|Looking out of Ash Hole Cavern, Brixham|
Limestone leads pretty inevitably to 'karst' features, so it's not a wild surprise to find that the Brixham area's Devonian limestone geology gave rise to caves. On our walk, I said "Ooh, a cave". Clare (who is long-suffering about geeky detours - and I do so appreciate her tolerance of these things) waited while I went to have a glance at this one, readily spottable from about here ...
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... if you look uphill through the woods a few yards from where the South West Coast Path meets the Berry Head Road at the end of the Shoalstone car park.
This is Ash Hole Cavern (aka Ash Hole, Ashole Cavern, and Berry Head Cavern). This opening isn't naturally-formed, but a breach into the chamber created in 19th century quarrying. There's not a great deal to see unaided: a small opening upward to the eastern end (perhaps the original sinkhole), and a muddy slope downward to the west. However, it's of interest as one of a couple of Brixham caves that in the 19th century yielded significant animal and human remains (there's a brief summary here at the page Brixham's Caves).
|Looking up left ...|
|... and down right|
In all, early exploration of Ash Hole Cavern seems to have involved unsystematic digging, unsytematic recording of finds, and a lot of unscientific speculation about origins. The whole saga exemplifies the faults of the 'antiquarian' approach, as mentioned previously in the previous post about the book Prehistoric Wessex: Towards a Deep Map. The first solid scientific review appears to be The Ash Hole and Bench Bone-Caverns, at Brixham, South Devon (page 73, W Pengelly, FRS FGS, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art, Volume 4, 1871) - but by then, the cave's content had been so disrupted that there wouldn't have been much left for serious investigation of its stratigraphy.
The site is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 (ID 1019133).
|Windmill Hill Cavern as first uncovered|
|Historic map data is (© and database right|
Crown copyright and Landmark Information Group Ltd. (All rights reserved
2009). Low-resolution image reproduced for small-scale non-profit
use under the terms described in the Old Maps FAQ.
In this case, the cave was a godsend to geology. It was discovered sealed by stalactites, and thus not disturbed by antiquarian blundering. The Geological Society of London set up a committee to investigate the cave, leased it from Mr Philp, and conducted a through scientific investigation, which was published as the paper Report on the Exploration of Brixham Cave, Conducted by a Committee of the Geological Society, and under the Superintendence of Wm. Pengelly, Esq., F.R.S., Aided by a Local Committee; With Descriptions of the Animal Remains by George Busk, Esq., F.R.S., and of the Flint Implements by John Evans, Esq., F.R.S. Joseph Prestwich, F.R.S., F.G.S., &c., Reporter (Proceedings of the Royal Society of London; Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Royal Society of London, 1873, Internet Archive ID philtrans03896081). The results - see William Pengelly Cave Studies Trust - were groundbreaking in the evidence they brought to the then disputed antiquity of humanity, by showing rigorously that human remains existed in the same deposits as extinct animal species. It was a significant investigation more than just for what was found, but for its research methods, which provided spatial data still usable today:
The oldest known spatially-explicit archaeological excavation, conducted in Brixham cave, Devon, in 1858, is reconstructed using geographic information systems technology. Two dimensional plots of individual fossil taxa and flint artefacts demonstrate the utility of the technique for elucidating taphonomy and palaeobiology. The cave served as a den for hibernating brown bears, as a den for hyena and cave lion, and as a reliquary for their prey.
- McFarlane, D. A, Lundberg, J., and Roberts, W. 2010. "A geographic information systems approach to the 19th Century excavation of Brixham Cavern, Devon, England." Studies in Speleology 17:1-11.
|Birds Eye View of Brixham from the Cavern|
undated postcard by Hardings of Bristol, found on cardcow.com
|Image added July 2014|
A third Brixham bone cavern - the Bench Cavern (aka Bench Bone Cavern) mentioned in Pengelly's account - The Ash Hole and Bench Bone-Caverns (page 78 ff) - no longer exists. It was uncovered by quarrying in Bench Quarry, Freshwater (not the IoW one). I haven't found the precise location ...
the northern slope of Furzeham Hill, one known as Bench Quarry, about half a mile due north of Windmill Hill Cavern, and almost overhanging Torbay... but later accounts say that it was destroyed by further quarrying.
Addendum, 29th July 2014
A further bit of Brixham subterranea: on the Brixham Museum website, I just ran into the paper THE BERRY HEAD CAFÉ TUNNELS REVISITED: PREHISTORIC SOUTERRAINS OR GEORGIAN SEWAGE SYSTEM? by Philip L. Armitage and Alan Masterson (originally published in Council for British Archaeology South-West Journal No. 23 – June, 2009: 15 – 21). It's an interesting story with, reading between the lines, a deal of archaeological politics. The original investigator in the 1970s, John Durston,, wanted to keep some tunnels on Berry Head secret, believing them to be Iron Age; but ructions ensued when the story got into the newspapers. Reinvestigation (without access to original records "owing to all contact with Durston having ceased") revealing the more likely explanation that the tunnels are just Georgian sewers.
More about the Rev. HF Lyte: On a spaniel's monument.