A tourist attraction for over 350 years, the history of Poole’s Cavern goes back much further. A two million year old, natural limestone cave is a site of special scientific interest. The name is quite recent in its long history of human use. A 15th century outlaw, John Poole, used the cave as his lair and base from where he robbed people in the surrounding area. This was believed to be an urban legend for many years, although a stash of coins from the 14th century were relatively recently discovered there, so there may be some truth after all.
Flint and stone fragments provide evidence of human use since the Neolithic age and artefacts from the early bronze age have been discovered. It’s possible that the cavern was used as a trading site, as Neolithic stone axes from as far away as Cumbria and Cornwall have been unearthed around the area. Above the cave are the remains of a barrow grave, the bones and other artefacts suggest it’s an early bronze age burial.
Some interpretation of archeological findings are that the cavern was used for religious purposes by the Romans. Other suggestions are that it was a metal working site.
There have been tourists visiting the cavern since the 16th century. Mary Queen of Scots is rumoured to have visited in 1582. Personally, I think that’s unlikely as she was a prisoner at the time and the cavern would be quite a long trek by horseback from where she was being kept. It wasn’t until the mid 1800s that the Poole’s Cavern was officially opened up as a show cave.
The guides of today are far kinder to visitors than their earlier counterparts. In the early days the tourist guides were locals desperate to grab a few pennies and were understood to blow out their candles deep into the cave and demand money to light them again.
Tours last 45 minutes and the groups are small, so pre booking is advised. We arrived very early, so took advantage of the cafe. My partner is coeliac, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how many gluten free options there were. There is also a wide range of vegan choices of food. For a small cafe, there is a lot of variety.
Then onto the cavern. We were the last group to go in. There was just us and another couple. The guides take turns so they’re relatively fresh for their group, rather than take one after another with no rest in between. There’s good access for those with limited mobility. It’s mostly flat, with very few steps, however there is a fair bit of standing around. It’s probably a good idea to call and discuss disabled access if required.
The guides are very well versed in the history of the cavern. Only the first part of the cavern was used in earlier times, meaning that the history is in the early part and the geology in the second part. The stalagmites and stalactites are as protected as possible these days, although one, the flitch of bacon, was badly damaged in the early days of tourism. The cavern has an unusual geology. In most of the cave the stalactites and stalagmites are slow forming, however one section has rapid forming ones. A river runs through the cave, and can make quite a noise after heavy rainfall. Fortunately it isn’t affected by flooding like the caves at Castleton.
The guide that led us was very considerate and kind. Patiently waiting for photos and making sure that we weren’t dripped on. The cavern isn’t particularly large, so the guides have to work very hard to fill 45 minutes. Ours was full of information about everything from the history to the geology. Once you reach the end of the cave, you get to experience what the earlier tourists did when the lights are turned out. Fortunately you don’t have to offer money for the lights to be turned back on. Despite being the last group, we weren’t rushed out, but were allowed to make our way back in our own time.
Some advice, the cavern is the same temperature whatever the time of year, which is pretty cool. If you go in summer, take a thick jumper or a coat in with you.
There’s a lot to be said for a visit to Poole’s Cavern, if you have more time, daylight and the weather, there is pleasant walking around. However, going during the middle of a very rainy few weeks, it meant I could have a weatherproof day out on my birthday.
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