It is August and we are in Torquay, Devon. We are on a family outing and it’s pouring with rain as we make the splashy dash from the car park to the visitor centre entrance of Kents Cavern (www.kents-cavern.co.uk). Having paid for our tickets at the desk, we wait around until we hear over the loudspeaker that the eleven o’clock tour group should gather in a small room beside the gift shop and wait for our guide. As my family and I shuffle in, there is a smell that I associate strongly with school trips, family days out and field-trips. It is the smell of damp and faintly steaming raincoats. I feel uncommonly excited. The room in which we must gather is much darker than the gift shop. There are several glass display cases around the room which contain, according to the typewritten labels, fragments of bone, tooth and claw. “Look, Maisie!” I say to my eleven-year old step-daughter. “Look! A bear’s tooth found here in Torquay!” I am hardly able to contain my excitement at this point. This is archaeology of the deep, prehistoric past and a treat for someone who is more accustomed to studying beer cans and holes in hedges. Maisie, a voracious reader and self-confessed geek, is not fascinated, as I had imagined she would be. She glances briefly around at the glass cases and their contents and announces, “I’m cold!” Just then, our guide arrives. She starts by giving us the Health and Safety talk. We are to tell her if we feel unwell and she will bring us to the surface. We are not to wander off from the rest of the group because it’s dark in the cavern and we might get lost, fall and injure ourselves. The eleven o’clock tour group ease into the prospect of being loosely affiliated with one another for the duration of our underground experience. With the housekeeping out of the way, our friendly and enthusiastic guide directs our attention to the door beside which she stands. The door is a romantic nod to the medieval – heavy, carved and sporting large hinges. Our guide says, “This is the door to the oldest home in Britain!”
As we pass through the ‘olde worlde’ door, the temperature drops considerably. I find myself pulling up the hood on my son’s jacket and suggesting Maisie does the same. I notice my husband make a mental note that we are all inside, checking that we are together. We are cave family. The tour group reunites at the top of a steep slope that seems to descend into the very belly of the Earth. Hushed whispers exclaim in different ways – many accents, various languages – that it is dark! Our guide tells us that we are standing in ‘the most important prehistoric site in Britain’ and reminds us that for the next hour, ‘we are going back in time’. She ends with the line, “So let’s rock!” There is a collective groan from the eleven o’clock tour group interrupted by music played through speakers embedded in the rock around us. It is psychedelic New Age trance music – a ‘spiritual’ overture is followed by repetitive beats and a tinsel breakdown. This is accompanied by a coloured lighting show which includes strobe effects. We do indeed go back in time! But not that far. Maybe just to 1995.
As we pass down, deeper into the cavern, our guide informs us that it was first excavated in 1865 by Cornish archaeologist, William Pengelly . Standing in the gloom, listening to how Pengelly and chums excavated 7000 tons of debris by candle-light and removed it all from the cave system by hand, the man takes on a mythical quality. This is ‘archaeologists as Indiana Jones’ mythologising, in action. They used explosives which destroyed many of the stalactites and stalacmites, we are told. Archaeological methods are often destructive of the sites in which archaeologists (and their publics) are most interested. My mind drifts. I find it difficult to imagine the prehistoric past that drove Pengelly and others to investigate places such as this. Yet, I feel the world in which Pengelly himself lived – the Westcountry in 1865 – is closer to me. This is nonsense, of course. I wasn’t born until 1978 but there remain, all around me, hedge-rows, beaches, buildings, road systems, harbour walls, literature, woodland, great houses, photographs, first-hand testimonials – artefacts from his time. These tangible remains from the past are also of the present. Sometimes, particular assemblages poke through evocatively into the twenty-first century, suggesting that we can know what 1865 was really like.
We move on through the cave system and the dripping wetness makes the rocks gleam and shimmer. Maisie, fascinated by Greek and Roman myths, is by now at the front, listening as our guide points out the ‘flow stone’.
We are told that Roman coins were found buried beneath the flow stone and it is believed that they were left for Mithras, the God of Caves . The ‘flow stone’ looks familiar. Our guide jokes that it is thought to be an early portrait of Mick Jagger. This elicits a giggle from the eleven o’clock tour group. It is strange too because our guide is probably fifteen years younger than me which would make her 21 or 22. She delivers the jokes well – her timing is good, she is clearly passionate about geology and archaeology – but there is a palpably present narrator who is absent from our tour. I don’t know who he is but he is male, in his early fifties and his script haunts the cavern with popular cultural references from the latter part of the twentieth century. That said, there is indeed an uncanny resemblance between the rock and the Stone!
The passage through the cavern narrows to such an extent that we must pass single file through the next part. Our guide punishes us with dates, statistics and figures that swirl into meaninglessness. The key information is that the drips we experience are acid rain. Rain falls, mixing with carbon dioxide to form weakly ‘acid rain’ which in turn dissolves the limestone to form caves. This takes hundreds of thousands of years. No-one can imagine hundreds of thousands of years. The stalactites and statlacmites around us function as info-graphics, tangible evidence of time stretching back further than any human mind can comprehend. As the ‘acid’ rain filters through the rock it creates straws from the cave ceiling. Water drips through and lengthens the straws until eventually they fill up. The water then has nowhere to go but to drip outside the straw and over time, these become stalactites. The ‘elephant’s trunk’ is the biggest ‘tite in Kents Cavern. I happen to be standing beside it as our guide points it out. It is estimated that it will join the stalacmite beneath it in twelve-thousand years’ time. From the deepest, darkest, pre-hominid past, the eleven o’clock tour group is catapulted into the far, distant future. Both the deep past and the impossible future are represented by this slowly evolving mineral. The cold, physical reality of the stalactites and stalacmites here bind time in ways that cannot be understood as linear. The deep past, the present and the wild, undetermined future are a knot, a web, embodied.
The group ascends back the way we came before stopping at an opening where we find a treasure chest, at which our (female) guide stops to inform us that we are ‘modern man’ .I’m enjoying this tour but women and children are entirely missing from the past reconstructed here. Kents Cavern was, she tells us, appropriated by Neanderthal man around 500-600 hundred thousand years earlier. A girl is chosen from the group to look in the chest where she finds a skull. Our guide holds it up and draws our attention to its features – short forehead due to smaller brains that ours, bigger eyes and likely better sight than we have. I wait for the punchline and boom! “Looks a lot like Wayne Rooney, don’t you think?” Time hopping between 600 hundred thousand years ago and the present-day English football team makes the next leap to circa 30 thousand years ago much easier. It is estimated that the molar tooth from a woolly mammoth that was found at the cave is around 30-35 thousand years old and is probably, we are told, the result of the cavern having been a bear’s den.
As we troop on through the cavern system to experience the bear’s den, we pass by the tour that came after ours. They are just learning of Pengelly and his 1865 excavation. Our own recent past confronts us in the gloom. The familiar script floats to greet us but a new, unfamiliar voice is telling the old jokes. It is nearing the end of the tour now. I am cold. People start to speak among themselves as we climb up towards the bear’s den – Scots and London accents mix with Spanish, Polish, Japanese and Italian languages. Visitors range in age from a tiny baby to people in their late seventies. The cavern commands a diverse audience.
In the bear’s cave we are asked whether we would like to experience the true blackness of being underground, where no daylight penetrates. Before we do, our guide shows us how to make a prehistoric tea-light or ‘shell fire’. She takes a scallop shell and some dried moss and bodges animal fat into the shell, around the moss. She then switches off her torch and we are plunged into a close and pregnant darkness. It is pitch black. A child cries. People shuffle. I close and then open my eyes a few times to see whether I can perceive any difference. I can’t. Just then, our guide lights the shell-fire and the bear’s den is lit by a flickering flame. She demonstrates how difficult it is to blow out the shell-fire and I watch as the flame leans in the draft of the cave, but does not extinguish. I think how inventive people are, were, will be. My tenses are all mixed up. But time as a network is perceptible – the remoteness of the ancient past and the long, alien future are equally present, equally unknowable.