27 January, 2007

The Chislehurst Caves

I billed it as a mystery tour but I knew where we were going. Chislehurst has ancient chalk workings from Roman times and possibly before. I suppose that is the origin of the name Chislehurst where they got out their chisels to cut chalk. These chalk workings are extensive: around 20 subterranean miles and are entirely man made. The Guide knew his subject and was pleasant and accommodating. Me and Mark were the only people on the 11 o’clock tour and we clutched our hurricane lamps tightly as we wandered in the darkness. There was a reputed Druid altar where the guide said boys were sacrificed but he also said he thought it fanciful as it was just the remains of ancient chalk workings. In the First World War, it was used as an auxiliary ammunition dump for the Royal Arsenal (not the coöp this time). In the 1930s it was used by the current owners, Kent Mushrooms Ltd, for – guess what – growing mushrooms. But the caverns came into their own during the Second World War as a deep level shelter. For 1d a night or 6d per week you could have a cosy alcove with a bunk bed safe from the bombs and shells. It is unusual to think of such a troglodyte existence now but it must have been welcome then. The war brought with it a church, that remains consecrated to this day, a cinema, a hospital, Citizens Advice Bureau, extensive toilet facilities, a canteen and ventilation fans. After the war the caves were used for gigs with rock bands, as they were unsuitable for mushroom growing after use as shelters as mould had got in. There is a stage there for this use. The caves are also used for fantasy games. There is a modern carving on the wall, showing Canary Wharf and river monsters, there are also the faces of Winston Churchill, Mussolini and Hitler.
The caves have a great echo, demonstrated by banging a diesel tank with a rubber mallet. All in all it was a great morning out. No pictures though, it was too dark!

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