A Visit to Creswell Crags

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From spring to autumn of most years we have a day out on a Sunday, visiting scenic or historical sites which are close enough to drive to and enjoy in a single day.  We’ve been to Creswell Crags many times and at various times of year, and it’s always worth a visit. So, because we haven’t been able to go anywhere at all this year, I thought I’d show some photos of Creswell from our day out in May 2019 and add a little bit of information about the attractions and importance of the site.

Creswell Crags is a beautiful magnesian limestone gorge situated on the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in England.

Location of Creswell Crags

It is popular with families, walkers and horse-riders as well as academics interested in the appearance and use of the gorge and its caves in the distant past. The route down to the lake (i.e. the widened stream) from the Reception is a pretty area with delightful trackways with picnic areas, open meadows and children’s play areas.

The ‘YOU ARE HERE’ in the plan below is to the side of the Reception / Visitor Centre.

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The gorge itself is known throughout the world as an outstanding Ice Age archaeological site. It was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1981 and as a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1985. The caves were seasonably occupied during the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods (from around 11,500 – 6,000 BP) and there is evidences of Neanderthal, Bronze Age and post-medieval activity.  The caves  contain the northernmost cave art in Europe as well and a series of 17th and 18th century witches marks.

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The gorge provided a valuable summer camp for our Ice Age ancestors. It was a place where people could meet, there was food to hunt nearby and caves in which to shelter and prepare for their return to their winter territories across Doggerland to mainland Europe.

Doggerland connected Brtian to Continental Europe at the time when waters of the sea were frozen during the Ice Age
A hypothetical map showing Doggerland connecting Britain to Continental Europe at the time when waters of the sea were frozen during the Ice Age. Author Max Naylor, February 2008 Creative Commons

There are six main caves along the gorge at Creswell Crags in addition to many smaller fissures and solution hollows. Excavations in the larger caves have provided a rich fossil record, “a time capsule spanning thousands of years”. Neanderthals visited 55,000 years ago, as did the earliest, modern humans 29,000 years ago. Remains of various animals have been found. Before the Ice Age, exotic animals like hippopotamus and rhinoceros wallowed in the warm waters of the river that flows through the gorge. As the climate cooled to Ice Age conditions, lions and hyenas used the caves as dens, and were joined by woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and reindeer. Skulls and other bones of various species can be seen in the small museum at the Reception – including lions, hyenas, bears, woolly rhinoceros and mammoth, plus several smaller mammals.

Here are a few photos taken of the caves and general views during our walk around the lake:

Hunter gatherers continued to use the caves long after the end of the Ice Age. Burnt hazel nut shells, cattle bones and small flints have been found. 6,000 years ago the caves were used for burials. Urns have been found as have bronze pins,which were used to hold the burial shroud. A human collarbone was found in Church Hole Cave.

Hundreds of protective marks, known as witches’ marks, have been discovered in caves at Creswell. They date from medieval to modern and are scratched into walls and ceilings over dark holes and large crevices. Originally thought to be graffiti, they are now believed to be the the largest collection in the UK.  Prior to their discovery, the largest collection was held to be in Somerset, with 57 marks. The number at Creswell far exceeds that number – there are hundreds in one cave alone.

Ritualistic protection marks were most commonly found in historic churches and houses, usually near to entrances such as doorways, windows and fireplaces, to protect the people living there from evil spirits. The most common sign is VV, believed to refer to Mary, Virgin of Virgins. The one shown below is not from Creswell. We didn’t go inside the caves last year when the Witch Marks tour was opened for the first time.

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Another common symbol is PM, referring to Pace Maria. Other signs, include diagonal lines, boxes and mazes. Many appear to have been added over time, possibly indicating a need to strengthen protection in periods of unexpected sickness, death or crop failure.

Although closed at present due to Covid-19 restrictions, Creswell Crags is usually open all year. There is no cost to walk round or visit the shop or cafe. Entrance to the exhibition/museum is £3 and cave tours start at £9 for adults and £7 for children. for a single cave.