diamond geezer

 Sunday, August 14, 2016

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.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan20  Feb20  Mar20  Apr20  May20
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19  Jun19  Jul19  Aug19  Sep19  Oct19  Nov19  Dec19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream