This article appeared in the Winter 1977 (Issue #50) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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The Discovery of a Denehole at Bexley.
An unusually heavy storm on Saturday 27th August, 1977 caused severe flooding in the Bromley and Bexley areas. Reported by the press as giving three inches of rain in three hours it certainly caused a modification to the back garden of an Arthur Cooper Off-License at Number 11, Dartford Road, Bexley, Kent.
On that day the manager, Mr Sparks, looked out of his window during the storm and noticed that his prize apple-tree was leaning at an unusual angle. Rushing out in the hope of propping it up he was amazed to find that a huge shaft had opened beneath it. Thanks to Mr Macey, of Arthur Cooper Ltd, the CKA was notified of the discovery and an examination made by the writer on behalf of the Kent Rescue Unit. It seems clear that the hole was the shaft of a denehole similar to others known in the Borough.
The shaft had a total depth of about 16 metres and a diameter of about 1.35 metres. The top had funnelled to a depth of about 3.30 metres probably where the soil and debris had been washed into it. In the sides of the shaft were two lines of shallow holes, placed opposite each other in pairs. These seemed too wide for toe-holds and it is likely that short lengths of wood were placed in each pair to give access to the denehole.
At the bottom of the shaft were six chambers set in two groups of three in the common double-trefoil arrangement. These had been cut into the solid chalk and were generally 9 metres long, 3 metres wide and 6 metres high. Detailed examination was made difficult by a 3 metre high cone of wet mud that had formed at the bottom of the shaft. Certainly by the comparatively small size of this cone the chambers must have remained largely empty since they were excavated. The north-west and south-west chambers had been joined up by the removal of the chalk between them save for a pillar left in place to support the roof. The natural chalk here appears to be capped by about 10 metres of orange, sandy soil through which the shaft was dug into the chalk below. In fact the roof of the north chamber had fallen in and this soil was exposed.
There has been much discussion on the function of these shafts. One suggestion is that they were dug for flint, but there is very little flint here and clearly this is not valid. The most probable explanation is that the shaft and chambers were dug for the extraction of chalk, being mainly used for spreading on farmland. Chalk Wells and Deneholes are the most common form and both types occur widely in West Kent. An excellent article was published by the late John Caiger (Kent Archaelogical Review Number 27 (1972), page 195) on Deneholes at Bexley and it must be that the shaft considered here is another Denehole. There is limited evidence that some date from medieval times, but clearly less elaborate forms of Chalk Well were still being dug in the 19th century. Photographs even exist showing the excavation of a Chalk Well and the dumping of barrow loads of chalk in small heaps over the adjacent landscape.
The writer, the CKA, and the Kent Unit wish to record their thanks to the architect of Arthur Cooper Ltd., to Mr Sparks and Mr Macey for their help and interest and also to Mr R Casey for providing the finished drawings.