If someone were to try and tie together every piece of English History and from the Saxons to Dr. Who, Bowie to the Druids, Air Raids to Shakespeare, to one space they could do so in two words: Chislehurst Caves. How much of it would be true, is another question all together.
Despite being called caves, these 22 miles (35 km) of tunnels are something much stranger then that, a series of entirely man-made tunnels, rooms and caverns under the south eastern suburbs of Greater London, UK. Though, there is debate over how old the caverns are, it is believed by some that they go back to the time of the Saxons – the 400s and 500s A.D. – some suggest they may go back 8000 years, to 6000 B.C. just after the time when the landmass of Britain was separated from the rest of Europe in 6500 B.C.
The caves information (as well as an archeologist of 1905, now generally debunked) split the tunnels into three sections. The oldest area is thought to be 6000-4000 year old and is created to the “druids,” though by this it is actually meant Neolithic Britons. (The druids were never more then a small priestly caste of mystics in Britain dating to at the earliest 100 B.C., and had nothing to do with the Neolithic monuments, such as Stonehenge, they are often associated with.)
Following British history like a textbook, the next tunnels are said to be 2,000 years old and undertaken by the Romans after their arrival in Britain in 43 A.D. Other tunnels are dated from the 500s with the arrival of the Germanic Saxons.
Despite all this, the earliest known mention of the tunnels dates to the much more recent 1250 A.D. and most archeologists and historians point out that no archeological evidence exists to prove these ancient claims. Spurious claims about the tunnels continue through the 1700s, placing Christopher Wren, Napoleon III and Shakespeare all in the cave at one point or another. (Once again, while plausible, no evidence exists to confirm these claims.)
Regardless, the caves were definitely an active lime mine through the middle ages and were last worked in the 1830’s. As interesting as the history of the 22 miles of man-made tunnels is, the modern historical record of the tunnels is even more intriguing and unquestionably true.
During WWI the caves served as a munitions storage house, but took on an even more important role in WWII, as a complete underground city. Housing some 15,000 inhabitants the caves were outfitted with lights, a hospital, a chapel and even a barbershop. A baby, Cavena Rose Wakeman, was even born within the caves. In the 1960s the caves became associated with a very different period of English culture, rock and roll. David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd all played concerts in the Chislehurst Caves.
Another type of British hero can be found in these caves as well, the fictional kind. Merlin, Dr. Who. and a number of other British fantasy and science fiction shows have been filmed in the caves. It would seem, regardless of whether the Chislehurst Caves are 8000 or 800 years old, whether they had druids, or just people playing druids for TV in them, they remain, quintessentially British.
Know Before You Go
The caves can only be accessed by guided tours which last around 45 minutes to an hour. There are no permanent light fixtures along most of the tunnels and the paths are only illuminated with handheld oil lamps (no other lights or photography allowed). There is also one (voluntary) moment of complete darkness.
Tour guides usually play up the spooky aspects of the caves, might disappear and reappear unseen from a different direction and there might be some sudden loud noises, so visitors of a nervous disposition, afraid of the dark or suffering from claustrophia should consider carefully before joining a tour.