Chislehurst Caves

On Saturday 23rd April, Vince Allkins organised a trip to Chislehurst Caves for the caving masses and their families. The trip was well attended with approximately 35 people attending from the very young, 6 years old up to those older members of society you don't ask ages of.

So for the princely sum of £4 we entered these much ranted about mines. Although promises of unseen passage were on the books it turns out that the only area not usually visited is the original church dating from WWII. This has an impressive domed ceiling cut up into the chalk. This area is now full of debris and so is usually closed to the public.

It must be said that during the tour the members of C.C.C. behaved more like the kids than the kids did, running up and down every possible passage in sight like they have just found the lost gold mines of the Inca's, it did make the trip more interesting though!

The text below is from a CSS publication 'Caves and Tunnels in Kent' in 1972? and contains a guides rant on the caves as well as location and technical data. I thought it may interest those went to actually see what the guide should say if given half a chance.

Location The caves are marked on the 1" 0.S. map at TQ 433696. They are also well signposted from the region of Chislehurst Station. Walk north down Station Road, turn right and almost at once right again into Caveside Close. A track leads to a ticket office, public conveniences and a car park. This site has the distinction of being the only cave in the London Telephone Directory at 01-467 3264. Strictly speaking we should be talking about Chislehurst Mine but it is universally known as the Caves.

Access The Caves are open to the public and times prices are frequently advertised in "What's on in London" and the evening papers. The owner, James Gardner, will also allow private parties to enter by arrangement. It is also possible to hire out part of the caves for dances, rave-ups etc. At one time it was also possible to earmark a bit of floorspace as an H-bomb shelter.

History The literature given out by the proprietor claims that the caves are "the best preserved remains of ancient British and Roman work in the country, in places dating probably from several centuries BC to the return of the legions to Rome." Also "the Romans, those great builders and constructors in advance of their times used much chalk from here to build their wall surrounding London and for road-marking." Relationships with the Druids and Sir Christopher Wren are also claimed.

The guide's commentary runs as follows:-

" On the wall here a map of the caves so far explored. Twenty-two miles of man-made passageway cut from the living chalk. Now as you see from the map the caves are in three main parts. At the bottom - the Romans, 2,000 years old. On the left - the most recent part, the Anglo-Saxons, 1200 to 1300 years old.

" Now the caves vary in depth below the ground from 40 ft. at the main entrance hall and map room, where we are at the moment, to over 150 ft. in some parts of the lower Roman caves down here.

" Now the temperature in the caves is constant also, summer and winter, at 45 degrees Fahrenheit - a bit chilly at the moment.

" Now the caves themselves were used throughout two world wars. In the First World War by the government as a large ammunition store, and light railway lines were installed to bring the ammunition on small trucks to and from the entrance. And during the Second World War there were shops, canteens, cinemas, dance halls, a hospital a church and a gymnasium, for the caves were used as an air-raid shelter, sheltering over 15,000 people down here every night, and at that time electric lighting was installed in all the passageways. The caves were in fact almost an underground city on their own. So much so that when the end of the war finally came there was a great deal of difficulty in getting rid of some of the shelterers.

" Now obviously we are not going to walk all the 22 miles this afternoon. You are quite welcome to try - it would take you about 10½ hours. The tour we are going to do is short one lasting just over half an hour and covering about a mile. Now before we leave this map room would you all please take a good look at this map and try to memorise it. You never know we might get lost on the way. Would you like to come this may please....

" On the wall just here are a number of carvings by an unknown sculptor, believed to date back to the early Elizabethan period. The one at the top just there was believed to be that of Shakespeare, who we know to have stayed at Scadbury Hall, Sidcup. During Shakespeare's stay he wrote several of his works and he also paid a visit to the caves. At the bottom is a skeleton, on the corner here the figure of a cat. I am afraid that the remainder of them - your guess is as good as mine......

" Down the passage to the side here - another part of the caves which we know as the French Caves. They get their name from the time when the Emperor Napoleon III used to live in part of Chislehurst, and he used part of the caves as a storehouse for some of his possessions. In fact when this part of the cave was excavated a few years ago some of his possessions were found hidden in a section of passageway behind that door just there.......

" Now at this point we are standing on the entrance to another vast series of caves some 20 ft. or more below. Unfortunately the entrance was blocked in 1862 by mud and chalk washed in by a violent storm..... We do know that the Romans used the chalk from the caves below in building their roads and part of the great wall around London. The chalk from the caves was also mentioned at a later date by Sir Christopher Wren. Now if you stamp on the floor here you will see that it is very hollow underneath. (Stamp. Stamp).

" Now we are about to make our way to the oldest part of the caves - the Druids, over 4,000 years old....

" Above us in the chalk roof at this point are the fossilised remains of an Ichthyosaurs. We are informed by the geologist who discovered these remains that the head should lie about 20 ft. away in that direction, although some specimens when fully grown were over 60 ft. long (Grrrr).

" Down the passageway on the left just here there's a well of Roman origin. This was originally 90 ft. deep and it was used before the war as a wishing well. In fact at the beginning of the war about twenty pounds worth of copper was recovered from the bottom of it. Unfortunately as you will see in a minute, the shelterers filled it up with rubbish to the extent of 40 ft. It's a great shame. It's a Roman masterpiece, well over 2,000 years old..... Now on windy days since the war there have been strong currents of air coming up from the bottom of the well, and we believe it's possible that the underground stream which once supplied the water level, has dried up, leaving a possible way through to the caves below. if you would like to go and have a look at it I will wait here.

" In this cave are about 150 stalactites which are just beginning to grow. As the rate of growth is only about one inch every 1,000 years you can see that at the most they are only about 500 years old. So if you would like to come back in ......

" On the wall just there are stains which are caused by the minerals which seep through the chalk with the water. Now the red-brown stains at the near end are caused by iron minerals, and the blue a little further along by copper minerals.

" We are now standing in a Druid temple. This temple was first discovered about 60 years ago by a Professor Nichols, one of the foremost archaeologists of his day. Now when he came into the temple in 1905 there was on the alter at that time a block of stone with the imprint of a human body in it. This imprint was the size of a boy or girl aged between 10 - 14. Now it is his belief that on a midsummer night's eve a number of Druids will go into one of the nearby villages and select a victim of this particular age group, bring them down into the caves and into this temple and tie them to the block of stone with their head at this end. They would then sever the jugular vein in the victim's neck with a bronze knife, collecting the blood in a small goblet placed on that ledge there. This blood would be offered up to their gods, and in their ceremonial robes the Druids would dance and chant up and down this, the longest and straightest passageway in the caves. Now altogether there are nine of these temples in the caves. We believe that this is the main sacrificial one as it is the only temple with a priest's chamber in it. This is cut with a semi-domed roof and in here the priest would stand throughout the entire ceremony. Now the reason for constructing these temples in a maze was that if a victim ever managed to escape, which was very rare indeed, he could obviously never find his way out again.

" Note the construction of the caves. They are very neat and clean. This is a typical form of Druid construction with the walls almost perpendicular, the roof flat and very high. Now the floor itself is a very hard limestone. It is worn to this pebbled effect by the thousands of feet that have walked over it over the centuries. it is so hard that at many places it will even turn the bit of a pneumatic drill - we've tried it.

" Now the caves themselves are believed to have one of the greatest echoes to be heard in any series of caves in England. Now if you would like to keep perfectly quiet for just a few moments I would like to demonstrate this to you. Would you just stay there please.

CRASH !!!!!!!!!!

" Would you like to come up here please? Now as you can see to obtain a loud report we hit an old water tank with a brick. The resulting echo has been timed with electronic instruments to last, in suitable circumstances, up to 39 seconds. A few years ago we had a B.B.C. camera team down here filming in a cave just down there. While they were filming one of the guides crept up behind them and hit this brick with the tank - er hit the tank with the brick. They nearly beat the Russians into space.

" Leaving behind the Druid section of the caves and entering the Romans, 2,000 years old. Now you will notice in the Roman section the different form of cave construction. The walls are much rougher, the ceiling is lower, and the caves themselves are almost semi-circular in form. Now the passageway we are about to go through leads to the haunted chamber. Now the chamber itself is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who was murdered in the caves about 180 years ago, and according to modern day spiritualists her ghost still walks and haunts this passageway. Now if you are feeling a little nervous the best thing not to do is to look over your shoulder.

" We are standing in the Haunted Chamber. The murder is supposed to have taken place about where that brick wall now stands. There was at one time a water hole into which this woman was pushed. I am afraid that it has long since been filled in. It is strange however that the murder is supposed to have taken place in this particular chamber for this is unique amongst the 22 miles of passageway. This is the only passageway without an echo. You will notice here that sound falls completely dead. You lose the echo as you come through the passageway just there, but you regain the echo immediately upon turning this corner here, and no-one has been able to explain this. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

" Now a few years ago we used to issue a challenge to any person for the princely sum of five pounds to spend a night alone in the Haunted Chamber. The last person to take up this challenge spent the night just here surrounded by a ring of candles whittling at a piece of wood. It is his story that he had been here for about three hours at approximately 2 o-clock in the morning when he saw mist arising from the floor and on top of the mist the figure of a woman walking. At the same time all his candles went out. He was so terrified that he ran back towards the main entrance and in doing so he hit his head on one of the low passages. He was found unconscious the next morning just inside the main entrance. Ever since that time we have considered it unwise to let anyone else try and repeat the experience.

" This brick wall here is all that remains of the war-time hospital. Now this hospital had seven wards of which two were isolation wards, and it was fully staffed throughout the Second World War by a doctor and two nurses of the British Red Cross. Now the hospital was never really needed as there were no serious illnesses down here during the war. There was however one happy even when a baby girl was born so we are told, the only baby girl to be born down here during the war. She was afterwards christened in the Caves Chapel, after the caves, her second name being "Cavina" - poor girl.

" This building on your left was a ticket office for admission to the caves during the war. The price of admission was a penny a night, or sixpence a week for adult, children were free. At these prices the caves quickly got the reputation of being the cheapest and safest and certainly the most popular private hotel in London.

" Now I am afraid that you will have to conclude your tour. I hope that you have all enjoyed it. It you would like to place your lanterns on the table there the way out to civilisation and the warmth is straight up through the doorway there. Thank you very much."

I am obliged to Neil M Young for making and providing the tape recording of the commentary which was given on 30.11.1966. Also for photographing and re-drawing the map from the wall of the map room. A visit in 1970 showed that the commentary had scarcely changed at all.

Although the details of occupation in the two World Wars are undoubtedly correct what value can we place upon the claims for great antiquity? Speaking personally I should not blame the proprietor for making the whole thing up. After all the great majority of visitors have come to be entertained and it is necessary to ply their attention with something while conducting them for half an hour around the utterly featureless chalk passages which average 11 ft. high and 8 ft. across.

However they can claim some academic weight for their remarks. Most of the claims were put forward in two papers written by Mr W J Nichols, the Vice-President of the British Archaeological Association, no less. (90).

Of course all the other archaeologists eagerly rushed forward to put the boot in, and Chislehurst de-bunking has been a favourite occupation ever since. The arguments that Chislehurst is a chalk mine of no great antiquity can be summarised as follows:-

a) Camden, the eminent Kent Historian, author of "Brittanica 1610, and recorder of several curious underground phenomena in Kent lived only a mile from the site of the caves yet made no mention of them.
b) In 1830 the site was leased to a limeburner who sold lime chalk and gun flints to the Government.
c) The caves were being actively dug at that time and five limekilns were in use at about 1840. The lime was sold to farmers for marling.
d) From the middle and outer series chalk was raised from a shaft in each. Part of the machinery was still in existence in this century.
e) The inner series was subsequently developed and the chalk was brought out on horse-drawn trolleys. Mining ceased between 1855 and 1860 when a series of roof falls blocked the inner series.
f) The total measured length of passage is about 6 miles.
g) The O.S. map of 1862 describes the place as a "chalk pit" and marks an engine house and two kilns.
h) The spiral ascent from the middle series, sometimes claimed to have been the means by which Shakespeare entered the mine, ends in the garden of "Woodlands" a Victorian, and not as claimed Elizabethan house. It was made at about 1860 by G H Baskomb, then proprietor of a brick and tile works and par-owners of the caves. He also made the `Roman' Well in about 1864.
i) Walls are smoothed over in modern chalk mines, not for a ceremonial purpose, but to prevent small fragments from falling down. No documentary or other proof of connections with the Druids, Wren, Napoleon III or Shakespeare. The fossilised ichtyosaurus is a piece of flint. The Druid's altars are mis-oriented and are in fact working benches as can be seen in other mines and deneholes. The hollow sound at one point is simply an echo and not necessarily evidence of a lower series.

All of which rather takes the fun out of Chislehurst but it is still well worth a visit as the best preserved chalk mine in Britain. The route into the inner series was re-opened by Kent Mushrooms Ltd., who occupied it between the two World Wars. Since then the cave has neither been extended not diminished, though it has suffered from flooding once or twice after exceptionally heavy rain.

It is interesting to note that there is a reference to what appears to be another set of passages nearby (111), "at the corner of Camden park". If separate then they have disappeared altogether. They were last noted in 1899 with the comment that "due to building they will soon be inconspicuous."

Description The mine consists of a labyrinth of arched chalk passages where one could easily get lost. The passages are from 7 ft. to 12 ft. high and 6 ft. to 10 ft. wide. Irregular trapezoids of chalk support the roof. Two plans are reproduced here. One is a copy of that to be seen on the wall in the "Map Room"; the other is by T E Forester, a mining engineer, made around 1904. This does not show the inner series as that was blocked with roof falls at the time and other problems were encountered with waist deep water. The plan was completed by Arthur Bonner and friends in 1921 and the wall plan is likely to be a transcript of this.
There also exists a high quality modern plan in the possession of the proprietors, probably drawn in the Second World War. There is also reference to a very early plan drawn in the early 1900's by compass and pacing.


'The Chislehurst Caves and Deneholes', W J Nichols, Jnl.Brit.Arch.Assc. N.Ser ix, Dec 1903 147-160 & x p64,87
'Folk Memory' Walter Johnson, 1908 publ Oxford at the Clarendon Press
Mem.Geol.Soc. 'The Geol. Survey of London', W Whittaker, 1889, p115-7
'Academy', 27/2/1904
'Standard', 14/1/1908, 16/1/1908, 22/1/1908, 24/1/1908 & 7/2/1908
'S. Eastern Naturalist', W T Vincent, 1907 p lxiii-lxiv & 50-1
Annual Report Woolwich Antiq. Soc. xv 33
'Victoria History of Kent', v3, p390
Jnl. Anthrop. Inst. xxxix, 1909, pp44-76, Rev J W Hayes
'The Chislehurst Cave Myth', Arthur Bonner, Yorks. Ramblers Club Jnl, 1938, pp32-34
'Caving', E A Baker, Ch.V, 1932, publ. Chapman & Hall
'The Times', 12/3/1937 & 6/3/1937
'History of Chislehurst', G W Miller
'A Short History of Chislehurst', J W Marriott, 1912 publ. E C Waters & Sons
'History of Chislehurst', Webb et al 1899, publ Geo.Allen.London
'Secret of the Caves', Sunday Express 13/4/1924
'Lost in a Cavern Maze', Daily Express 12/4/1924
Proc. & Trans. Croydon Microscopic & Nat. Hist. Soc. 1898-9 4 (7) clx Dr Allan
'Essex Naturalist' v13 p263, v14 (2) p75-7, 1905
'Essex Naturalist' v15 (7-8) p260-6, 1910
Proc. Geol. Assc. 15, p108-110, 1897
Proc. Geol. Assc. 3, p114-5, 1872
Proc. Geol. Assc. 17, p369
'Illustrated London News', 28/9/1907