In modern Britain we take for granted how safe it is to go walking in the countryside, but in ancient times it was slightly more dangerous. A visit to Kents Cavern in Torquay is an opportunity not just to experience stunning caves, but to discover the extraordinary history of the area.
Kents Cavern is famous in British fossil history because it was here that the first ever example of a Sabre Toothed Cat was discovered. Until then it was thought that they hadn’t lived in Britain. 6 canine teeth have been dated to 400.000 years old. The Sabre Tooth was smaller than present day lions and lived from about 3 million years ago until its extinction about 200.000 years ago.
The oldest remains of animals found in Kents Cavern are of a Cave Bear from about 500.000 years ago. Luckily for the locals, the Kents Cavern bears were mainly vegetarian and used the caves to sleep over the winter. A few specimens of more recent Cave Bears have also been found in the caves; they were much larger than their ancestors, and about twice the weight of today’s Brown Bear. By the time of the ice age, these bears had almost disappeared, probably because of the arrival of Brown Bears.
On a more dangerous level, Cave Lions also roamed Devon, which were much larger than their present day cousins in Africa. The Kents Cavern example is from 50.000 – 20.000 years old.
In Kents Cavern mammoth remains include teeth and leg bones, possibly brought into the cave by hyaenas or by men. These are just a few examples of the animal remains found in Kents Cavern: ther is also evidence that the area was populated by Woolly Rhino, wolves, Giant Elk and Red Foxes.
One of the most remarkable things found in the caves was the jaw bone of a 31.000 year-old human. This discovery has been identified as from the oldest example of „Modern“ Man found in Britain. As early as 1825 Father John MacEnery, the chaplain to the Cary family who lived at Torre Abbey in Torquay, found bones and flints in the entrance to the cave high on the hill at the top of a valley in Torquay. Work continued in 1885 under the leadership of William Pengelly. He began to take precise recordings of the artefacts found in the caves as his exploration team moved further into the tunnels and chambers that make up the huge cave system. This was the first ever true archaeological excavation, and Pengelly’s methods are still used today.
Since 1865 Kents Cavern has been looked after by five generations of the same family. It was originally entrusted to George Smerdon, who rented the site and local woodlands and quarry. His grandson Nick took over the running of the business in 2000.
In 1970 an advisory committee was set up including members from the Natural History Museum and British Museum in London. This group is involved in carrying out research into materials from the caves.
Unlike many other important sites in Britain, Kents Cavern has been used as a home by humans and animals for over 700.000 years. There are very few sites in the world that fit into the same category.
Early Man in Kents Cavern
The first human to arrive in Britain was during the Lower Palaeolithic period, the Stone Age, when Homo erectus migrated from Africa, into Asia and Europe about 700.000 years ago. The first Stone Age toolmakers were called Australopithecus afarensis.
Though not the most comfortable or well-equipped house in the country, Kents Cavern is the oldest recognisable dwelling in Britain and has some of the oldest evidence of man’s occupation in Britain. Five hand axes, made from flint, have been dated at 450.000 years old.
10.000 years ago you would have needed your winter scarf and gloves, not to mention an electric blanket for your bed as Britain was covered in a sheet of ice over two miles thick. The ice stretched from the North Pole all the way down to a line roughly from Bristol to London. Life was very hard and frozen food was high on the menu for the people who lived in the south the country.
With the end of the Ice Age and the warming of the climate the people of Devon became more adventurous with their DIY. The Mesolithic Age was the time when man started to attach handcrafted pieces of stone to wooden sticks to form the first arrows and spears. Bones and shells were also made into tools. Evidence of Mesolithic man has been found in Kents Cavern through the discovery of these tools.
The New Stone Age or Neolithic period saw the production of stone axes and combs made from the antlers of deer. Pottery became the latest thing to have in your hut and the new job of farming was starting to be popular.
As with modern day Devon, it was inevitable that tourists would come to have a look at the local attractions with them they brought new materials such as copper and knowledge of the skills needed to use it. The locals were shown that it could be worked into shapes by pouring the molten metal into prepared moulds. When tin was added to the copper it produced bronze. The Bronze Age saw farms enlarge, pottery skills and wood working skills become more advanced and animals being kept indoors.
Having mastered the art of copperwork, it didn’t take a genius to work out that the need for tools, weapons and ornaments could lead to new skills for creating iron from iron ore. Once the men of Kents Cavern had got the hang of iron ore they became obsessed with havin iron-made objects. Buckets, cauldrons, helmets, shields and pins have been found throughout the country and particulary in Devon. In this area there was a Iron Age settlement on Walls Hill in Torquay and on Berry Head in Brixham.
Kents Cavern today
Today Kents Cavern is a fascination place to visit, with stunning rock formations of stalactites (rocks that grow from the ceiling) and stalagmites (rocks that rise from ghe floor). It’s a great place to visit in winter thanks to its even temperature all year round, which makes it seem warm at this time of year. Why not pay it a visit?
There are regulary LAL excursions to Kents Cavern.
Opening Times: 10.00 am – 4.00 pm; Guided tours start at 11.00, 12h30, 2.00 and 3.30.
Admission Price: 10 Pounds (9 Pounds with your student card)