A cave underneath a seaside town in Devon

LONG, LONG AGO, the land where Torquay now stands was below the Equator in the southern hemisphere. Shifting of tectonic plates over the millennia has moved it to where it is now. Along with this migration, a series of caves has also reached this location but far beneath the town, about 1 mile northeast of the Torquay Harbour seafront. The cave network known collectively as Kents Cavern has been open to the public since 1952. What makes it fascinating is that archaeologists have found, amongst other things, the earliest known human remains in Britain. Three types of hominid have made, use of these caves: Homo heidelbergensis (thrived roughly 750,000 to 200,000 years ago), Homo neanderthalensis (thrived from 400.000 to 40,000 years ago), and Homo sapiens (that is us today: we have been around since about 300,000 years ago). The two earlier forms of hominid lived or sheltered in the caves. Now, we, the current edition of this type of primate, merely explore the caves as archaeologists, and visit them as tourists.

The earliest evidence of recent exploration of the caves is some inscriptions found within them. William Pete scratched his name on a stalagmite in 1571 and Robert Hedges did the same in 1688. Scientific exploration of the caves began in the early 19th century. In 1824, the geologist Thomas Northmore (1766-1851) made the first recorded excavation in 1824. Since then, others have made systematic archaeological excavations and discovered the remains of our early ancestors, their tools, and the remains of animals that sheltered in the caves. Two notable explorers of these underground passages and caverns are The Reverend John MacEnery (1796-1841) and William Pengelly (1812-1893). The latter established his reputation as an archaeologist by his discovery of the hominid remains in Kents Cavern. In addition, his discoveries helped in to prove that the biblical chronology of the earth was incorrect.

In 1903, the caves were acquired by a carpenter, Francis Powe, who used them as a workshop for constructing beach huts for the seafront in Torquay. His son, Leslie, converted them into a tourist attraction by installing electric lighting and laying down concrete paths. The caves are now run by a member of the family, Nick Powe.

At first sight, the visitor complex with its shop and café seems unexceptional and rather too ‘touristy’ for my liking. Visitors are escorted within the caves in groups led by a guide. The tourist facilities give little or no clue as to the wonders that await visitors after they step into the parts of the cave system that are on display. We were guided by a knowledgeable man, who was able to make geology and archaeology both palatable and extremely comprehensible to us. Even if you had had no interest in these subjects prior to going on the tour, he was able to sow seeds of interest in these subjects during the tour. Not only did he relate the facts clearly, but he was able to recreate in our minds the nature of life in the caves as it was when our ancestors illuminated them with lamps consisting of fat impregnated moss or other vegetable matter in scallop shells, and when enormous wild bears and other creatures hibernated or roamed about in these dark spaces. In addition, he pointed out interesting features of the geology of the caves including, stalagmites and stalactites in various stages of their continuing formation. Throughout the tour, our guide explained the difficulties that early explorers of the cave encountered.

To conclude, a visit to Kents Cavern is both visually spectacular and of great interest. Having seen the place, I would say that a visit to Devon must include a wander through these caves.

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