Exploring the ‘Witch Marks’ in the caves of Creswell Crags

Ice Age rock art Photo: Paul Kaye

Ice Age rock art Photo: Paul Kaye - Credit: Archant

As the days get shorter and the nights draw in, Peter Naldrett goes to the edge of the county to find something spooky stirring.

Some of the Witch Marks, top right Photo: Charlotte Graham Photography

Some of the Witch Marks, top right Photo: Charlotte Graham Photography - Credit: Charlotte Graham

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.

Or so thought superstitious folk living on the Derbyshire border hundreds of years ago as they tried to ward off evil spirits and stop unfortunate events taking place.

A collection of 'Witch Marks' discovered in one of the caves at Creswell is so big that it has taken on a global significance and become the hottest attraction at the site.

Witch Marks are superstitious symbols carved onto rocks with the intention of protecting the local community from whatever challenges were being thrown their way.

Exploring the caves at Creswell Crags Photo: Charlotte Graham Photography

Exploring the caves at Creswell Crags Photo: Charlotte Graham Photography - Credit: Charlotte Graham

The largest collection of Witch Marks in the United Kingdom was previously thought to have around 50 examples in the same place.

The new discovery on a cave wall at Creswell Crags has the best part of 1,000 Witch Marks etched into the rock, making this an important find not just for the country, but also for the planet.

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It's quite remarkable, then, that staff at the nearby visitor centre had absolutely no idea what the markings were until this time last year.

Paul Baker is the director at Creswell Crags. Although he had seen the markings before, a chance visit by a group of academics was about to leave him a little red-faced.

A tour of Robin Hood Cave Photo: Charlotte Graham Photography

A tour of Robin Hood Cave Photo: Charlotte Graham Photography - Credit: Charlotte Graham

Paul said: 'We honestly thought these marks in the cave were Victorian graffiti and it was one of these embarrassing moments, like when you go into an art gallery and don't recognise a painting as being by a famous artist.

'A visitor came on a trip here and on the way out said we had some interesting witch marks. We literally had to ask them what a witch mark was.

'It was just as they were leaving that they noticed a few marks on the side of the cave and we had to look into it further.'

After arranging for experts to come and study the finding, it was confirmed that they were Witch Marks on a scale not seen before in this country.

The limestone crags Photo: Peter Naldrett

The limestone crags Photo: Peter Naldrett - Credit: Archant

Paul added: 'Even when we knew what we had, we didn't realise how significant it was. We knew other places had witch marks, but at first we didn't know our finding was significant because of the number of marks we had in one place.

'Every single inch of the wall is covered, so it looks like something from The Shining. There are 300 years of marks here and the people who made them kept going back, possibly because things were happening that they couldn't explain.'

And the Witch Marks are not the only reason why Creswell Crags is on the must-visit list for history lovers around the world.

The caves on the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border have treasures inside that have made them a rich source for historians wanting to know more about the people, animals and climate in this neck of the woods down the centuries.

Pointing out some of the Witch Marks Photo: Charlotte Graham Photography

Pointing out some of the Witch Marks Photo: Charlotte Graham Photography - Credit: Charlotte Graham

Aside from the remains of lions, hyenas and woolly rhinos, archaeological excavations have revealed the most northerly example of cave art in Europe and Neanderthal carvings made into reindeer bones.

The problem with modern-day tourism is that fascinating places can become the victim of their own success. We've seen it time and time again when attractions become so popular that they drown under the pressure of visitors.

Thankfully, measures are already in place to make sure this doesn't happen at Creswell and it avoids the double, double, toil and trouble of mass tourism.

The Crags has long had an appeal for those interested in history, and it organises visits in a way that few other attractions manage, balancing a burning desire to tell the story of the past with an intimate method of taking around small groups.

Rather than opening the doors to as many tourists as possible and having making the maximum amount of profit as its principal aim, the main objective here is sustainability.

Tours to the caves are strictly limited to just 16 people per session and booking in advance is recommended. By limiting the number of people who are taken into the caves, Creswell Crags' managers believe they can do two things at the same time - remove the risk of causing damage and maintain a personal, friendly atmosphere so the historical stories can be told.

And, as luck would have it, the varied range of historical attractions at Creswell Crags are located in different caves, meaning the tours can be spread out and not too much pressure is placed in any one area.

It's not just the caves that are worth seeing to get a sense of the pre-historic happenings at this site at the edge of our county - the small museum is also well worth having a browse around as it contains a wonderful collection of bones that have been discovered in the caves and brings home just how they were important to animals and early humans in those long-gone, colder times.

In fact, Creswell Crags is a special place for me and my family - partly because of the special times it has given us and the vast amount we have learnt, but also as it was a turning point for the writing of my Days Out Underground book.

At one of the first subterranean attractions we visited, my daughter was initially scared of heading underground into the caves - and there had been tears - but the lovely visit to Creswell managed to spin things around and from that point she became a much more intrepid underground explorer.

As I left Creswell with my wife and daughter, I couldn't help but ask. When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning or in rain?

But there's no need to wait until the hurly-burly is done before booking your trip to see the Witch Marks. Check out the website at www.creswell-crags.org.uk for opening times and tours. u

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