Raves in the Caves. World’s oldest rock venue?

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The Konrads with David Jones (front right) on sax and vocals. David later changed his name to Bowie to avoid being confused with the Monkees’ Davy Jones.

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.

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The Chislehurst Caves. You wouldn’t want to get lost 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.

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An old map inside the caves, which are really tunnels.

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.)

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The road leading down to the Chislehurst Caves. Apologies to my wife for the ungentlemanly behaviour.

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.

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A display deep down in the Chislehurst Caves.

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.

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9 comments

  1. Hi Paul, as a kid who lived nearby we used to play in the caves in the 1950s, we used to climb down a dene hole above the cave, armed with matches, torches and firewood. We used ropes stored by a local civil defence chap in his garden shed, which we also used to make slide lines with using a washing line pully and some converted bike handlebars. Once inside we explored, and marked our way with chalk and ropes, it was pitch dark, but nice and warm. We often got chased out by the caretaker, who was actually a nice bloke who saw us all as a bit of fun to chase. Later in life, I went to parties in the caves and also saw the Animals and Who there. Between sets they used the local pub as a drink venue and mixed with the fans. The crowds coming from the nearby station were quite big, and it was something of an occassion for quiet Chislehurst.
    Over the last forty odd years we have treated our overseas guests to trips underground here too, most agree that it is much more fun than most london attractions.

    1. Great stuff, Ken. The caves are lit for visitors these days, as you know, but I imagine you were extremely brave young whippersnappers to go down into the deep pitch-black armed with only matches and torches. I’m amazed you didn’t get lost. It’s a crying shame the Chislehurst Caves are hardly publicised in London when they’re on its doorstep. All we can do is help spread the word. Many thanks for your comment.

  2. Dearl All,
    I am an Italian rock fan and gig collector of several rock band of the Seventies.
    Did you know also if LED ZEPPELIN and FREE played Chislehurst Caves in 1968 / 1969 ?
    Thanks

    Best Regards,
    Alessandro Borri
    Bologna
    ITALY

    1. Led Zeppelin certainly did play there in May 1974, Alessandro, using the Caves to launch their label,Swan Song Records. But Led Zepp and Free, to my knowledge, never played there in 1968/9.

      1. Rock fans in bowler hats? Whatever next. And what a unique experience banging away in ancient caves in the bobbing candle light. Good stuff, Derek. Hope your drumming arms and wrists are still up for it.

  3. i played drums with Ray Dell and the deacons in the early 60s, we had a fan following who would help us to carry our equipment down to the cave. I remember having to play a drum solo for ages when the electricity went off, the fans would then light up candles which they had mounted on their bowler hats, then would continue to dance around to the drum beat. hard to believe but true,

  4. Dvid Bowie also played as David Jones and the Manish boys.Jim Gardner’s whose family owned the Caves said the last I remember of him down there was David Bowie And The Buzz. He was booked for an evening – and didn’t turn up. There was a dispute about what they were going to get paid and it was more than we could afford, so I don’t think he played down there under that name again.
    I remember my older brother going there to watch the stones who after all were a local group coming from Dartford as wellas Hendrix. My mother was billoted there when she worked at the arsenal during the war.
    For me it lost its charm when they tarted it up. i still prefer the old tin hut and the old ladies making tea. i always liked the “stained glass windows” in the makeshift chapel. It had more character.

    1. Fascinating memories, Greg. If I’m not mistaken, the Mannish Boys were David’s second band. Feedback much appreciated.

    2. Only just come across your comment, Gregory. Apologies for not replying sooner. Did your mother actually live in the caves when working at the arsenal? Was this arsenal still at Woolwich? Unfortunately, I never got to see the caves until after they tarted them up. Still a very interesting place, mind you.

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