Article type Event
Published 31st May 2014
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It’s hard to believe, but below your feet as you walk around Greenwich lie smugglers’ tunnels, ancient mines and even a vast cave where one 19th-century reveller threw an underground carnival, local archaeologist Per von Scheibner tells Glyn Brown.
When I telephone Per von Scheibner – archaeologist, raconteur and man of many parts – to arrange to speak about the historic conduits that lie beneath Greenwich Park, I ask if he might take me into one of these tunnels. It’s mid-way through the Olympics, and he receives my request with mirth.
“We can try,” he booms, in the voice of a German Burl Ives, “but there’s currently rather a lot of secret service about, and if we find ourselves in prison, you might miss your deadline. I could take you into a sand mine close to Hyde Vale, but it’s high humidity down there, which might affect your tape recorder. Added to which, the sand will destroy it.”
So we speak at von Scheibner’s home in Forest Hill, surrounded by two giant dogs, two cats, a rabbit and his five-year-old daughter. Possibly the sand mine would’ve been easier – but as von Scheibner begins to talk, everything else falls away.
It may come as a surprise, but Greenwich has more underground features – caves, chalk mines, smugglers’ tunnels, burial vaults – than any other London borough. Von Scheibner is responsible for some of the most in-depth – if not, scandalously, the only – research into them. Born 58 years ago in Berlin, as a boy he became fascinated by Egyptology, then archaeology, going on his first dig at 14.
He came to London in 1973, aged 18, and continued his studies at UCL’s Institute of Archaelogy before following his father into medicine, qualifying as a physiotherapist. And all was fine, until “I suffered a heart attack over a patient, which wasn’t terribly confidence-inspiring for the poor sod. Since I couldn’t do what I normally do, my bank manager suggested: ‘Why don’t you write something?’”
Willing to try, Von Scheibner began work on a story for children, set around Abbey Wood. “I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was something like a cave in the area?’” He visited the local history library. “And I got a bit more than I bargained for.”
It seemed that this area was riddled with caves – but not only did few people know they existed, almost no scientific work had been done to excavate them. So Von Scheibner began the hunt to locate his first caverns by “looking at every bloody rabbit hole, until I eventually found the shaft of a denehole, or chalk mine, and nearly fell into it – I had no idea how enormous these things are!”.
Von Scheibner began to educate himself in industrial archaeology, learning caving by tentative experience. And then he heard about a mine situated not far from the famed Chislehurst Caves. “I wanted to speak to the owner of Chislehurst Caves, and visited on a Sunday after a party in the area, still in my tuxedo. I didn’t find the owner. Instead, I found a young guy in full mining gear showing visitors around.” This was Dominic Clinton, photographer and caving genius, and the man von Scheibner would work with for the next 25 years.
When Clinton heard von Scheibner had permission to enter the long-lost mine at Lubbock Road (a shaft Bromley inhabitant HG Wells had once descended), he closed Chislehurst Caves for the day and the pair enthusiastically set off, excavating a dangerous mine with von Scheibner still in his tux.
The mysteries in the Park
Greenwich Park alone, it seems, is a wonderland of elaborately-constructed medieval conduits wide enough to walk down, natural caves and several reservoirs. The conduits initially channelled water for a monastic community who lived between the Thames and the Park; in Tudor times they served the Palace of Placentia and later, rebuilt by Christopher Wren’s illustrious disciple Nicholas Hawksmoor, no less, they supplied the Royal Naval College.
But there is more – for example, Flamsteed’s Well, a 100-foot-deep brick-lined shaft on Observatory Hill which it’s thought came into operation around November 1677, two years after the first Astronomer Royal was installed at the new building. It’s believed the ‘well’ was actually a chalk mine. Whatever it was, we know of it only from 17th-century engravings, since no one can locate it. Having installed two giant lenses, Flamsteed would recline on a couch at the bottom to make celestial observations. “He had made himself an extremely long telescope, and thus an extremely powerful one.” He’d struggle for air though, wouldn’t he? “No, no,” grins von Scheibner. “The aperture was quite wide enough. I should think much more, he would feel the need for a toilet!”
The grand masked ball
But there are numerous underground wonders to be found outside the Park. How about Blackheath Cavern? It seems that, around 1815, one Richard Fyffe bought a plot of land on Blackheath Hill where it joins Maidenstone Hill to build himself a house. One day, the foundations vanished into a vast cavity.
Having relocated his cottage, Fyffe set about monetising what turned out to be an extensive series of caves.
A report in London’s Morning Chronicle, dated 8 April 1817, describes a visitor attraction 100 feet below ground where Fyffe had rigged up, among other things, the figure of a candlelit hermit in monk’s cowl and crucifix, moping over a burial urn. When the grotesque aspect had served its purpose, Fyffe turned the caves into a sumptuous drawing room, installed a band and advertised a “Grand Bal Masqué”, a carnival for 1,500 “in the bowels of the earth”. Here, quite a few revellers really did collapse due to inadequate ventilation.
More drama for a cave some say dates back to Saxon times, and which many believe was used as a hideout by rebel leader Jack Cade during the 1450 peasants’ revolt.
This and much more still sits quietly somewhere under Greenwich, which seems to be a honeycomb of tunnels (“I have long joked,” says von Scheibner, “that Greenwich is a borough that walks on stilts”). Many of the most intriguing subterranean structures have been filled in and built over. Von Scheibner, however, intends to carry on investigating. His aim? “To map everything that is here, as far as possible, and to have what I find regularly inspected to ascertain its safety. Let’s face it, the traditional way of finding one of these things is by falling down it, but one doesn’t have to keep up every tradition.”
Von Scheibner also hopes that one day many of the intricate surviving sites, currently being left to crumble into decay, will be reinstated and opened to the public. Displaying them could provide a new tourist stream, new local income and employment, as well as an entirely new aspect to the place where we live. As von Scheibner says, “I’m just an archaeologist. It’s the people of the borough who own this history – and in my view, it’s time it was given back to them.”