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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

06 November 2009

Sounds of the Chislehurst underworld

AMONG THE GENTLE folds and rucks of the chalk hills to the south of London are the Chislehurst caves. They were first burrowed by Stone Age people seeking flints, so although all subterranean places somehow feel ancient, these caves really are old.

20th-century uses included an ammo dump, a mushroom farm, and an air raid shelter holding up to 2,000 people during the V-weapon raids. But in the post-war period the tunnels and passageways had a sound-related role. Dr Eric Inman’s pamphlet Chislehurst Caves: A Short History explains:

During the 1960s and 1970s the caves became the mecca of music enthusiasts. The South London Jazz Club organised a series of concerts featuring Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, Humphrey Lyttleton and others. Because of the acoustics of the caves as many as five different bands could be playing in close proximity without interfering with the enjoyment of their individual audiences.

Skiffle gradually replaced jazz only to be ousted by Rock and Roll which attracted such large and boisterous audiences that eventually the concerts had to be ended. Entertainment later resumed less frequently with music performed by artistes such as David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Georgie Fame.

Those must have been memorable gigs. In the early 1970s the caves also hosted shows by Radio Caroline DJs, which set off the someone’s-having-fun alarm at the Ministry for British Dullness:

At times queues of enthusiasts waiting to get in stretched as far as the Bickley Arms Hotel [about four hundred yards]. This venture came to a sudden end when the Government threatened prosecution under the Wireless Telegraphy Acts

The caves are open once more as a visitor attraction, and the adult ticket price of £5 for a guided tour is great value. The official website is here, with details of opening times and how to get there.

This morning I was fed up with the constant intrusion of aircraft noise, which had made difficult the previous evening’s recording of Guy Fawkes night. The caves held out the promise of a certain purity of sound. Here’s a recording of water dripping from a seventy-foot shaft to the surface, where it begins beneath someone’s garden pond:


At one point in the tour the guide whacks an old metal junction box with a length of pipe. The resulting crash is shockingly loud and it reverberates for several seconds through the network of tunnels, becoming deeper and fainter. It was just too much for the mic though, so I’ll have to try again another day.

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