To Hell: A chamber in the disused railway tunnel under Sydenham Hill

The following story was posted on a Lewisham borough forum, under a discussion about Sydenham Hill in the 1980s and ’90s:

Yes, I remember stories about secret tunnels in the hill. Me and a friend found one once. But it was nothing like they said. This was thirty years back and you may not believe me, but hey.

They closed the branch line to Crystal Palace in the 1950s. Camille Pisarro painted it operating in the steam days. There is a bit of overgrown trackbed and cutting, by the old railway tunnel on the south side of Sydenham Hill, which is part of the Green Chain Walk. As a kid I used to play there with my friend Darren.

Often we’d end up near the tunnel entrance. I didn’t like it there. It’s hard to explain but the air was different. The light. There was a cold that hit you when you came down off the embankment.

Darren was drawn to it. We’d all heard tales of things trapped in the railway tunnels. But Darren was obsessed with a door in there, an entrance to a secret network of passageways. One day he found a way into the tunnel. I remember squeezing through a gap and there we were, on the other side of the huge iron doors.

For a while we kept to the dingy light by the entrance, chucking stones at the doors, great clanking echoes fading into the darkness behind us.

Now that we were on the edge of it, Darren didn’t seem any keener than me to head into the formless, pitch black of the tunnel. But he had a torch with him and we’d come this far. I’ll never forget the cold and the strange quiet as we picked our way across the tunnel floor into the darkness.

We found Darren’s ‘door’ about halfway down. It was an opening in the tunnel wall, at ground level, about the size of a small fireplace. On the wall beside it, someone had scratched the words TO HELL, an arrow pointing at the hole.

Darren shone his torch into it, threw a stone or two. We couldn’t tell how far back it went. To my eyes, it led to a darkness without end. Every part of me did not want to crawl through that hole, but I knew it was too late for that.

Darren went in first, torch in teeth. I followed on hands and knees. It was claustrophobic, but soon opened to a larger space.

We could have stood up, but I remember that for some reason we stayed in a crouch, looking around at blackened brick corners. To either side of us were living room sized chambers of brick. They didn’t lead anywhere.

At the bottom of the back wall, though, directly opposite our entrance, was another hole. I don’t remember a discussion before Darren crawled into it.

We emerged into another double chamber, as unremarkable as the first. Darren was getting restless now. He turned the torch off, to see how dark it was.

I’ve not known dark like it before or since. A dark without end. It seemed impossible that the main road, the wood, my house – my whole childhood world – were just the other side of that darkness.

Darren turned the torch on again pretty quick. Then, behind him in the back wall, I noticed the third hole. Darren saw it too.

The passage was narrower than the others. It led to a small, single chamber, not much bigger than a shed. There was no entrance or exit except the one we came through, nothing to the blackened brick walls and arched ceiling.

I didn’t like this chamber at all. There was a feeling unlike the others. Something bearing down on me. I wanted to turn and leave right away. In one corner of the chamber was an old mattress. Covering it and the rubble it lay on were pools of something like melted wax.

Then Darren dropped his torch and the light went out.

I paused, waiting for Darren to reach down and pick the torch up. But there was silence, so I said his name and, when he didn’t reply, I said stop messing about. But he didn’t make a sound.

Then I did hear something, a scrabbling sound like rubble moving, but it was off in one corner, not in front of me where Darren was. The scrabbling noise seemed to rise up off the floor and into the top corner of the chamber before stopping.

What is that, I said. Darren didn’t answer. I waved my hand through the blackness in front of me. Darren wasn’t there.

I was frozen. Scared of moving, scared of staying still. The dark around me was like a living thing.

I felt behind me for the passage. I could find my way out, a straight line back to the tunnel. I no longer thought Darren was fooling around. He wasn’t brave enough for this. The situation made no sense but I couldn’t just leave him. I reached down to where the torch might be and patted around. Nothing.

Almost weightless with fear, I moved around that blind space, waving hands and feet, until I’d been to every corner. I felt the horrid weak spring of the mattress beneath my feet. I stood on toes, reaching up the cold, damp walls with my hands.

I heard the sound once more, scuttling above my head to the opposite corner.

But Darren wasn’t there. With my back to the wall I felt with heels for the opening and crouched into it backwards. I had this feeling I shouldn’t turn away from the chamber. It’s hard to crawl backwards through a tunnel that’s barely wider than your body, face to the ground, spine scraping the ceiling, hands cut by stones. But somehow I came through.

Horribly slowly, I crawled backwards through the middle chamber and passage. In the last chamber before the tunnel I felt able to turn, scrambling forwards through the black. As I found the final passage I looked back, into the darkness I’d just come from, but saw and heard nothing.

Crawling through, I was sure something would grab my ankles and pull me back in but my head was soon free, then my back, and I was standing again in the railway tunnel. The cold, dark space around me a relief of sorts.

There was a kick of stones close by. Something touched my arm. Before I could scream, a voice.

Darren.

Come on, he said. I’ve lost the torch but come on, it’s this way.

It wasn’t possible. But I was glad he was with me. Only when we’d stumbled our way out and were stood in the old railway cutting did I dwell on it. I still dwell on it today. There is no way he could have passed me without making a noise.

And I remember his face then, in the dim light of the cutting. All the nervous, fake bravado gone. He had a haunted look. It didn’t feel right to ask what had happened. Or maybe I didn’t want to hear it. Maybe I feared what he’d tell me.

At secondary school we drifted apart. Darren carried on playing around the tunnel, by himself, well into our teenage years. That haunted look never left him, poor guy. God knows how middle age is treating him.

But I wonder what he remembers of that day. I wonder what he remembers of the chamber. I sometimes think I might have forgotten it long ago, if it wasn’t for the dreams. They’ve slowed over the years. But they will never go away.

Usually in the dreams it is me who drops the torch in the chamber. Then before I can move, a hand closes around my mouth and I’m wheeling back horribly in the dark. In other dreams something whispers in my ear. In others, I don’t drop the torch but my legs won’t move and I look down to see that they are clay. Or else I’m sinking and they’re wax or mud.

Or Darren turns the torch on and there’s a hole where his face should be. Or things crawl out of cracks. Or machines crush through the walls. Or something coils round my arms, pain coursing through me. Or I’m crawling forever through endless passages and chambers. Or I’m in a closed brick chamber with no way out. Or the chamber is under water. Or the chamber is made of dark glass. Or the chamber has no substance, only a terrifying void forever.

Or its just how it happened that day, but when I look back before the last passage to the tunnel, in the opening behind me is a face. Darren’s face, my face, another face, no face.

This is how I remember the chamber.


  • Candidate: A chamber in the disused railway tunnel under Sydenham Hill
  • Type: Unknown
  • Status: Unknown

Author: portalsoflondon

Working towards a catalogue of London's inter-dimensional gateways.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.