Reigate, Surrey is literally built upon sand - and even much of that is hollow! The extensive network of tunnels under the town centre are known as Reigate Caves, but in fact they are not natural features. They were dug over centuries, mostly as sand mines.
The silver sand is very pure, making it highly desirable to glassmakers. Its lack of colour meant that good quality, clear glass could be achieved. In consequence, there was a lively trade between townspeople and London's glass industry. It ranged from individuals digging relatively small amounts from their own (and perhaps their neighbours') cellars, to larger commercial operations. That history can be explored in the Tunnel Road caves, opened to the public several days a year by Wealden Cave and Mine Society. Those on the west side of the road began life as sand mines, but the mining seems to have stopped after 1858 when a large section fell in. That would have done no more than hasten its natural end, however, as steam-powered equipment had made open-cast mining easier and cheaper.
After the end of mining, the caves found plenty of new uses: this section has been home to a shooting club for over a century, while other parts of the network were used as stores, a wine bar, and a music venue. Several sections have been filled in, to ensure the stability of the roads and buildings above. In a reversal of its history, the cave occupied by the rifle club now has sand brought into it - because the Reigate sand is not of the correct grade for catching bullets behind the targets.
Inevitably, rubbish also got dumped into the tunnels. There is, of course, the inevitable shopping trolley - but from defunct chain Texas Homecare.
The tunnels to the east of Tunnel Road were never mines, but were created as storage cellars for wine and beer.
That history can be explored in the museum which now occupies them. It also dedicates galleries to their use as air raid shelters during the Second World War. As well as local people, Londoners also used to travel to the caves to take shelter.
|A barely-visible sign still warns visitors to 'always bring your gas mask' since the shelter was not gas-proof|
The Barons' Cave, underneath the now-disappeared Reigate Castle, has a longer and more uncertain history. There are records of it dating back to the sixteenth century, but also indications that it may be much older. It may date back as far as the Norman period, and is probably mediaeval; it was most likely a sally port from the castle (ie an escape tunnel). We do know that the story which gave the caves their name is not true: the barons did not meet here to draft Magna Carta. (And they were sensible not to do so: a tunnel with one entrance, and no good reason for senior nobility to be sneaking into it, is far from ideal for a secret meeting!)
It has a side passage which is much newer, and was probably dug as a sand mine. The other use which has left visible traces is as a place to leave graffiti. Names and dates abound, of course, but there are also images of human and animal heads.
At the flight of steps leading down to its entrance is a sign telling would-be visitors to apply to the Head Gardener and pay a fee of three pence. While the Wealden Cave and Mine Society has taken overe the tours, their guides are excellent and entrance fees remain modest - although you will need more than a threepenny bit for admission.