Long time readers of the blog may remember that I love Chislehurst Caves. A lot of people who know me otherwise will know I love Chislehurst Caves as well. We went two years ago, I blogged about it, and I’ve been talking about it ever since.
My girlfriend had the inspired idea that, for Hallowe’en, we should go back and see if they’re doing anything special for the occasion. It was spooky enough last time, with plenty of ghost stories told on our tour. As we drove out of London for a 10pm tour, we were excited — and then nervous — about what we’d be in for this time.
We arrived in a darkened car park, having driven past the lights of local opulence, to find ourselves loomed over by the only blocks of flats around and quickly headed inside, escaping the autumn cold.
These twenty miles of chalk tunnels under London’s super-rich suburbs find themselves represented by the forebodingly simple tagline: “darkness itself”. But once underground, it is hard to think about anything else. All else falls away.
The tunnels have had a fascinating history but darkness is all you are able to sense down here. It is a blindness with weight and distance. Caught within it, you feel out at sea, knowing to stray from the group would get you quickly lost.
On our first visit to the tunnels, this darkness was kept at bay. Paraffin torches were handed out to those on the tour, our procession well lit with evenly distributed lights and health and safety regulations.
For Hallowe’en, no such torches were offered. Small candles were hung at corners and crossroads, presumably to give the tour guides a sense of direction, but no other light sources were on offer. Such tiny flames did not give much coverage. They would appear in the distance as beacons of false promise. A destination that, on arrival, was still as dark as where you’d just been stood.
The effect of this on the group was palpable. I, for one, love being scared. I laugh through my nerves and enjoy the thrill of not knowing, of being watched, or sensing something else in the darkness. It is recognisably a nervous laughter. It is self-comforting more than any external expression of joy. On our walk, I laughed a lot.
My girlfriend, on the other hand, has always been very clear that “scary” is not her thing. Although this visit was her idea, it was clear she was not having the best time. I had never seen her act as she did as we began the tour. Actors were stationed throughout the tunnels, jumping out of passageways with masks and costumes, lingering in the occasion strobe-lit cul-de-sac, stalking our group from a distance to keep stragglers on edge. My girlfriend’s eyes darted in every direction, her neck craned like a deer aware of the hunt. She would grab me for support, getting caught under my own feet, causing us to trip over each other and slow ourselves down as we sought each other out for a quick escape.
It was a far more endearing reaction than that of the teenagers in our midst. They were a funny bunch. White suburban kids who all looked like SoundCloud rappers. One, in particular, could have been in a Lil Peep costume but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t just dressed for the occasion. At first, they were irritating and, when they would blow out the candles on their way through the tunnels, they certainly irritated the tour guide too. He would anxiously get on his radio, loudly berating them as morons to the rest of the crew as he struggled to find the now-extinguished light sources.
In the end, however, I found these teenagers endearing too. They couldn’t help but make jokes at every opportunity. Bad ones. When not looking over my own shoulder or jumping as I bump into fellow walkers, huddling together out of reach of the actors and making ourselves jump like as if we’re living in an episode of Scooby Doo, the teens were high-fiving costumed jump-scarers and sexualising every ghost story with half-whispered comments to their friends.
It felt like they were doing everything they could to undermine the job of the actors and tour guides but eventually it became clear: they weren’t just being rude — they’d paid to be here too, after all — the truth was that they were scared too. Their piss-taking and attempts to spoil the illusion for everyone else were their way of keeping sight of the reality they knew and were desperately holding onto above ground. Because, even though the actors’ masks were ill-fitting and obvious and the costumes cliche, there was no accounting for the darkness itself.
In fact, the jump scares and bad costumes felt like they were part of this reality-checking too. It was all very slapstick and over-the-top. Cheap and cheerful. I was aware that I had been more scared of these tunnels when we first came down into them, without the Hallowe’en pretence, but those tunnels from my memories were still here, lurking behind the pantomime. All the actors did was make it all more familiar and more fun — a distraction from the tricks your minds would inevitably play of its own accord, were you left down here alone.
I could feel these other tunnels lurking behind the facade and I wanted to reach them. I started to feel unnerved by the tactless covering-up of the real terror down here but that only made me want to seek it more for myself and face it on my own terms, not distracted by the noise and movement of the tour guides.
I kept my own fearful fascination to myself for most of our “scream walk” but in the end I could not bear being shepherded any longer. As I laughed along with my friends, my eyes darted around in the low light, looking for a getaway. In particular, I was drawn to the passages where there was no light at all. I felt a pull towards them, even though there was nothing to see. It was almost a gravitational pull. The darkness had a density.
Hanging back, avoiding the rehearsed scares of the jobbing actors the men who lurk at the rear, scaring stragglers into keeping pace with the crowd, their fatigue starting to show on our late-night wander, I managed to sidestep their shepherding and started to see other figures in the darkness.
Off the candle-lit paths, there was another. I got the sense she was a woman, although I’m not sure why. It was just a shadow but I could have sworn I saw a light emanate from her. I tried to take a photograph but the light was not enough to give a clearer image than I had with my own straining eyes.
I gestured to the others but they were preoccupied with what was directly in front of them. From her vantage point, I saw the rest of our tour as she undoubtedly did. They seemed carnivalesque. A hive of activity and noise. Her silence and distance unnerved me more than anything. She felt so removed from it all and, the more attention I gave to her, the more removed I found myself feeling too.
Although the use of phones were prohibited — not that there was any service that deep underground — I slid my torch on in my pocket and used it carefully, trying to follow her. I no longer had any fear of getting lost. The echoing sound of the teenagers, though disorientating as it bounced off every wall, provided an aural anchor as my senses were recalibrated to the quiet pitch-blackness of these other tunnels.
My pupils widened and my feet shuffled onwards, following the glimpses of barely-lit material I caught disappearing around corners, dancing on the air. This was no ghost. In many ways, I felt like she was as I was — a curious wanderer taking leave from her own party. But she wasn’t here for a tour. She was here for something else. With so much space around us, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were other activities going on that night as well. I was right but they were activities of a sort I was not expecting.
I kept my distance but the woman must have known I was on her tail. I felt led as if by a white rabbit. As she rounded corner after corner, I saw that she was becoming slowly silhouetted against a light source in front of her. The light was still low but it was enough to define her form.
She wore a hooded cloak and walked silently. I could hear the sound of water and her footsteps became audible as she crossed the stream. I slowed my pace, knowing I would not be able to cross the water silently. Instead, I backtracked a little and hovered at the end of a long passage, increasing my distance to what I could now see before me.
The tunnel opened out into an enclave, wider than the tunnels we had passed through and with a high ceiling. On the floor, two circles constructed with sticks — the embers of a dying fire in one, wood for an unlit fire in the other. Beyond them, an altar, arranged with items and a strange wrapped bundle.
The woman removed her hood to reveal a mask, more primitive than the loose-fitting sweat-condensed plastic masks of my abandoned tour guides but also more effective. It was an animal. A wolf maybe. It was hard to tell. I think it was made of wood.
She joined a small group of others, already gathered in the chalk clearing, gathered around the dying embers, each with their own masks in turn. They were silent, gazing into the embers in quiet contemplation.
The others silently acknowledged her arrival with a glance in her direction. She joined them, closely the circle, and paused. Then, with a slow and deliberate movement, she raised her left foot and stepped into the circle before turning around and picking something up from the floor.
I laughed to myself. I knew what it was immediately. For all that silent drama, getting caught up in the quietude of this creepy wanderer, she’s going to pick up a broom? Perhaps this was all part of the tour after all. Top marks for atmosphere but woefully predictable props.
Suddenly, the woman took the broom in her hand and brushed the floor around her in a swift circular movement, kicking up a cloud of chalk dust, ash and embers. The air seemed to shimmer for a moment, as if the current of air she had conjured around her had disturbed some previously unseen veil. The embers of the dying fire reignited, calmly, intensifying with the low sound of popping wood. The wood in the other circle began to glow in turn.
One by one, the group stepped into the circle, newly alight before them. They removed their masks but held them aloft, allowing the glow of the fire to pass through them, casting shadows across their faces. It was difficult to see from my vantage point but the effect was unsettling. The shadows seemed to contort the skin on their faces, twisting and pulling apart their humanity like clay.
One of the figures, hood still up, maskless, brought a horn to his lips and blew. It was shimmering white, almost blinding against the dulled chalk around them. Then, the woman I had followed began to speak, as if in prayer:
Harken to the Devil’s Horn
Open ye the Ways within
Awake thy ancient shifting form
Conjure it forth and turn thy skin!
All unfathomable that has of ancient been
Deepest held and further set
By waking sleep and Midnight’s dream
All potential that may be set.
Arise ye unto Midnight’s call
Dreaming beasts awaken en-fleshed
Thy myriad resurrections of ancient all
Spirit and mystery manifest.
By time betwixt and Midnight’s tide
Rouse from the deep, the wild and hidden
By mirror-mask and witches’ hide
By call of horn; summoned and bidden!
The horn sounded again although this time I could not see it held to anyone’s lips. Other sounds began to emanate from the walls around me. Scuttling sounds, scratching sounds. Gruffs and growls. Tiny shadows made the walls pulsate and quiver like the goosebumps on my skin.
The group were unmoved. They continued to stare into their grotesque masks, mirrored in the violent shadows on their faces, entranced by the embers flickering through the eye-holes of their animal familiars.
The woman began to speak again, continuing her arcane rhyme:
Upon this night of Hallantide
The veil betwixt to rend and part
We conjure forth the Midnight ride
By Devil’s Horn and witching Arte.
Spirits of old arise ye forth
Let quick and dead conjoin this night
By the way ‘twixt West and North
Let begin the Elder rite!
I was startled by a shadow approaching from behind. A fox passed me, ignoring me completely, crouched against the chalk wall and peering into this strange ceremony. It approached the group cautiously, closer than I had dared, but stopped short of the light emanating from their ritual, choosing to stay and lurk in the shadows.
I could sense that it was not alone. There were other creatures in the tunnels with us who had left the night above for the one below.
Spirits, beasts and ghostly rade
Open now the Way of the Dead
Wild horde of witch and shade
Open the Way that’s Huntsman-led.
I no longer felt like bearing witness to whatever this was. It was fascinating but, in the lure of their light, I had forgotten where I was and why I was here. I could no longer hear the screams of the tour and felt a sudden need to get back to the group I knew. The spectacle was enticing but I had a feeling that it was better enjoyed from within their circle. On the outside, I might find myself prey to something else.
Not wanting to make a sound or give away my location with the light of my phone, I walked backwards slowly down a side passage, as cautiously as I could, the echo of the woman’s chant following me as I made my retreat.
Cavalcade of Fellows all
Ride ye forth with Devil’s speed
Ride ye forth at Midnight’s call
By Night-Mare’s hoof and spirit-steed.
By flight of moth by bat and owl,
By spirit path and old Corpse Way
By Hunter’s horn and black hound’s howl
By haunted track and ancient Ley.
Her chant was loud. My increasing distance seemed to have no effect on its power. The walls carried it without diminution. I couldn’t be the only one hearing her.
Her words were distracting. As I bent my ears to try and hear the more familiar screams of Hallowe’en thrill, my mind kept focussing back on the meaning of her rhyme. I couldn’t tear my mind away from the call.
Go ye forth in the Old One’s Name
Throughout and about, without and within
By the light of the Devil’s flame
Let the Wild Hunt begin!
I turned and began to walk at pace now. The darkness still slowed me down but, feeling like I was now some distance away, I decided to pick up some speed.
The horn sounded again in the distance and I heard the scurrying sounds of nocturnal creatures again. Holding my hand to the wall to guide my way, I felt something unknown crawl over my knuckles and I ripped my hand away from the cold chalk surface. I wasn’t the only thing in here that was regretting its recent arrival.
Behind me I could hear something new. I turned to see a low light moving towards the end of the tunnel and felt a presence just out of sight. Whatever it was made a noise that was oddly familiar. It sounded like a bull, or a horse maybe — the breathy gesture of a large beast. There were certainly no bulls down here, though. As labyrinthine as it was, this was no Minotaur’s lair.
I heard hooves next but not a cantor. This was a biped. Other footsteps joined it. I assumed the enchanted circle, previously fixated on their atavistic ritual, were no longer so still and distracted.
I stopped for a moment, the cold sweat running down my back halting me in my tracks. The chanting had stopped now too but something was getting nearer. I
n the distance, I heard a yelp, choked by laughter. The tour group was close but I wasn’t close enough. I tried to call out but the words were stuck in my throat.
The horn again. Drums now too. Screams and shouts. My legs are shaking underneath me. I felt like prey and, at the same time, like I am being driven from this place, like a herded lamb being rounded up for the slaughter.
Life had been beckoned into this dark corridor and now death had emerged to chase it out. Soon there would be nothing left, once again, except darkness itself.