Tucked away in the north Nottinghamshire countryside, the dramatic limestone gorge of Creswell Crags has many a story to tell. As one of Britain's most important archaeological and geological sites, this wild ravine of rugged, honeycombed cliffs not only bears the only known ice-age cave art in the UK, it was the resting place of woolly mammoths, hyenas and reindeer, there is evidence of 300-year-old occult activity in the caves, and the site's entire topography was once remodeled by an eccentric ‘burrowing’ Duke.
Discovered to be one of the most northerly places on the planet to have been visited by our ancient ancestors during the Ice Age, the Crags were once a dwelling place and hunting ground of nomadic Neanderthals between around 43,000 and 10,000 years ago. The treasure trove of artefacts and animal remains found at the site have provided invaluable insights into this crucial period of human evolution.
Highly important discoveries have been made in the sometimes curiously named caves, such as Mother Grundy’s Parlour, which was found to contain numerous flint and bone tools. During the 1920s, an enigmatic artefact which continues to baffle archaeologists was discovered in the Pin Hole Cave. The intriguing 13,500 year old engraving of a man was proved to be carved onto the bone of a woolly rhinoceros, an animal which had been extinct in Britain 9,000 years before.
During the Victorian era, excavation was carried out hastily. Innovation was in, and the entrances to the caves were often blown up with dynamite to provide greater access. At the time, the Crags were under ownership of The Duke of Portland, who lived less than a mile away at The Welbeck Estate and was a famously eccentric recluse. Having already built a network of underground tunnels under his estate (hence the title 'the burrowing duke'), the old chap decided Creswell Crags was the perfect spot for a quiet boating lake, and combining his penchant for seclusion and design he had the centre of the gorge flooded. The lake still flows today, thriving with wildlife, and you can still see Boat House cave which was also flooded to store the Dukes boat.
In recent years the site has garnered more interest from the archeological community, with excavations even delving into the debris left from previous digs in case something was missed. Then in 2003 one of the most remarkable discoveries ever to be found in Britain was made. While it had previously been thought that no British cave painting existed, a veritable gallery of 13,000 year old engraved rock art figures and bas-reliefs were found on the walls and ceilings of Church Hole, depicting deer, birds and bison amongst others.
While this undoubtedly brought much interest to the site, it was only in 2019 that some previously overlooked ‘graffiti’ was revealed to hold more strange tales of former visitors to the Crags. A mass display of apotropaia, or ‘witches marks’, were found scratched into the walls of a cave which had for many years been closed to visitors. Thought to date back to the 17th or 18th century, these protective marks were commonly carved onto entry points of buildings as a way to ward away demons and bad spirits. While many witches marks have been found throughout the UK, this is a substantially larger collection than ever before, and there is still no definite explanation of their origins.
There is a genuine prehistoric vibe to the Crags which is pleasingly lush and savage. The towering rock is gnarly as tree roots and draped with greenery which obscures fissures too high to explore. You can take a walk around the serene lake on a path worn by thousands of years of footsteps, almost expecting Stig of the Dump to pass by and wish you good day, and its perfect for picnics or autumnal walks.
This natural treasure remains open to the public, and if you just want to wonder at the majesty of this historic landscape it is completely free to explore. For those who want to get close up to the remarkable findings, the Creswell Crags Museum provides a selection of excellent guided tours into the caves to see the rock art, witch marks or artifacts which have been found.