Chislehurst is a little village, once in Kent, now in the London Borough of Bromley. It's a pretty place, with a pond and some very nice houses, within easy commuting distance of central London.
Near to the railway station is the entrance to Chislehurst Caves, which is now a tourist attraction, a place where brilliant children's parties are held and a venue for Dungeons and Dragons games. The caves are largely unlit and visitors are given paraffin lamps to carry during tours.
The caves should really be termed 'mines' as they were originally chalk and flint mines rather than natural caves. There are three separate areas of workings, which are now linked by inter-connecting passages, totaling around 22 miles of passages. The chalk layer is sandwiched between two harder layers of rock, which gives the passages their tops and bottoms.
These days, the sections are called Saxons, Druids and Romans, because of the age of the workings, and each set of workings has differently shaped passages.
Why Did They Mine Chalk and Flint?
They mined chalk because when it is heated it becomes lime, which is the basis of plaster which they could use to make dwellings. For example, the Romans used lime to make mortar, and lime mixed with water produces a water paint, like whitewash. The chalk had an added advantage of being very easy to quarry using only simple bone and stone tools. The flint was mined and then 'knapped' or shaped with stone tools to produce other tools and weapons. It is believed that flintlock rifles used at the Battle of Waterloo would have used flints mined at Chislehurst.
The Druids' section is the oldest and most complicated system in the caves. It may date from between 5000-8000 years ago. There is a theory that the Druids section may have been used for human sacrifice and there appears to be an altar with a piece cut out to receive the sacrifice's blood. Other theories suggest that the 'altars' were merely platforms left by miners to allow easy access to the roof! It was suggested that the deep well in the Druids section would have got in the way of such ceremonies.
In the Druids section is a metal drum, which when banged, reverberates for miles. This might have been a very effective signalling or warning system.
The caves were in use in both World Wars, being used as an ammunition depot from 1914-1920. A narrow gauge railway with battery driven engines took the munitions into and out of the caves. The nature of the caves meant that if there had been an accidental explosion, the damage would have been minimal. Army personnel made carvings in the walls of the caves including a carving of Nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed by the Germans in 1916.
During the Second World War, the caves were in use between 1940-45 as air raid shelters, sheltering up to 15,000 people. This amount of people required special ventilation and a fan was installed, together with lighting and sanitation.
Wooden bunk beds were built and pitches marked out, with their numbers inscribed on the walls. The inhabitants had their own church (which is still consecrated) and there was a children's church. Both were in constant use daily throughout the war period. There was also a hospital, at which a woman gave birth to a baby girl, and they named the girl 'Caveina'1.
Mushrooms, Music and Doctor Who
In the inter-war years, the caves were used for the growing of mushrooms, which had become very expensive to import. Following the end of the Second World War, the caves became a mushroom farm again, until it became uneconomic2.
During the 1960s and 1970s the caves were used for music including skiffle, jazz and later rock and roll. Because of the acoustics, as many as five different bands could be playing close together without interfering with each other. Bands and artists such as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix used the caves as a venue.
The caves have often been used by film and TV companies. A full length Sci-fi film Inseminoid was made and Jon Pertwee as Doctor Who came face to face with 'The Mutants' in the caves (tour guides still point to the silver paint left on the walls of the cave from this show).
Is There a Ghost?
Given the long history of the caves, it is to be expected that there might be a ghost or two about the place. There are a lot of stories about possible ghosts, stories of a Roman centurion killed nearby, of sounds of children, of sightings of people, the sound of horses, etc. A woman is supposed to have been murdered and drowned in the 'haunted pool', and a priest is supposed to have died of fright after having been in the caves.
At one time, there was a prize of £5 offered to anyone who would sleep in the caves alone. Many people tried and eventually a policeman succeeded, however he said that he was aware of something behind him at one time and would not repeat the experience for any amount of money. Another person was found unconscious. These days, no-one is allowed to stay overnight in the caves, following an incident in which one of the guides was hurt.
For further information, including a virtual tour of the caves, see Chislehurst Caves.