rosie..
Once the shelters were dismantled and the last two families evicted/re-housed the caves were empty. However a few musicians who had sheltered here during the war remembered how good the acoustics were and used to bring their jazz bands down for impromptu sessions. Word quickly spread and through the late Fifties and Sixties the ‘stage’ was home to a range of names – David Bowie before he was Bowie (quite a local lad really) in 1966 Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin as late as 1974.
Sadly there were complaints from the local residents, not that they could hear the music but the people leaving the venue made too much noise so by this time licensing and local authorities were flexing their muscles and the music stopped. I can remember working with people who lived locally and had been to concerts and raves down here…
That more or less brings the history of the caves up to date – it has been running as a museum for some years and works hard at improving the facilities – the quality of our tour was excellent and I imagine it is tailored to the audience with perhaps a greater sprinkling of spooky tales and ghosts for a different demographic of visitors. However this is a place that truly has something for everyone and offers a really unique experience.