Chislehurst Caves have been on my list of places to visit in and around London for ages. I finally got round to going on Bank Holiday Monday, along with a friend. I thought they would be an ideal place to visit whatever the weather turned out to be like – they’re underground, after all! The Caves are really easy to get to – Chislehurst station is about fifteen or twenty minutes from Charing Cross, Cannon Street or London Bridge, and the Caves are only five or ten minutes walk from the station.
The only way to visit the Caves are via guided tour, which can be booked on arrival. While we were waiting for our tour, we had a look around the visitor centre – displaying various documents and artefacts associated with the caves – and eating in the good-value cafe. The website states that tours take place once an hour, but they seem to vary this according to demand: it was fairly busy when I went and there seemed to be tours every fifteen minutes. Our tour lasted about an hour, and we got a good look at the Caves and heard plenty of stories about them – some true, others more dubious.
While the name would suggest a natural phenomenon, Chislehurst Caves are in fact entirely man-made, mined for flint and lime-burning chalk from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century. William Nichols, the Vice President of the British Archaeological Association, theorised in 1903 that the mines were made by the Druids, Romans and Saxons. This is the theory put forward on the tour and it was only when I got back home and did some searching that I discovered it has now been more or less discredited.
This doesn’t prevent the tours from focusing on the Druids quite heavily, including a mock demonstration of a Druid sacrifice (which, to be fair, was emphasised to be only speculation). At one point we stood very still and had our lamps taken away so that we could experience what the caves were like in absolute darkness. This was quite exciting albeit somewhat spoilt by some idiot using their phone as a light. I do wish the website instructions about not using flash photography or the light function on mobile phones had been adhered to, as it would have made the tour a more pleasant experience for everyone.
I enjoyed hearing about the resident ghost, supposedly a woman whose skeleton was found when a natural pond was emptied and filled with rocks during the war. During the second half of the twentieth century, a reward was offered to anyone who successfully stayed in the Caves overnight; only one person ever successfully completed the challenge, and it is no longer running.
During the First World War, the Caves were used as ammunition storage by the Royal Arsenal. In the inter-war years, mushrooms were grown in the damp tunnels, but this came to a stop with the outbreak of World War 2. One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of the Caves is their use as an air raid shelter in this war: local families spent their nights here in specially-allocated bunks, and there was a hospital area on-site. One baby was actually born here, and christened in the chapel we saw at the beginning of the tour. The Caves later opened as a tourist attraction, and many rock stars played concerts here during the 1960s, including Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie.
The Caves are definitely an interesting place to visit and a tour is a good value way to spend an hour or so. I do wish it was made clearer which stories about the caves are true and which myth: I felt the tour was rather sensationalist in parts, and really the caves are interesting enough without this. Still, I did enjoy my visit and I do recommend Chislehurst Caves.
Address: Caveside Close, Old Hill, Chislehurst, Kent, BR7 5NL
Opening Hours: Tours on the hour 10am-4pm, Wednesdays to Sundays and Bank Holidays (except Christmas and New Year), every day during local school holidays.
Prices: £6 adults, £4 seniors and children