Last Saturday began much like every other weekend – with my boyfriend and I sitting around eating waffles in our jimjams, and debating what to do whilst waiting for vintage episodes of The Simpsons to come on. Excitingly, it soon became apparent that this wasn’t like every other weekend, as we had actually found a reason to leave the house! I’m totally a list-maker, though unfortunately, not well-organised enough to keep them all in one location. One of the many lists I have is on Google Maps, and includes various attractions around Britain I want to visit. We’ve already been to most of the caves within an easy drive from London, but Reigate Caves were ones we hadn’t visited, due to them only being open 5 days a year. I happened to check their website for the next open day, not really expecting it to be any time soon, only to find out it was that very Saturday! With a destination sorted, we hopped in the car, Reigate bound.
The Reigate Caves consist of three separate caves (which aren’t actually caves as such, but old sand mines, which is fairly typical of “caves” in the Weald): Baron’s Cave, which is under the old Castle grounds, and the Tunnel Road Caves, which are opposite each other under (appropriately enough) Tunnel Road. It was £3 for Tunnel Road Caves, and another £2 for Baron’s Cave, both of which included a guided tour. The whole enterprise is run by the Wealden Cave Society, who honestly seemed like delightful people. We began with a tour of the Western Caverns, led by a guide who was seriously pretty great.
He was very laid back, to the point where he would just start talking whenever he got to a point of interest in the cave, whether or not the group was with him. I thought that was fantastic, because why should everyone have to wait for stragglers? That way, if people with children wanted to hang back, and didn’t really care about the tour, the rest of us didn’t have to wait for them to catch up. There was a second guide to bring up the rear, to ensure the stragglers didn’t get completely lost, and help answer questions. The main guide also reminded me a bit of Chris Packham (they had the same w’s for r’s speech thing going on), which I think is part of why I liked him so much, since I adore Chris Packham, (and agree with him that pandas are completely overrated). He was clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about the caves, which I always like to see (people with slightly eccentric interests, that is, as I have many of those myself).
The caves are currently owned by a gun club, who normally have target practice in the caves, though obviously not when the tours are going on. Therefore, the caves were littered with spent casings, and we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the target areas. I’m no fan of guns (perhaps surprising coming from an American), so I felt slightly uneasy at the start, until it became apparent that no one was going to emerge from a hidey-hole and start shooting at us. Otherwise, I’d say the dominant feature of the caves was sand, which was apparently also scattered with bits of broken glass, so it’s probably not the best place to wear open toed shoes.
The caves have what is an extensive, yet strangely poorly documented history. Obviously, their main use was as a source of sand, which was used for glass making, ink blotting, and to soak up spillage on local pub floors, which I’m told is what gave rise to the local saying, “happy as a sand boy,” (which I must start using) as the sand boys would get a free drink at each pub they delivered sand to, thus ending up plastered by the end of the day. During WWI, they were used to store explosives, which likely would have resulted in the complete annihilation of Reigate had any of them actually gone off. During WWII, the townspeople used it as a bomb shelter, which I also have to question the efficacy of, as sand isn’t the sturdiest material, but thankfully, it was never put to the test. It seems like mostly what people did in them was carve things into the walls, judging by the enormous amount of graffiti (which included an excellent war-era caricature of Hitler, which I was unable to get a picture of).
Being man-made, the caves had reasonably high ceilings, so might have more appeal for claustrophobics than the average cave. Though there was a large skull carved into one of the walls, which might manage to freak someone out if the caves themselves hadn’t. I reckon the tour lasted about 35-45 minutes, after which we entered the Eastern Caverns, which were self-guided (though naturally, required hard hats).
The Eastern Caverns detailed more of the history of the caves with the use of posters (though our guide had already covered most of it during the tour), and featured things like a recreation of a bomb shelter (complete with scary sound effects), a Cold War room, and a men’s urinal trough. I think it was meant to be more of a “spooky” experience, as they had fake bats hanging throughout for children to count, and little signs with a ghost on them, which is of course exactly my cup of tea (Earl Grey, two sugars and a splash of milk). It even had authentic smells (as did the stairs leading down to Tunnel Road, come to think of it) thanks to a paraffin lamp, which also had the effect of making the air authentically smoky.
Finally (after procuring a cookie sandwich from a local bakery, as there was no ice creamery on the high street. Get on that, Reigate!), we hiked up the hill to Baron’s Cave, following the directional bat signs. We were given lamps this time, in lieu of hard hats, and caught up with a group who had just begun the guided tour. This guide was rather dour compared to the first one, but he was still informative (and was quite stern with an exceptionally bratty child, which I appreciated). Baron’s Cave was originally constructed in the 11th century as part of Reigate Castle, and was probably used primarily as a wine cellar, and alternate exit from the castle. It is also rumoured to have been the meeting spot for the barons on their way to Runnymede to sign the Magna Carta (hence the name), which is pretty cool.
As such, although it was much smaller than the other caves, it had even older graffiti, including carvings of a horse and cow. Most of the stuff we saw was from the 18th century, although much of it goes back even further, but has been covered over by newer carvings. Other than the graffiti, the main attractions were a staircase that once led to a pyramid on the castle grounds, but now leads to nothing (though the pyramid is still there, and you can go up and see it!), the wine cellar room, and a random T-Rex.
I’m happy we discovered the open day in time to go, because the Reigate Caves were a very nice experience. I’m rating them as 4/5, and certainly better than Chislehurst Caves. I think the fact that the Cave Society run the tours help turn it into a quality experience, as they clearly have a vested interest in all things underground. The only other open days this year are the 13th July, 10th August, and 14th September, so I’d definitely recommend heading down to Reigate on one of them to take in the cavey goodness.