London’s Forgotten Underground City

Many newer London residents are surprised to hear that just a short journey from the capital is a labyrinth of tunnels that once acted as an underground city, with thousands of inhabitants, shops, a hospital and even a cinema.

Chislehurst is located around 11 miles south-east of central London in the Borough of Bromley, between Bromley and Sidcup. Visit now and you’ll find a relatively peaceful suburb with a pleasant High Street, a number of bars, cafes and restaurants, and plenty of open spaces and ponds to explore.

If you’d have visited in the winter of 1940, you’d have encountered a very different scene as thousands of Londoners headed south to take shelter from the Blitz in Chislehurst Caves. This network of man-made tunnels, just a short walk from Chislehurst Station, is twenty-two miles long and up to ninety-five feet deep.

By 1940 the caves had already had a potted history. First mentioned in 1250, they were originally used to mine chalk for brick-making, to support the building of the City of London, and for flint used in flintlock guns. According to early archeological investigations the caves were partly dug by the Saxons, partly by the Romans and partly by Ancient Britons. By the early 1900s they were already a minor tourist attraction, with a local pub landlord installing lighting and charging a small fee for admission.

During the First World War the caves were used as an ammo dump by Woolwich Arsenal, and between the wars they were used to grow mushrooms.

The story of the caves gets really interesting during the Blitz, that’s when the caves gave shelter to up to thousands of inhabitants every night. Transformed to meet the needs of the new residents the caves soon featured shops, a canteen, a hospital staffed by the Red Cross, a barbers, a chapel and a cinema. The shelter was run by a Cave Committee who set rules to ensure the caves were as comfortable as possible. Stoves were forbidden, music to cease at 9PM, lights out in the dorms by 10.30PM, and so on.

In June 1944, with the arrival of the first V-weapons, the number of shelterers reached its peak with 15000 people buying a ticket and heading down into the tunnels for protection from the rockets. Some, who had lost their homes to the bombardment, moved into the caves entirely, leaving for work in the morning and returning in the evening. A child was even born down there in April 1941—and christened Rose Cavena Wakeman.

After the war the caves were became a popular music venue—Jimi Hendrix, the Who and the Rolling Stones all played there—and were frequently used as a filming location. In 1972 they became the Mines of Solos for the six episode Dr.Who story, Dr Who – The Mutants, and also show up in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the BBC’s Merlin.

The cave’s guided tours are well worth the effort. On my visit it was a tour of just three people, and the guide kindly showed us any area we asked to see. Keep an eye out for the pitch marks painted on the walls, still visible long after the bunks were removed, and caricatures of Hitler and Mussolini carved into the chalk wall by some bored shelterer. You’ll also spy plenty of rock and roll graffiti and if you’re a lover of spooky stories, don’t forget to ask about the selection of ghosts that supposedly stalk the tunnels.

Find out more by visiting the Caves’ official website at www.chislehurst-caves.co.uk. The caves are open for guided tours from Wednesday to Sunday, and throughout school holidays, at a cost of £6 per adult.

Chislehurst Caves also features as a location in my WW2 crime novel The Art of Misdirection, crowdfunding now and available for pre-order at Inkshares.

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