One of London’s lesser known attractions is a network of ancient tunnels, carved out by man, under the city’s leafy south-eastern suburb of Chislehurst. Fittingly, David Bowie, who lived and grew-up in nearby Bromley, regularly performed in the Chislehurst Caves with his pop band, the Konrads, in June 1962. David was 15-years-old and yet to change his surname from Jones to Bowie.
The Chislehurst Caves started hosting musical events deep underground in the late 1950s when British jazz musicians like Acker Bilk (of ‘Stranger on the Shore’ fame), Humphrey Littleton and Kenny Ball performed down there.
Bowie’s Konrads – with their echoed vocals and Shadows-like guitar twanging would have been one of the first pop groups to play in the Chislehurst Caves that summer of 1962. This was six months before the Beatles broke down the walls of pop conformity with their first chart entry, ‘Love Me Do’, that December. The Rolling Stones would join the Beatles in the charts in 1963.
Did the Stones play down in the Chislehurst Caves? The jury’s out on that one. Wikipedia says they did, others say not. But blues rock acts who DID play down in the subterranean tunnels, amidst the mandatory fug of marijuana smoke, include the Yardbirds in July 1966, Jimi Hendrix in December 1966, the Pretty Things, Status Quo, Troggs and Animals. Pink Floyd performed in the Chislehurst Caves in December 1967; and on Halloween 1974, a lavish media shindig was held in the tunnels to launch Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records label. You don’t have to guess whose idea that was. (Jimmy Page of course.)
Every now and then, my wife and I take visitors to London to the Chislehurst Caves … just to check they’re still open, since you don’t hear much about them these days. We were there again in August. From memory it cost just £5 to take a guided tour and with 22 miles (35km) of twisting, turning tunnels, a guide is a necessity. You’d certainly be in trouble if you became separated from the tour group. For your fiver you also get to wear a miners’ helmet fixed with an electric lantern.
Claimed to be first carved into the chalk by Neolithic man under Chislehurst some 8,000 years ago, legend has it Britain’s ancient druids sacrificed virgins down there, Roman slaves mined for chalk, and invading Saxons used the caves to store treasure. That’s what the guy who rediscovered them in 1903 theorised anyway. Mind you, as vice president of the British Archaeological Society, he was no rank amateur.
In reality, they are of such antiquity, their origins are lost in time and we can’t prove any of this. The first mention of the tunnels wasn’t until 1250, according to the Atlas Obscura, and they was definitely an active lime mine in the middle ages, last being worked in the 1830s.
The caves first became famous during World War Two as a public air raid shelter during the London Blitz. As German bombs rained down on London for eight months between September 1940 and May 1941, some 8,000 people slept in the Chislehurst Caves every night. There were dormitories, flushing toilets, a cinema, chapel, electric lighting and even a dance floor.
As for rock & roll, the caves’ acoustics meant five bands could play simultaneously in different alcoves. But the concerts had always been illegal, finally ending in the late 1970s after rave organisers were threatened with legal action by the owners.
The owners, incidentally, are still Kent Mushrooms Ltd, who bought the tunnels after World War 1 to grow mushrooms. Conditions were ideal but modern production methods rendered Chislehurst Caves redundant. The only mushrooms seen down there since the 1930s have been magic mushrooms.