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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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.

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.

PICTURE: The crypt at seen at this year’s Open House London event. (Andrea Vail licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.)

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.

PICTURE: Admiral Lord Nelson’s tomb (Marcus Holland-Moritz/ licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.o)