Music, Mushroom, and Re-Purposing the Caves

Re-purposing is important. The more use we get from something, the less waste we produce, right? That's why there's an old whirlpool bathtub in my backyard. When we remodeled the bathroom, we discovered that there's not a lot you can do with a fifteen year old bathtub. Having enjoyed The Martian so much, I decided to use the bathtub as a potato-growing container.* Works perfectly, too. The bottom is certainly impervious to weeds and invasive plants, it's shaped to funnel water out, and of course, has a drain.**


During our summer trip to London I learned that Europe is all about re-purposing. One of my favorite examples is Chislehurst Caves, just a short train ride southeast of London. 

The caves are actually a 21 or 22 mile set of tunnels, and are completely man-made. The first of the tunnels was begun sometime back around the signing of the Magna Carta.*** Local residents dug into the ground to extract chalk and flint, and beforeyou knew it...there was a whole lotta excavated space.

Fast forward to the 1900s. In between, the locals were pretty straightforward thinkers: dig the chalk, dig the flint, have a pint, repeat. However, during World War I, the British Army decided the caves were an excellent place to store ammunition and explosives. Lots and lots of ammunition and explosives. I don't recall the exact numbers, but let's just say that Chislehurst was temporarily the Wal-Mart of stuff that blows up.

Between WWI and WWII the caves were turned to a more peaceful pursuit -- mushroom farming! Makes sense, right? Mushrooms love caves. 

But World War II is the time period for which the Chislehurst Caves might be most famous. Britons seeking shelter from air raids took to the caves. Eventually, as many as 15,000 people had taken up residence. Electricity was run, and engineering work was undertaken to keep air flowing and temperatures down. Keep in mind, these are caves. They're typically much cooler than ground temperatures, but with so many people living in them, the temperature of the caves rose dramatically. I believe our guide mentioned the temp rising to nearly 80 degrees Fahrenheit, until improved air circulation was hastily engineered, and after the war it took around 20 years for temperatures to fall back to normal.


The amount of organization that took place in the caves is incredible. The temporary residents had a post office, chapels, stores. Of course, bunk assignment alone was a major undertaking, considering the numbers involved. 

After WWII the caves became an entertainment venue. Jimi Hendrix performed there, as well as Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and if I remember correctly, the Stones. Our guide even played the drums in one cave while we listened from farther down the passage. He mentioned that the music had to be shut down, ironically, not because the music itself was too loud -- as residential areas closed in on the cave entrance, the local population found that people exiting the caves in the wee hours of the night were annoying.

Some things never change.

The caves have also been used for TV and film production. At least one Dr. Who episode filmed there, and the caves have shown up on documentary programs. The site is also used for live-action fantasy pastimes as well; when we were visiting, a large group of SCA or LARP folks were there for an event.

Without a doubt, Chislehurst Caves was one of my favorite stops on our London trip. It was a nice train ride from central London, a very enjoyable walk around the village, and something great to see. Since the caves don't show up at the top of every tourist search for London attractions, we're fortunate to have stumbled upon them, but I highly recommend making time to stop in if you're in the vicinity. And don't forget your lantern.

* It would have been more appropriate, perhaps, to plant my Martian potatoes in a toilet, but a) we didn't have a toilet to discard and b) you can grow more potatoes in a bathtub.

** When you repurpose a bathtub for growing plants, it's important to keep plants actually growing in there. Otherwise, you just appear to be the slob who threw an old bathtub out into his yard. 

*** Look it up. You're on the Internet, for crying out loud.