Recapping our recent Wednesday series. We kick off a new series next week…
We finish our series on subterranean London with a visit to the Chislehurst Caves in the outer south-east.
The ‘caves’, located in Chislehurst in Kent, are actually 22 miles of man-made tunnels which were dug out in the search for chalk – used in lime-burning and brick-making – as well as, in later years, flint for use in tinder boxes and flintlock guns.
There’s considerable debate over the age of the caves but it’s claimed the earliest mention of the complex apparently dates back to the 13th century and they are believed to have been last worked in the 1830s. The three main sections of the caves are named after the Druids, Romans and Saxons in a reference to who some believed helped to create them.
They were first opened to the public at the turn of the 20th century and have since been used for munitions storage (during World War I, to cater for overflow from the Woolwich Arsenal), mushroom growing, and, during World War II provided accommodations for some 15,000 people as one of the largest deep air-raid shelters in the country.
They also hosted music events in the 1960s when the likes of David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin and Pink Floyd were among those who performed there and have appeared in several episodes of Dr Who
These days the caves are visited only on lamplit, 45 minute guided tours, which take in about a mile of the tunnels.
WHERE: Chislehurst Caves, Caveside Close, Old Hill, Chislehurst, Kent (nearest railway station is at Chislehurst); WHEN: 10am to 4pm everyday during school holidays and Wednesday to Sunday outside those periods; COST: £6 an adult/£4 seniors and children aged three to 15 (children under three free); WEBSITE: chislehurst-caves.co.uk.
Long out of active service, London’s Mail Rail service has recently made a comeback as a tourist attraction (which means you can now experience it for yourself!)
The Mail Rail – more officially known as the London Post Office Railway – was initially opened in 1927 as a more efficient means of moving the mail than fighting traffic congestion above ground.
The six-and-a-half mile (10.5 kilometre) route linked the Paddington sorting office in the west, the centrally located Mount Pleasant sorting office and depot, and the Whitechapel sorting office in the east. The main tunnel sits at about 21 metres underground.
The system operated for 22 hours a day and hauled tons of mail through up to nine stations. There were even plans to extend it to the north and the south.
The Mail Rail was eventually closed in 2003 with the Royal Mail, rather ironically given its origins, apparently citing the costs of using it compared to road transport.
These days, the Mail Rail serves as one of the attractions at the new Postal Museum and, located in the former engineering depot, offers a 20 minute ride through stalactite-filled tunnels beneath what was the Mount Pleasant sorting office.
WHERE: Mail Rail at The Postal Museum, 15-20 Phoenix Place, Mount Pleasant, Clerkenwell (nearest Tube stations are Chancery Lane and Russell Square); WHEN: 10am to 5pm daily (except from 24th to 26th December) COST: £16 adult/£14.30 concession/£8 child (includes donation/timed ride on Mail Rail and general admission to exhibition); WEBSITE: www.postalmuseum.org/discover/attractions/mail-rail-ride/.
PICTURES: Above and right – The Mail Rail as it is today; and a curve in the tracks (© Postal Museum); Below – London Post Office Railway cars from 1930, now at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre (Oxyman/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
More correctly known as the crypt of the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, this subterranean chamber dates from the 12th century and is the oldest surviving part of what remains of the priory.
Based close to St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell – another surviving section of the monastery, the partly Romanesque crypt features some magnificent 16th century monuments including the rather skeletal-looking funeral effigy of the last prior, Sir William Weston, who apparently died on the very day the priory was dissolved in May, 1540 (he apparently collapsed on hearing the news).
The crypt also contains a 16th century tomb effigy (pictured below) believed to be that of Don Juan Ruiz de Vergara, a Castilian Knight Hospitaller who died fighting the Turks at sea off the coast of Marseilles (it had apparently formerly been located in Valladolid Cathedral in Spain and was donated by a member of the order (and first Keeper of the London Museum, now known as the Museum of London), Sir Guy Francis Laking, in 1915). Understood to have been the work of Esteban Jordan, sculptor to King Philip II of Spain, the knight bears the eight pointed star of the order on his breastplate.
Meanwhile, the stained glass in the crypt chapel’s east lights depict the entombment of Christ as well as Raymond du Puy (Grand Master of the Order of St John from 1118–60), St John the Baptist and St Ubaldesca. Other stained glass windows in the chapel depict saints like St George, Andrew, Patrick and David and some of the English branch’s priors and knights.
Other items of interest in the crypt include a 13th century font, originally from a church in Buckinghamshire, and a stone fragment from the pavement of the Grotto of the Nativity at Bethlehem.
The priory once served as the English headquarters for Order of St John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaller. The order was founded in Jerusalem in 1080 to care for the sick and poor, and spread across Europe. The English ‘branch’ established on 10 acres just outside the City walls apparently by a knight, Jorden de Briset. It was dissolved, as we’ve already heard, in 1540.
WHERE: Crypt, St John’s Church, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell (nearest Tube stations is Farringdon); WHEN: The crypt can only be visited on tours – public tours are held at 11am and 2.30pm on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; COST: Free (a suggested £5 donation); WEBSITE: www.museumstjohn.org.uk.
Pope came to live in what was then the fashionable retreat of Twickenham in 1719 and employed architect James Gibbs to create a small Palladian style villa there, living in it until his death in 1744. He also obtained a licence to tunnel beneath the road known as Cross Deep and leased about five acres of unenclosed land on the other side which he developed as his garden – a project he lavished great attention upon.
His first grotto was established in the cellars which stood at ground level facing the river and then extended along the tunnel from the rear of the cellars, leading to a misapprehension, promoted by no other than Dr Samuel Johnson, that the grotto lay under the road. Pope, who had apparently been delighted to find a spring in his grotto complex, opened his gardens to the public in 1736.
Inspired by what he found when visiting Hotwell Spa at the base of Avon Gorge in 1739, he decided to redesign the grotto as a museum of mineralogy and mining and while much material – including a stalagmite from Wookey Hole in Somerset and hexagonal basalt joints from the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland (the latter a gift, apparently, from Sir Hans Sloane) – was put into the walls, the grotto was never completed.
The grotto and tunnel is now all that remains of the villa Pope built which was demolished in 1808. What survives of it is located within the grounds of Radnor House School.
The grotto is generally open only briefly during the year including during the Twickenham Festival. An effort continues to have the grotto restored and public access increased. For more details on the restoration project and when the grotto can be visited, see www.popesgrotto.org.uk.
Located beneath Guildhall’s Great Hall is the oldest surviving part of the structure, the largest of London’s medieval crypts.
Dating from the reign of King Edward the Confessor in the 11th century, the vaulted East Crypt is considered to be one of the finest examples of its kind in England with a ceiling featuring a series of carved bosses depicting heads, shields and flowers.
It features a series of stained glass windows depicting five famous Londoners – Geoffrey Chaucer, William Caxton, Sir Thomas More, Sir Christopher Wren and Samuel Pepys.
The pillars holding up the roof, meanwhile – once located at ground level – show signs of where horses were once tied up while their riders went about their business.
The West Crypt, which is believed to date from the 13th century, was sealed off after collapsing under the weight of the roof of the Great Hall which fell down during the Great Fire of London in 1666. It was reopened in 1973.
The windows of the West Crypt represent some of the City of London’s livery companies (pictured above, right).
One of the most famous incidents took place in the crypts on 9th July, 1851, when Queen Victoria attended a banquet here during a state visit.
The crypts today are available to hire for atmospheric events.
WHERE: Guildhall, Guildhall Yard, City of London (nearest Tube stations are Bank, Mansion House and Moorgate); WHEN: 10am to 4.30pm daily (when not being used for events); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visit-the-city/attractions/guildhall-galleries/Pages/guildhall.aspx.
Located in the basement of a modern office building (and visible through glass) are the remains of a 700-year-old crypt that once lay beneath Whitefriars Priory.
Reached via Magpie Alley (off Bouverie Street which runs south from Fleet Street), the remains are all that is visibly left of the priory, founded here in the 13th century.
Known as ‘White Friars’ because of the white mantle they wore over their brown habits, the Carmelites (their proper name) were founded in what is now Israel in the mid-12th century. After the region fell to the Saracens in the mid-13th century, some members of the order made their way to England with the aid of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III. In 1241, Sir Richard Grey of Codnor founded the Priory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on this site.
The priory – which counted towering medieval figure John of Gaunt among its patrons – once stretched from Fleet Street to the Thames and to the Temple in the west and what is now Whitefriars Street in the east. It included a church – enlarged in the 14th century – as well as cloisters, a garden and cemetery.
The priory survived until the Dissolution after which King Henry VIII granted various buildings to the King’s Physician and the King’s Armourer and the great hall become the famous Whitefriars Playhouse.
Whitefriars became part of the rather infamous slum known as Alsatia, a ‘liberty’ seen as a place of sanctuary for those fleeing the law. The priory was gradually subsumed into the slum – there’s a suggestion that the crypt may have been used as a coal cellar.
The remains of the 14th century vaulted crypt, which had been located beneath the prior’s house on the east side of the former priory site, were apparently found in the late 19th century and restored in the 1920s when the now defunct newspaper News of the World was expanding. During a redevelopment in the 1980s (which came after News International moved out to Wapping), the remains were moved to their current location.
WHERE: Whitefriars Crypt, Ashentree Court, City of London (nearest Tube stations are Temple and Blackfriars); WHEN: Daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: None.
A highlight of any journey through subterranean London is spending some time in the St Paul’s Cathedral crypt, famously the resting place of, among others, Admiral Lord Nelson and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.
Built as an integral part of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, the crypt is said to be the largest in Europe and runs the complete length of the building above. It features some 200 memorials.
Nelson’s resting place is under the centre of the dome – his remains, brought back from the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar in a keg of naval brandy, are entombed inside a wooden coffin made from one of the French ships he defeated at the Battle of the Nile which is then contained in a black sarcophagus. Originally made for Cardinal Wolsey in the 1520s but left unused when the Cardinal fell from favour, it’s now topped with Nelson’s viscount coronet in place of where the cardinal’s hat would have stood.
The Duke of Wellington, meanwhile, lies just to the east in a tomb of Cornish porphyritic granite set atop a block of Peterhead granite carved with four sleeping lions at its four corners. The coffin was lowered through a specially created hole in the cathedral floor above Nelson’s tomb and then moved into the sarcophagus.
Other memorials – not all of which commemorate people actually buried here – include one to the architect, Sir Christopher Wren, which features the words, written in Latin, ‘Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you’.
There’s also memorials to everyone from artist Sir Joshua Reynolds and William Blake to Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, Lawrence of Arabia and, more recently, one for Gordon Hamilton Fairley, killed by a terrorist bomb in 1975. There’s even a bust of the first US President, George Washington.
The crypt also contains a number of war memorials and is the location of the OBE Chapel, dedicated at a service attended by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960, honouring those who have given distinguished service to the nation.
Other features of the crypt include the Treasury where more than 200 items are on display including some of the cathedral’s plate and vestments (much of which has been lost over the years including when a major robbery took place in 1810), liturgical plate from other churches in the diocese and some Wren memorabilia including his penknife, measuring rod and death mask.
The crypt is also home to the cathedral’s gift shop and cafe where you can stop for a refreshment before heading back out into the streets above.
WHERE: The Crypt, St Paul’s Cathedral, City of London (nearest Tube stations are St Paul’s and Mansion House); WHEN: 8.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Saturday; COST: £18 adults (18+)/£8 children (aged 6 to 17)/£16 concessions/£44 family ticket; WEBSITE: www.stpauls.co.uk.
Located beneath the Banqueting House – a remnant of the Palace of Whitehall, the undercroft was originally designed by Inigo Jones (who designed the building as a whole) as a private drinking den for King James I.
French landscaper and architect Isaac de Caus was commissioned to decorate one end of the vaulted undercroft as a shell grotto where the king could relax with his friends. In 1623, it received a dedication from Ben Jonson:
“Since Bacchus, thou art father
Of wines, to thee the rather
We dedicate this Cellar
Where now, thou art made Dweller.”
Following the Restoration, during the reign of King Charles II, the basement was used to hold lotteries – John Evelyn describes one such event taking place in 1664 in his famed diary, although soon after this was moved into a purpose-built facility nearby.
The undercroft was subsequently used for storage including during the reign of King James II when it was apparently used to store furnishings from the Privy and Council Chambers of Whitehall Palace while they were being rebuilt.
From the late 1890s until the 1960s, it became part of the museum of the Royal United Services Institute (which also used the hall upstairs) but following a restoration in 1992, is now open to the public and also used for special events at the building.
WHERE: Undercroft, Banqueting House, Whitehall (nearest Tube is Westminster or Charing Cross); WHEN: 10am to 5pm daily (check if there is a private function); COST: £5.50 adults (16+)/children under 16 free/Historic Royal Palaces members free; WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/banqueting-house/
Located on (or should that be under?) Chancery Lane in the City of London, the subterranean complex of underground chambers now known the London Silver Vaults was initially opened by the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit Co in 1876.
Originally intended to provide strong rooms for Londoners to store their valuables – things like jewellery, household silver and important documents, the vaults also proved popular with businesses, such as jewellers and diamond and silver dealers from nearby Hatton Garden, both for storage and eventually for selling directly out of.
The building above was bomb damaged during World War II and when it was rebuilt, the vaults – at the request of the silver dealers who had previously rented space there – were reconfigured as retail units and re-opened in its current form in 1953.
Featuring 3.9 foot (1.2 metre) thick walls, the vaults proved popular among US servicemen who purchased silver to take home to their families, and film and music stars as well as royalty have all apparently shopped here.
There are just under 30 specialist shops in the complex, claimed to be home to the largest collection of antique silver in the world including everything from cutlery to jewellery and candlesticks. Many of the businesses housed within have been passed down within families.
And, according to the management, the vaults have never been burgled.
WHERE: London Silver Vaults, Chancery Lane (nearest Tube is Chancery Lane); WHEN: 9am to 5.30pm Monday to Friday/0am to 1pm Saturday; COST: free; WEBSITE: silvervaultslondon.com
An institution linking the Isle of Dogs to Greenwich underneath the Thames for more than a century, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel was built to provide an alternative to a sometimes unreliable ferry service – thanks to weather – and was principally aimed at workers making their way from their homes in London’s south to docks and shipyards.
It was one of two tunnel crossings – the other being at Woolwich – which were lobbied for by Will Crooks, chair of the LCC’s bridges committee and later MP for Woolwich.
Designed by engineer Sir Alexander Binnie for the London County Council, the project – which reportedly cost some £127,000 – commenced in June, 1899, with the tunnel completed and opened, with very little fanfare (there was apparently no opening ceremony) on 4th August, 1902.
The design features a glass-topped dome at either end with steps spiralling downward (reported as 87 steps to the north and 100 to the south). Lifts were installed in 1904 and then upgraded in the 1990s and more recently in 2012. The tunnel itself. which is positioned at a depth of about 50 feet, is made of cast-iron and lined with 200,000 glazed white tiles. It measures 1,215 feet long with an internal diameter of nine feet.
The northern end of the tunnel was damaged by bombs during World War II and repairs include a thick steel and concrete lining that substantially reduce the interior size of the tunnel for a short distance.
The tunnel, which has its own friends group, is classed as a public highway and so as a matter of law is kept open 24 hours a day. Its depth means it remains a cool place even on a hot day.
WHERE: Greenwich Foot Tunnel (nearest DLR (northern end) is Island Gardens and (southern end) is Cutty Sark; WHEN: Always; COST: free; WEBSITE: www.royalgreenwich.gov.uk/info/200102/walking/693/foot_tunnels.