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.

PICTURE: Above – the entrance; Below – a reconstruction of the church, part of the air-raid shelter (both images – David Edwards, licensed under CC BY -NC-ND 2.0)

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OK, it’s not in London per se but given its proximity, we thought this plaque commemorating Jane Austen’s visits to an inn which once stood in the town of Dartford in Kent worth mentioning.

The plaque, which was erected by the Dartford Borough Council in High Street in 2006, commemorates the times Austen stayed at The Bull and George Inn while travelling from the family home in Hampshire to meet her brother Edward Knight in Kent.

Edward has been adopted as a boy by a relative, Thomas Knight, who owned Godmersham Park which stands between Canterbury and Ashford. Edward, who married Elizabeth Bridges, later inherited the house and Jane and her sister Cassandra were apparently frequent visitors (at different times) during which time they helped look after their nieces and nephews and visit nearby towns such as Canterbury.

Austen is known to have often rested at the inn overnight on her way to and from Kent and at other times simply stopped for a meal.

PICTURE: Ken/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

ReculverThis striking ruin perched on the shore of Herne Bay in Kent is all that remains of a 12th century church which once stood here, itself constructed on the ruins of a Saxon monastery and, earlier still, a Roman era fort.

The site once faced the now swallowed up Isle of Thanet across a narrow waterway to the east and it was this location which made it a prime spot for the Romans, in the early to middle years of the 3rd century AD, to build one of what became known as Saxon Shore forts, constructed to watch over waterways and resist raiders from across the sea. The square fort – known as Regulbium – featured walls supported by earthen ramparts containing a range of military buildings including a headquarters building at the centre. It’s main entrance was located in the north wall.

Reculver-smallThe fort ceased to be garrisoned by regular troops by the end of the 4th century and archaeologists have found little sign of any activity there at the start of the next century.

Following the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD and the conversion of local Saxon kings to Christianity, Egbert, the King of Kent, gave land which included Reculver (Raculf) to one Bassa for the foundation of a church or minster (this has been dated to 669 AD). A monastery was subsequently founded on the site which remained there until the 10th century after which the church, which stood roughly at what was the middle of the Roman fort and which had been enlarged during the Saxon period, became a parish church of Reculver.

Remodelled in the 12th century (from which period the towers date), it was visited by Leland in 1540 who wrote of a stone cross which stood at the entrance to the choir and was carved with painted images of Christ and the 12 Apostles (fragments of the cross are now in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral).

The encroaching sea, meanwhile, continued to move closer and closer to the northern side of the church, seriously so by the end of the 18th century when the vicar persuaded parishioners to demolish the church and build a new one at nearby Hillsborough. Thankfully, while much of the stone from the church was used in the new building, the twin west towers were left standing.

Their value as a landmark was recognised in 1809 when the ruin was bought by Trinity House as a navigation marker. They subsequently strengthened the towers’ foundations to ensure they weren’t undermined any further. Further strengthening measures took place in later years. About half of the Roman fort remains. The site is now managed by English Heritage.

Reculver is a site richly evocative of England’s past with a history going back more than 1,700 years. The remains may only be fragments of what once stood there but they nonetheless tell a myriad of stories.

WHERE: At Reculver, three miles east of Herne Bay (nearest train station is Herne Bay (four miles); WHEN: Any reasonable time in daylight hours; COST:Free; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/reculver-towers-and-roman-fort/.

Daytripper – Rochester

April 13, 2012

We’ve talked about the Medway town of Rochester earlier in the week as part of our Dickens series but it’s also worth talking about this town in Kent in its own right. 

While Dickens’ connection with the town is a key part of the reason for its charm, this town, which dates from as far back as Roman times and remained an important centre thanks to its strategic position on the Medway, has plenty more to offer.

Foremost among its attractions are the Norman castle and cathedral. Rochester Castle has its origins in a wooden castle built soon after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 with the stone defences following soon after.

The tallest Norman keep in England, from which there are spectacular views, was built around 1127 on the order of its then owner, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbeil. It was about 90 years later, in 1215, when King John laid siege to it during the rebellion of his barons, only taking the castle after a seven week siege when his sappers undermined the south-east tower of the keep (famously it was the fat of 40 pigs which stoked the fire they laid in the tunnels under the tower). The castle was repaired and continued to be used until late medieval times when it fell into disuse and while much of the keep – the highest in England – is now ruined, it remains a stirring sight.

Rochester Cathedral, meanwhile, was first built in Saxon times (there has been a bishop here since 604) although no trace remains of this above ground. The current building, rather, dates from the Norman era – it was consecrated in 1130 in a ceremony attended by King Henry I – and was extensively added to over the following centuries with the completion of the Lady Chapel in 1492 the last major work. Among the most famous bishops here were Bishop Fisher and Bishop Ridley – both of whom died for their faith.

Strolling through the cobbled streets of this historic town, about 30 to 40 minutes from London by train, you’ll also come across the Guildhall Museum, which is housed in the 17th century guildhall and features a range of displays and exhibitions on the history of the Medway including a Dickens discovery room.

Also worth seeing is Eastgate House, the model for Dickens’ Westgate House and now the location of the Swiss chalet in which he wrote, and Restoration House – created from two medieval buildings in the 16th or 17th centuries and the inspiration for Miss Havisham’s home  (see our earlier post).

One unmissable gem is the Six Poor Travellers – an atmospheric and well preserved almshouse in the High Street which dates from Elizabethan times and has an amazing backstory which you can explore as you make your way through its narrow rooms.

Part of the charm of Rochester (and for more on Rochester generally visit www.cometorochester.co.uk/visit/index.htm) lies in its close proximity to Chatham and Gillingham and here you’ll find much more to amuse and entertain including Chatham’s Historic Dockyards (see our earlier daytripper on this), Fort Amherst, Britain’s largest Napoleonic fortress, and for those who can’t get enough of Charles Dickens, Dickens World.

Just to the north of Rochester is Upnor Castle, a rare surviving Elizabethan artillery fortress built to defend the fleet at Chatham Dockyard.