Creswell Crags are a fascinating oddity; a limestone gorge in Nottinghamshire's otherwise rolling country side. At the end of the last ice age the cliffs' caves were occupied by various peoples 10-43,000 years ago. The caves contain the most northerly cave art in Europe; until it was discovered in 2003 it was believed no cave art existed in Britain and has been dated to around 13-15,000 years ago. There is also evidence of earlier occupation by Neanderthal man and the caves were used right up to post-medieval times.
Along with earlier discoveries means that Creswell Crags is of international importance and is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). There is a Visitor Centre with a café and the obligatory gift shop and exhibitions.
Our visit on Good Friday, 2016 coincided with an outbreak of warm spring sunshine and made for a very pleasant walk. The walk around the Crags is short, only a mile or so, and is on well graded paths suitable for children's buggies, wheelchairs and mobility scooters (one can be hired from the centre). As it is in the bottom of the gorge by the stream the terrain is largely flat. The caves are higher up the banks in the base of the cliffs but most have proper steps and balustrades. On a spring morning half the gorge bottom was in shadow.
The caves are barred so the casual visitor cannot explore them. In terms of their history that is very recent; we were talking to a middle aged woman who had grown up in the area who had played in the caves as a child. These day the only way to visit the caves is on the guided tours around the larger ones, hard hats are provided!
The bars did not seem to discourage the children as the number of young families exploring the Crags grew as the bank holiday morning wore on. The laughter and excitement of children running and playing did not drown out the sound of the birds. Near the visitor centre and café there is a play area with climbing frames modelled on ice age animals that would have been found in the area such as mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Difficult to imagine now but the surrounding area in now modern farmland, in those days the landscape would have been very different.
Wildlife would have been an important draw to the hunters, often nomadic and seasonal visitors, at the end of the ice age. Apparently there were two main hunting groups, man and hyenas, that preyed on the rich wildlife of the gorge and surrounding area. That wildlife would have included: woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, reindeer, cave bears and cave lions. The hyena population of the gorge is subject of current study and was the subject of the exhibition when we were there. As a pack, hyenas are an effective predator and would be capable of killing much larger prey such as mammoth albeit at considerable risk to themselves. The area is still rich in wildlife, especially birds of all sorts, even it is rather less dramatic than rhino and mammoth would have been. The current mammal populations are small (stoats, voles and the like) and not easily spotted. The Crags caves and woodland are home to seven main species of bats.
Although archaeology, or earlier searches for antiquities, has taken place for centuries there have been many recent discoveries. Indeed, most of the cave art was only discovered in 2003. Although there are finds from early centuries one has to assume that many artefacts were simply carried away by visitors before the advent of modern scientific archaeology. That said, work continues on making sense of the earlier finds, often connecting them with modern discoveries to complete a picture.
All in all a pleasant and relaxed morning's exploration. It was not expensive, car parking was £3 and the café was reasonable as well. The hyena exhibition was free and there was a stuffed hyena inside to allow visitors to take selfies with one of the Crags most important early inhabitants. Guided tours are up to £8.50 with reduced prices for concessions, children and family groups; they only take place at weekends and during Derbyshire school holidays, they should be booked in advance (details are on the link below). Chargeable exhibitions are £3, again with concessionary reductions.
The parking fee is all day so it also covered us when we walked to The Harley Gallery for lunch and to see the Grand Tour exhibition and the Portland Collection, put together by the Dukes of Portland. Creswell Crags and the gallery are part of the family owned Welbeck Abbey estate.