Beneath Chislehurst, a south eastern suburb of London, an extensive labyrinth of caves and tunnels await exploration. Originally a flint and chalk mine, the entire subterranean network is manmade and is believed to date back to at least 1250 when the area received its first recorded mention as a working mine. The caves have had a long and diverse history and today are available for you to explore with the aid of a tour guide.
The caves have been attracting tourists since the early 1900’s. During the First World War the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich used the area as an ammunition depot. Their usage changed in the 1930’s, with the cool, dark and damp atmosphere being turned over to the cultivation of mushrooms. However, during the Second World War the caves really came to prominence. In September 1940 with the aerial bombardment of London wreaking havoc across the city the caves were used as an air raid shelter.
As the raids continued electric lighting was installed and it as it became a safe, if temporary home for at least 15,000 Londoners, the caves even boasted their own chapel and hospital. The shelter was closed shortly after VE Day. However, during those war years it did see the birth of one new life, safe from the aerial bombardment of the blitz, a little girl who was named Rose Cavena Wakeman, in honour of her birthplace.
With the labyrinth having been in existence for so long, a theory was presented by the then Vice President of the British Archaeological Association, Mr William Nicholls, that the mines had been created by the Roman and Saxon population of the area, possibly even Druids. This theory was related to several of the cave features appearing to be druid altars and showing aspects of Roman architectural style, the theory even prompted the renaming of several parts of the labyrinth. There is however no documentation to support this hypothesis as written records only exist from 1250 AD.
Since the 1960’s the caves have appealed to the media industry. They have been used as a popular music venue with the likes of David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Status Quo and the Rolling Stones performing underground there. The Chislehurst Caves have also found themselves on screen, having been used as film sets for Doctor Who (‘the Mutants’) and the film The Tribe, amongst others. The caves and tunnels are a popular venue for a live action role playing game called ‘Labyrinthe’. They have also been the backdrop for a music video for metal band ‘Cradle of Filth’, and featured in an episode of ‘Seven Natural Wonders’.
Visiting Chislehurst Caves
Tours of the caves occur twice weekly (daily during school holidays). Visitors should dress appropriately for the venue; the temperature underground is cooler than on the surface and with uneven ground to cover, shoes should be appropriate to the terrain. Visitors are required to carry an oil lamp throughout the tour, torches are not permitted.