Way back in summer, we took a trip to a place I have long wanted to visit… Cresswell Crags, a hidden valley on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The folder of photographs has sat on my desktop for months, and each time I have decided to write about it, another visit has taken precedence. Yet it is a place of great beauty… and has a longer known history than almost anywhere we have visited to date.
You start at the visitor centre, and as you walk through the door you get your first glimpse of the landscape. Not in reality, but on a large screen where an artist has painted the changing fauna of this enclosed valley, going back to the Ice Age and beyond. It is beautifully done; a little English valley, graphically populated with hippopotomi, hyenas and woolly mammoths. Watching the display gives you a vague inkling of the unseen millennia that every inch of our earth has known. Every step we take, every day, is upon a land unimaginably old.
As you move on, the painted figures are brought to life in their death as you come face to face with some of the erstwhile denizens of the valley. In a land where the largest non-human predator is now the fox or the badger, these are surprising creatures to meet. Though not all are fearsome… the baby hyena is tiny, only a few months old when it died, forty thousand years ago, at around the time when the early humans who lived there became extinct.
There is evidence that the Neanderthals occupied the site 50,000–60,000 years ago, but the occupation layers go back as far as the Mousterian period, which began 160,000 years ago… and throughout history humans have found shelter in the caves that honeycomb the crags.
The very earliest evidence of humans in England are fragmentary bones of homo antecessor, who lived here some 780,000 years ago. Modern humans arrived around fifty thousand years ago, but by the time the last Ice Age had ended, it is thought that only a few hardy animal species remained. Around eleven thousand years ago, when the ice had receded but the land bridges to Europe and Eurasia remained, humans came back.
Amongst the artefacts that have been found at the crags are all the usual flint tools and bones. What is unusual in Britain is the amount of ancient artwork that has survived… and it was this we had come to see for ourselves.
It is almost impossible to get a clear photograph through glass in a well-lit room, but you can just make out the incised lines of the enigmatic figure carved on the rib bone of a woolly rhinoceros. It is similar to other engravings found at engravings found at La Madeleine in France which are dated from about 14,000 years ago. It shows a man in profile wearing what is thought to be an animal mask, suggesting a ritual dance. The odd thing is that men were not supposed to be here at that point in time… nor were the rhinos, for which no evidence exists after 22,000 years ago. Was it brought from far away? Was the figure carved into a much older, found bone? Or do we need to rethink the accepted timeline of history? Just because we have found no evidence of a thing, does not mean it cannot have happened.
Another carving is more recognisable to modern eyes and is the only such naturalistic carving of its kind found, so far, in Britain… the Ochre Horse. Carved into a rib bone, around twelve and a half thousand years ago, it is a tiny, but beautiful thing, worn smooth and polished by much handling. The simple engraving has a real life to it and somehow brings home our connection to the past and to the creatures with whom we share the world.
Once through the visitor centre, a short walk takes you to the hidden valley. On the way you wander though another landscape, one designed to teach children through fun. There are plantations of rare wildflowers, thatched reading areas, mammoth climbing frames… all manner of things to make learning fun. It is very well done. And then the path leads into the valley and out of time completely.
It looks prehistoric. A long, narrow ravine, flanked by wooded crags that are pockmarked with caverns and with a still, green lake at its heart. Everywhere there were bees and butterflies availing themselves of bounty. Wildflowers, forage plants and herbs grow in every corner of the sheltered vale. Doubtless the lake too would yield food and the waterfowl were plentiful. Animals would drink and gather, were it not for the presence of Man… and the ends of the valley would be easily blocked to pen straying beasts or in defence.
There is no sound from the outside world. No intrusion… just a green peace. Hidden by the trees, sheltered from time, the caves and tunnels that were our ancestors’ homes still guard their secrets and treasures.
Each one is named, each one has yielded mementoes of the distant past, detailed on discrete information boards… and each entrance is barred and locked away. We had made a huge mistake. We had come to see the cave art and had, as always, decided against the tour group, not realising that joining a tour was the only way to access the interior of the caves. And now there was no time… so we would have to come back at a later date.
Because inside the caves are carvings and bas-relief of birds and bison, bear and horse and a great, horned stag. Around eighty carvings have been found…the only ones known in Britain at the time of their discovery, though another has since been found in Wales. Flowstone that overlays some of the carvings has allowed archaeologists to date them to at least 12,800 years ago, and who knows how much older?
One of the curious aspects of these carvings is how the artists have used the natural form of the rocks, as if enhancing, rather than creating, the creatures they have captured, bring out the hidden life in the stone. One carving of a horse is placed within a horse-shaped contour. So is that of a bison. We have often commented on how, if we can see the faces and the forms in the stone, our forebears… much closer in tune with the land than we are today… must have seen them too and felt the life in them as we do.
This is not just a beautiful hidden vale, it is a valley of living stone, peopled by gods and ancestors. As we walked around the lake, great faces looked down on us from the crags. Carved by Nature, yet no less vibrant for that, the whole valley is alive with the presence of the Old Ones… and the old ones who lived here must have seen them too. We can only begin to imagine how special this place must have seen to those who saw the spirit of Nature given form in wood and stone. Eons before Man named Eden, our ancestors must have thought they had found it here at Cresswell Crags.