Tucked away in the corner where Derbyshire meets Nottinghamshire, within easy reach of south Yorkshire, is an atmospheric Paleolithic site like no other in the UK. You think Spain and France have all the best cave art? Think again.
In 2003, the northernmost cave art in Europe was discovered at Creswell Crags – engravings and bas-reliefs of stags and birdlike figures that might be female figures. The site has previously thrown up huge quantities of finds, such as engraved bones and the only known figurative ice age art in the UK.
If you were to need some token celebrity endorsements to pique your interest in the extraordinary network of caverns, holes and fissures that houses these remarkable relics, 10,000 years older than the pyramids and 10 times older than Stonehenge, there are two go-to enthusiasts: comedian Isy Suttie – Dobby from Peep Show – who grew up in nearby Matlock and used to come as a child, and louche pop rogue Jarvis Cocker (see below). The Sheffield singer rediscovered Creswell Crags while visiting with his own son some years ago and, picking up a copy of David Lewis-Williams’s The Mind in the Cave in the gift shop, was inspired to write an album about how the natural reverb of caves kicked off the human musical imagination, among other things. According to Tripadvisor, Creswell Crags is the no 1 thing to do in Worksop. There are very few things to do in Worksop, but still.
It’s ridiculous how little known Creswell Crags are, given their international significance and their almost storybook rendition of early human home-making. Early hominids took shelter from the elements in the limestone caverns that line this picturesque gorge, now with a tranquil lake at its floor (thanks, Victorians). Arriving seasonally, these hunter-gatherers felled beasts such as Arctic hares, aurochs and woolly rhinoceros and then tanned their leather, knapped flint tools and carved bone gewgaws, while etching their presence into the walls of caves and fissures.
Tours of varying depth, length and age appropriateness are detailed on the website; you must book ahead. Hibernating bats make certain caves out of bounds at times; sturdy footwear is a good idea.
A few details from my own visits still linger. Some excellent tour guides detailed how the cave’s inhabitants tanned hides using their own urine to soften them. The caves that got the sun were used more than the north-facing real estate: plus ça change among hominids.
These crags were regularly occupied for thousands of years, as waves of Neanderthals were overtaken by more modern human immigrants – you know, the Gravettians and Magdalenians, the Mouseterians and the bronze age types. Naturally, this outcrop being within whistling distance of Nottinghamshire, there is a Robin Hood’s Cave, where the mythical class warrior allegedly sheltered. The crags have been excavated by Victorian gentleman enthusiasts; scientists are still combing the spoil heaps for things they missed. At some point, frightened people made so-called “witch marks”, known scientifically as apotropaic marks, as symbols of ritual protection.