Tube tunnels and cellars excepted, rarely do we know what lies underground beneath our feet, and even more rarely do we get the chance to go down and have a look. In this respect the town of Reigate in Surrey is somewhat of a special case. At the foot of the North Downs, on the Greensand Ridge, Reigate's unusual geology bequeathed the town a mineral fortune. Just below the surface is a layer of sand, the finest silver sand much coveted by glassmakers, and pretty much perfect for gardening, scouring and sandcastle-making too. Over the centuries many hundreds of tons of this sand have been excavated from the centre of Reigate, specifically the area around the castle, creating a considerable network of mine workings. And five times a year these 'Reigate Caves' are opened up to the public for a nose around. I went yesterday, and spent more than two hours underground for under a fiver, and you can visit next month for even less. [photo report from Ian Visits]
Oldest of the Reigate workings is the Barons'Cave, named after the French knight who had a castle built here after the Norman conquest. A compact hump of land just north of what's now the High Street provided an ideal defensive location, and the sand beneath offered intriguing subterranean possibilities. A long tunnel was built from the heart of the castle to the west bank of the moat, the chance to slip out unnoticed providing both offensive and defensive opportunities. This kind of feature was called a sally port, and Reigate's still exists, even though the top of the shaft now lies in a municipal garden and has been topped off with a stone pyramid to prevent unwanted access. Instead visitors enter from a steep staircase in the moat, past a lady selling guide books and postcards, and pick up a lantern before exploring.
A guide from the Wealden Cave & Mine Society takes you round - they're the august body who keep these treasures ticking over. The cave heads upwards into the mound, ascending uneven steps covered in fine sand. Visitors are urged not to touch the walls because they can potentially crumble, and because you can't stick the grains back after they've sprinkled off. Other visitors over the centuries haven't been as well behaved, and there's graffiti dating back to the 1900s, 1800s, 1700s and even in one place the 1640s, along with scratched names and attempts at cartoonish art. One branching passage leads to the Barons Chamber, a long and tall curving passage which ends suddenly in a solid wall, and whose unknown purpose might have been as a meeting space or simply somewhere to keep the wine. Look out too for 'Hector', the WCMS's model dinosaur, disposed of by the BBC after appearing in Doctor Who and now lurking in an intermediate cavern.
A rather larger cave system can be accessed from Tunnel Road - the UK's oldest road tunnel, dating back to the 1820s. Most days this is simply a pedestrianised cut-through from the High Street, but on Open Days the WCMS set up a small marquee and exhibition under the castle mound and await visitors. There were loads of these yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to see, but thankfully the guides can take down thirty at a time so everybody got their turn. Tickets are £3 for the Tunnel Road caves, £2 for the Barons' Cave, or £4.50 for both, which is an absolute and total experiential bargain. The guide on my tour was excellent, adding a dash of dry humour to the factual delivery and storytelling throughout. Just try not to end up in a group with an unimpressed baby, because their wailing echoes persistently underground and, as embarrassed dads soon discover, there is nowhere to hide.
The Tunnel Road caves were originally sand mines, commercially driven, expanding over the 18th and early 19th centuries. You can still see the pickaxe marks in the ceiling, thousands of them along the warren of passages that leads back and down and beyond. Peculiarly the first part of the complex belongs to the local shooting club, and has done since 1905, and they're very sniffy about the taking of photographs. Nevertheless you'll get to wander down the odd range and across the occasional gallery, down tunnels that provided Reigate with a capacious underground shelter during World War Two. At other times concerts have been held in one of the larger chambers, and a wine bar on the High Street extended back into the system, but mostly it's been the extraction of sand that's kept the place buzzing.
After over half an hour of the tour, by which time you think you must have seen the lot, a low passageway (added later) leads off into a completely different mine system altogether. This better looks the part, all deep and cavernous, dug out on an orthogonal grid to extract the maximum volume without the roof falling in. One huge section did collapse in 1858, now a sunken garden in the park above and securely bricked off down below. Another level or two alas had to be filled in when larger juggernauts took to the UK's roads, for fear of the road collapsing beneath their weight. But what's left is still extensive and highly atmospheric, and absolutely not what you'd expect to lurk beyond the backs of the shops on Reigate High Street.
And there's more. A separate complex lurks behind a door on the opposite side of Tunnel Road, this developed more for storage than extraction. This makes it technically safer than the former mine across the way, but visitors are now required to don safety helmets, presumably because certain bits of ceiling are much lower. As well as a couple of extensive wine cellars, the tunnels were also used as a public air raid shelter during the Second World War, and as a potential emergency control centre in the event of a Third. A veritable hotchpotch of displays and exhibitions touch on these aspects, and on geology, railways and anything else the volunteers think interesting and/or relevant. Plus the tunnels just stretch on, round one sandy corner after another, and this time you have free rein to explore.
Reigate Caves generally open to the public on the second Saturday of the month from May to September, so you've missed four out of five of this year's opportunities. The next (on September 10th) coincides with Heritage Open Days across the UK, so entrance to the Barons' Cave is free, though is likely to be extremely popular. For a quieter trip, it's not confirmed but I'll bet 2017's dates are 13th May, 10th June, 8th July, 12th August and 9th September, in case you want to add a reminder in your electronic calendar now. Plus Reigate's rather interesting anyway, as I mentioned last time I was here, and as the town's Heritage Trail attests. Or join the WCMS, they go underground well beyond north Surrey, and then you'll not have so long to wait.