Let’s do a bit of a retrograde here and throw ourselves back into Hastings. St. Clement’s Caves, to be precise – or “Smuggler’s Adventure” as the tourist theme name goes.
Ricky had been telling me about Smugger’s Adventure well before we got to the UK. I had honestly no idea what it was. Tunnels full of contraband? Caverns to spelunk? After the London Dungeon, I thought maybe it was a tour where things jumped out at you.
But none of these were really the case.
Instead, these caves are kind of like a historical theme park seventy feet underground. We headed to the West Hill in Hastings, descending into an increasingly smuggler thematic tunnel.
Not only wooden cutouts, but wooden warnings too.
You get inside, they extort you more than a handful of quid (more if you go for a combo flashlight and guidebook pack), and then you wait at the entrance until the light goes green and you can enter as one. This is to avoid polluting the tunnels with light, which is pretty clever even if it does take ages.
While you’re waiting, they have signs up that you can read to learn the history of the caves. They date well before written history, and some carved relics inside are still a mystery to us today. By the 1700’s they were used by smugglers hiding illegally imported goods, but when this fell out of fashion, the caves in turn fell out of memory.
Then one day in 1820, Joseph Golding – a local grocer of Hastings – accidentally rediscovered them by poking a hole into one of the caverns. Since then, they’ve been used for everything from military hospitals during the Napoleonic Wars, to air raid shelters in the 40’s, to jazz ballrooms in the 50’s and 60’s. In the past decade, they’ve now renovated them from what had become an adolescent binge-drinking hangout to a well-presented historic tour.
When we were finally allowed in, we seriously reconsidered our scoffing at buying those flashlights at the beginning. It was pitch black with only distantly spaced out lights leading us down a sloping tunnel. It reminded me a lot of the DMZ in South Korea wherein we could walk down the invasion route North Korea had dug through the border (I realize I haven’t actually blogged on my visits there – all the more shameful because I went twice).
At the bottom, the tunnel opened up into a full on cavern. Blue and red spotlights marked objects of importance, such as a giant forbidding stone statue carved over the entrance.
A video came on giving a little more background on the caves. Apparently at one point, at the height of smuggling, a homeless couple set up camp in the entrance of the caves telling soldiers or bounty hunters that the tunnels only went back a few feet to send them on their way. Their silence, of course, was probably paid for by the smugglers.
As we moved on, we came to a room with handsome displays of rewards given for capturing smugglers as well as examples of the smuggled goods themselves.
Smuggling has been around for as long as trade has existed between countries (maybe longer!), but interestingly enough it began getting big in England in the 13th century – and back then it was for the exports not imports. Smugglers stole the expensive commodity of wool and shipped it overseas for high profit.
The smuggling we hear about more often – illegally importing goods – became big business only in the 1700’s. This was mainly because of the high import taxes on everything. The people couldn’t afford luxuries like tea, spices, and materials that they’d become somewhat accustomed to and therefore turned to other routes to retrieve the things they craved.
It became so popular that at one point it seemed like everyone was doing it. Even Battle Abbey was used for storing contraband at one point in its history.
Anything that could be smuggled was. Cheese, coffee, human hair for wigs, feathers, clothing…talk about a plentiful black market.
The hiding places for smuggled goods became increasingly crafty as well. Silks were stuffed into hollowed out cheeses – brandy under the skirts of dolls. Books – and my heart cringes – were carved into boxes.
Having watched border patrol reality TV shows, it’s crazy to think what people of the past used to get away with – but equally crazy to think that it’s partially because of people like them that we’re searched so thoroughly these days, having set up the tradition of suspicion at customs.
One of the more interesting display cases even had the only known surviving smuggling accounts book – an historian’s dream for sure.
We got to poke around with some interactive recordings and displays and even watch a short movie – all the while absorbed in the darkness of the caves. I have to say that I give the designers credit for preserving the feel for the place. Had this been North America, I can see them floodlighting the whole thing and ruining the ambience.
Though there was a hokeyness about the place, what with its plasticky life size mannequins acting out smuggling scenarios and 90’s style interactive museum props (press this button to watch this thing spin around), it was genuinely charming and a lot of fun.
Sometimes all those state-of-the-art touch screens take away from the experience of physically being there.
And then there were the genuinely intriguing things like the strange figure carved in what they call the “chapel”. It has been called St. Clement, but in reality it predates the saint’s lifetime by centuries.
We continued on, exploring every inch of the caves. The signs continued to educate us on the history surrounding us, and we continued to absorb it.
The volume of smuggling became so bad by the mid to late 18th century that stricter and stricter punishments were being called upon. If caught, you could be put in jail, pushed into naval service, deported, or, for the most serious of crimes, hanged. And that’s not counting what would be done if you were caught cheating your fellow smugglers of their coin. Usually there wasn’t time for a trial and you were left to bleed out of the bullet holes they put in you.
But what really eased off smuggling in the end was the gradual lax of import tariffs and trade laws. Soon it was that smuggled goods weren’t much cheaper than legal goods, and as the risk thus outweighed the profit, so ended the peak of smuggling history in England.
It was at this point the caves fell out of use and memory to be later used as hospitals and shelters and music halls. Generations of visitors have since carved their presence onto the walls, which despite it sounding like unappealing defacement actually adds to the atmosphere.
The caves finally finish up in the Ballroom. Originally carved by Joseph Golding, it is now a gift shop full of a number of awesome souvenirs for which I had no money or use. Instead we pressed on to reemerge into the daylight.
In all, it was definitely worth going. I really loved the experience and think it’s an excellent attraction Hastings has to offer. Recommended!
And if you’d like to watch my Otherwise Chronicles video on my exploration of the caves, here’s the link to that too.
Until next time!