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Carving in Chislehurst Caves.

Were the Chislehurst Caves Originally Created By Druids?

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The Chislehurst Caves are a series of subterranean tunnels , man-made rooms, and caverns located in the southeastern part of Greater London. Although the history of the caves stretches back much further, the first documentation of Chislehurst Caves says they were chalk and flint mines, which were abandoned around the early 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Chislehurst Caves were re-opened as a tourist attraction . In the century that followed, the caves were used for a variety of purposes.

What Are the Chislehurst Caves?

The Chislehurst Caves are located in southeast Greater London, within the London Borough of Bromley. The caves reach a depth of about 30.5 meters (100 feet) and stretch over a distance of 35 kilometers (22 miles). However, 90% of the cave system has not been mapped because it has been flooded. The movement of water likely played a role in forming the earliest stages of the underground system, which was then enhanced through human intervention. Even today, running water still passes beneath many of the walkways. The discovery of the skeleton of a small trapped plesiosaur in the cave suggests it may have formed as far back as 53 million BC.

When the Chislehurst Caves were first opened to the public during the early 20th century, tourists were told that parts of the cave system were inhabited between 6000 and 4000 years ago. And legends said that the caves were created by druids. The second phase of the caves was created after the arrival of the Romans in Britain and therefore would have been about 2000 years old. The third and final phase of the Chislehurst Caves was dated to around 500 AD, at the time when the Saxons arrived on the island.

The reality, however, turned to be quite different from what was told by the first tour guides of the caves. One of the earliest mentions of the Chislehurst Caves comes from a charter dating to the middle of the 13th century, in which it is mentioned to have been used for the mining of chalk and flint. Another reference to the caves may be found in a set of church records from 1737.

Archaeology has not provided much help either in the reconstruction of the caves’ history, as little archaeological evidence has been found that would enable the site’s creation date to be determined. There are suggestions however that the caves were used around 10,000 BC to protect people from the receding ice age, which may be supported by the discovery of a prehistoric skeleton that was located in the ceiling of an early part of the caves.

Chislehurst Caves have been used for chalk and flint mining. (Ammodramus / Public Domain )

Documented History of the Chislehurst Caves

The more recent history of the Chislehurst Caves, however, is much better documented. As an example, during the 1830s, a ‘lime-burner and flint-maker’ by the name of Soper is recorded to have worked in the Saxon area of the caves, and it was around this time that the mines ceased to be used. After their abandonment, the caves were rarely visited as they were located in an isolated area. In 1865, however, a railway that ran into the area was built, making it more accessible to the public.

It was only during the early years of the 20th century that the Chislehurst Caves became a significant tourist attraction. This was due to the claim made by William Nichols, Vice President of the British Archaeological Association about the caves. It was Nichols who suggested that the Chislehurst Caves were made by the druids, the Romans, and the Saxons. In a way, the debate that ensued served to advertise the caves and drew many curious tourists to them.

Uses of the Chislehurst Caves

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the Chislehurst Caves became used as an ammunition depot . When the army left in 1920, the caves were re-purposed once more, this time being turned into a mushroom farm by the Kent Mushroom Company. Operations came to a halt when the Second World War started as they were turned into an air-raid shelter

In 1940, the Germans began a bombing campaign, known as the Blitz, against Britain, and many civilians who fled from London found shelter in the Chislehurst Caves. At that time, the caves had a nightly population of up to 5000 people, swelling to 15,000 when the bombing was most severe. In spite of these numbers, the refugees developed a remarkable system of self-organization. For each 50 shelters, a ‘shelter captain’ was elected, who was responsible for making sure that shelter rules and a code of conduct were followed.

A typical dormitory during the Second World War in Chislehurst Caves. (Geograph / CC BY-SA 2.0)

A typical dormitory during the Second World War in Chislehurst Caves. ( Geograph / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

When the war ended, the Chislehurst Caves were re-opened as a tourist attraction once more. During the 1960s, the site became a venue for musical performances, hosting such icons of rock and roll as Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Apart from that, several episodes of the hugely popular British science fiction series, Doctor Who , were filmed in the caves.

A local legend located near the caves states that once a year ghostly horseback riders emerge near Rambles Rest Public House at the top of the hill and gallop through the walls of cottages. The ruins of stables can still be found there today. Although it is recognized as a myth, the people living in the cottages there tend to still leave on the day of the annual event.

Today, the Chislehurst Caves continue to be opened to the public.

Chislehurst Caves as a tourist attraction. (Bill Payer / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Chislehurst Caves as a tourist attraction. (Bill Payer / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Top image: Carving in Chislehurst Caves. Source: Christine Matthews / CC BY-SA 2.0 .

By Wu Mingren

References

Atlas Obscura, 2019. Chislehurst Caves. [Online] Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/chislehurst-caves
Campbell, S., 2017. The little-known London cave that helped the city survive the Blitz – and welcomed Jimi Hendrix. [Online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/articles/chislehurst-caves-how-to-visit/
Parsons, G., 2018. Hit New Depths In London’s Only Cave Network • Chislehurst Caves. [Online] Available at: https://secretldn.com/chislehurst-caves-visit-london/
Rayner, C., 2009. Chislehurst Caves. [Online] Available at: http://www.subbrit.org.uk/db/1449530998.html
The BBC, 2015. The Blitz families who built a city underground. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34139311
The Heritage Trail, 2015. Chislehurst Caves, Kent. [Online] Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20150502170054/http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/early%20ages/chislehurst%20caves.htm
www.chislehurst-caves.co.uk, 2019. Chislehurst Caves. [Online] Available at: http://www.chislehurst-caves.co.uk/
www.londonpass.com, 2019. Chislehurst Caves. [Online] Available at: https://www.londonpass.com/london-attractions/chislehurst-caves.html

Comments

from the states, did not know about them til now.. thank you for your personal insight of them.

jolly r hansen

Crasslee's picture

I've lived not far from Chislehurst all my life, and have visited them regularly since being a child in the early 70's. In the early 80's while in my mid teens, we would attend punk rock shows in the caves. They were fun times. I still visit from time to time, and would say my favourite part of the cave system are the supposedly Druid altars. I'm actually planning on visiting on the 29th of March for my birthday, as one of the guides invited me down.
 If you're ever visiting London, I'd suggest making this part of your itinerary. You can easily get to Chislehurst by train in about 30 minutes. Trains leave from London Bridge station fairly regularly.

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