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History and mystery haunt Chiselhurst's ancient caves

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CHISLEHURST, England - For history and mystery, the best haunted castles in England hardly surpass the Chislehurst Caves, a 35- kilometre (22-mile) labyrinth of subterranean rooms and tunnels just 19 kilometres (12 miles) southeast of London in Kent.

Entirely man-made, the caves, called The Enigma of Kent, date back through 8,000 years of English history, and then some. In fact, fossils of prehistoric sea creatures have been found in the chalk ceilings and walls, and their impressions can still be seen. In the Middle Ages, some of these fossils were believed to be serpents miraculously petrified by English saints.

No one knows just when the first caves were dug, but the earliest workings are very ancient. They were probably used as habitations at a time when the British winter resembled that of modern Canada. It was warm down in the caverns and the white chalk walls reflected enough sunlight to keep out the gloom.

The Druids and the Romans expanded the caves for their own special reasons. Druid priests made human sacrifices at altars that no one could find - or escape - without a guide. Our guide explained the Druids routinely sacrificed criminals, but their favorite victims were fair-haired boys at the age of puberty. They would place a child on an altar, cut his throat and drink his blood from a ceremonial goblet. A blond boy, about 12, standing near our guide, gasped at this information, "Cor blimey!" From then on he kept a wary eye on an attendant who patrolled the shafts in case any of us got separated and lost.

The Romans mined the caves for chalk, which they used in construction and road building.

After the Druids and Romans, the caves were used by Saxon and Danish invaders but gradually fell into disuse. Storms and silt covered up the many entrances, until only a few small openings were left.

By the time of the English Civil War, when Charles I was fighting Cromwell, the caves were secret storehouses and hideouts for the King's loyal Cavaliers.

Hidden passages led to the caves from several royalist mansions, in case Roundhead soldiers came calling. One escapeway is still visible.

During the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, the caves were mined for flints, which fired the Brown Bess muskets used by British armies in Europe and North America. The caves were then more or less forgotten until about the turn of the century when, according to legend, a Scottish psychic showed an explorer where to dig to find an entranceway, and a treasure trove of Roman and Druid artifacts. The ceilings even bore traces of smoke from the torches carried by Cavalier horsemen.

In World War II the caves were used as a bomb shelter by some 30,000 people, and were home for a women's air force unit. A baby girl, born underground during the blitz, was named Cavina.

People sheltering in the caves to escape bombs found unexpected relief from asthma, bronchitis and rheumatism. No doctor has been able to explain why.

During the war the caves were visited by the Duke of Kent, Charles de Gaulle, and the Polish artist Felix Topoloski, who was "rather roughed up" by inhabitants who thought he was a German spy. Some who lived in the caves during the war were reluctant to leave when it was over.

Walking through the winding confusion of passageways and alcoves, even in a guided group, is spooky, especially in the Druid section, where so many were ritually slain. At one altar, if you sing a note, the echo can last up to 30 seconds. If you stand on the altar and sing it, a chord of three ensues, making a choirlike cadence. Imagine the scene 2,000 years ago, in glowing torchlight with chanting priests.

Then there are the ghosts. Apparitions have included a Roman centurion, supposedly stabbed to death; an old woman; a hunchback; a lady who was murdered by drowning in a pool in the Roman section, and children: perhaps those fair-haired Celtic boys.

Three people are known to have tried to spend a night alone in the depths of the caves. One allegedly died of fright. Another passed the time carving a figure (still to be seen) in the chalk wall, but felt a sinister presence behind him and would not repeat the experience for any amount of money. A third man stayed alone for 20 minutes, then ran from the caves screaming that something was after him. He collapsed at the cave entrance, and since then has refused to talk about his experience.

The caves have been used in the filming of horror movies. The Dr. Who cave, where episodes of the TV series were shot, is popular with children.

Chislehurst Caves are open from Easter to the end of September. Tours last 45 minutes, but on Sundays and bank holidays there is a special long tour, lasting 90 minutes, visiting parts of the caves not usually shown to the public.

Well worth a visit, even if you're a blond-haired adolescent boy.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Butts, Ed (1987-10-31). History and mystery haunt Chiselhurst's ancient caves. Toronto Star p. H25.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Butts, Ed. "History and mystery haunt Chiselhurst's ancient caves." Toronto Star [add city] 1987-10-31, H25. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Butts, Ed. "History and mystery haunt Chiselhurst's ancient caves." Toronto Star, edition, sec., 1987-10-31
  • Turabian: Butts, Ed. "History and mystery haunt Chiselhurst's ancient caves." Toronto Star, 1987-10-31, section, H25 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=History and mystery haunt Chiselhurst's ancient caves | url= | work=Toronto Star | pages=H25 | date=1987-10-31 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=25 July 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=History and mystery haunt Chiselhurst's ancient caves | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=25 July 2024}}</ref>