Crags, caves and Ice Age tales

Deep in Robin Hood country, in the very middle of England, and surrounded by aristocratic estates, there’s a cave-lined limestone gorge full of incredible Ice Age archaeological evidence. The caves have survived millions of years of upheaval, collisions of continents and Ice Age glaciers coming to within 20 miles, but it’s in the last 120 years that they’ve come closest to destruction.

Many of the caves were stripped by eager Victorians who dug out piles of sediment, containing important archaeological evidence. The gorge was partially flooded. Two schoolboys broke into a cave and took home an ancient human jaw bone for their dog. And then a water company built a sewage treatment plant in the middle of it.

As our family approached Creswell Crags, nothing special in the landscape hinted at the spectacle ahead. We passed pretty country towns and villages, farmland, and the gates of the Welbeck Abbey estate. A minor road led through woods to Creswell Crags where we parked under pines, overlooking a stream.

The three children and I walked down through the trees, past the welcoming visitor centre and along a path. Suddenly we found we were at the bottom of a dramatic limestone gorge. To left and right rose uneven cliffs of cracked silver-grey. Only as we moved closer did we begin to distinguish the black holes that are the caves.

creswell gorgeWalking around the small lake, used in Victorian times for a duck shoot, we passed the caves one by one; the Boat House Cave, Mother Grundy’s Parlour, Pin Hole Cave, Robin Hood Cave, and more. The names are Victorian, their stories are much older.

Peering through the grille of Church Hole Cave, I could see a dirt-floored empty passageway stretching back, twisting out of sight. It’s frustrating to hear about the Victorian reports of digging out “wall to wall bone”. In the name of investigation the Victorian workers with their picks and shovels cleared out the contents of the cave — sometimes with dynamite —  digging out in days what with today’s methods would take months or years.

The 1/3-mile-long Creswell gorge receives a growing number of visitors, and inspired events and activities are laid on to entertain and educate those who make the trip. You can join a writing or craft workshop inspired by landscape and history, or take a tour of the caves, or of Britain’s only known Ice Age Rock Art.

We were supplied with helmets bearing battery-powered lamps and, with another family, climbed up to Robin Hood’s Cave. The cave was dry, the floor very uneven, steeply sloping in places. Mats were laid to prevent us from slipping. Stone around us was piled higgledy-piggledy, in layers and chunks of grey and brown, forming rough walls, and a ceiling.

The head ranger pointed out the tiny areas of cave floor or wall where small-scale archaeological digs have been carried out, each square millimetre of material carefully removed, scrutinised and tested for every scrap of detail it could possibly reveal about the climate, landscape, plants and animals of the various stages of the Ice Age.

“The caves were used by carnivores, including hyenas, bears, cave lions and wolves, for thousands of years.” he told us. “That’s why the humans came here … to hunt.”

He held up replicas of stone tools. “The Neanderthals, who lived here over 45,000 years ago, could get 40 inches of stone blades from one pound of flint, and the Modern men who were here 12,000 years ago could get 40 feet of blade. Each new species which took over the caves left a legacy never fully plundered by succeeding generations.”

Even the youngest children in our party stood spellbound as he told us about the evidence of human occupation, including tools and chips from the making of tools and charcoal and burnt bone. The lights from our helmets played across stalactites and stalagmites cemented over millennia into solid lumps of natural stone. They lit up limestone pillars of which each inch represented thousands of years of history.

The ranger flicked a layer of wall with his fingernail. “This marks the time when the glaciers came closest,” he said. “Here the only animal we found was arctic lemming, and then this next layer is sterile. Nothing lived here when Creswell was only 20 miles from the ice sheet.”

“My light has gone blunt,” announced six-year-old Ben. The battery in his helmet lamp had given out. The ranger loaned him a flashlight, and he shone it into the far corners of the cave. A caveman appeared to be crouched in the corner. Closer investigation showed it was a wooden figure, kept as atmosphere for the school parties who visit frequently.

We stood on a rickety wooden bridge crossing a cleft where, the ranger told us, two schoolboys, who had broken into the cave, saw a human jawbone fall out of the wall in front of them. It rolled into the cleft. They climbed down and retrieved it, and took it home for their dog. Many years later they returned it — which must have taken some courage! The deposit from which the bone rolled was dated at 30,000 years.

“It is so exciting to have found an actual human bone,” said the ranger. “It was carbon-dated and it was very disappointing to find it was only 2000 years old! We had it dated again by a biochemical method and I’ve just got the results back.”

We could tell from his face what the second results had been.

So how could a 2000-year-old bone come out of a 30,000 year old deposit? The ranger has his own theory: “My best guess is that Iron Age remains entered the cave from outside through an opening in the cave wall which isn’t there now.”

We were led through a low tunnel. I banged my head on the protruding rocks in its roof. Even the children had to crouch. Deep in this cave our helmet lights played on the walls, making strange shadows. It was easy to imagine what it would have been like for the reindeer hunters.

“Reindeer bones were found here, thousands of them, mostly female,” The ranger told us.  “With other evidence, that suggests this was where the reindeer came to give birth. And where the reindeer came, the hunters came after. They visited Creswell once a year, in the summer, for a few weeks, to hunt the reindeer as they gathered in and around this valley.”

He turned to the children; “How would they have driven out the cave lions and hyenas who lived in these caves first? What would animals have been most afraid of?”

“Spears?” suggested Stephanie, aged 10.

“Fire?” Alex, aged 9, said uncertainly.

Fire it was. We were silent as we trooped back out into the sunshine (banging my head again on the low roof!). We were thinking of those long-ago people, living much like the Inuit do today. They came here to their far north for the reindeer, and then trekked thousands of miles back to their southern wintering grounds.

With limited funding at Creswell’s disposal, the rangers find that getting research done is difficult. They are grateful for academic support from archeologists and scientists in other centres in the UK, Europe and the US. Nevertheless, there are some impressive finds on display in the modern visitor centre, including, from about 12,000 years ago, bone needles and artistically engraved bone fragments. The children were delighted to puzzle out the shape of a horse’s head carved on one. These engravings are the earliest evidence of art found in Britain.

“Creswell Crags is a very potent mix,” one of the volunteers told me. “Firstly, it forms a dramatic landscape against the surrounding farmland. Secondly, it provides a fascinating “hands-on” approach to the study of Palaeolithic history – in its serenity time could have paused for 10,000 years. Thirdly, a magical spiritual atmosphere seems to seep out of its walls, making it a satisfying space for reflection and creation.”

“Awesome!” agreed the children.

Creswell Crags information

Note: this visit took place more than a year ago.

Related post: Painted caves and fingerless hands