Saint Clement's Caves – Hastings, England - Atlas Obscura

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Saint Clement's Caves

A former smuggler's haven houses "The Chapel" and its mysterious carvings. 

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Saint Clement’s Caves is a four-and-a-half-acre network of ancient tunnels and caverns beneath Hastings’ West Hill in its Old Town. The earliest written reference to the caves, from 1783, tells of an elderly man and woman who lived there after being evicted from Hastings’ workhouse. Discovered by authorities at the end of the 140-foot “Monk’s Walk,” the pair claimed that the caves went no deeper, despite the acres of hidden tunnels and caverns beyond. They may have been covering for the local smugglers who used the caves as a base of operations and to store their illicit goods. The true depth of the caves only became public knowledge in 1827, when they were rediscovered and opened as an attraction. 

During World War II, the subterranean space became an air raid shelter, and since 1989, the Saint Clement’s Caves have housed Smugglers Adventure, a museum where visitors can learn about the history of smuggling in Sussex. Interactive displays show how contraband was disguised and transported, the weapons used by both smugglers and excisemen and what is believed to be the only known Smuggler’s Account Book.

Though the caverns are no longer filled with rum, tobacco, and silks, they remain home to many figures and sculptures carved into the sandstone walls. Some of these have a well-documented history, like the carvings of Winston Churchill and Emperor Napoleon, while others remain shrouded in mystery, like those found in “the Chapel” at the core of the cave system.

Legends describe the Chapel as the coldest and most-haunted part of the caves, once used for sacred ceremonies. Cut into its hard stone walls are an urn, an altar, and a cloaked figure some believe represents Saint Clement, namesake of the caves and its local church, though others believe it to be an occult idol. The dim lights cast a dark halo around the figure’s head and give the impression of shadowy wings. Visitors to the Chapel have described an oppressive, menacing atmosphere that unsettles those who linger too long.

Know Before You Go

West Hill, where the caves are located, is accessed by a series of steep steps from Old Town or the West Hill Cliff Railway. The cave's entrance is down several steps. Within the cave complex, there are uneven floors and tunnels.

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June 21, 2024

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