caves

Knaresborough, North Yorkshire: Mother Shipton’s Cave

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Mother Shipton’s Cave bills itself as the “England’s oldest visitor attraction,” and I am the most recent sucker in the centuries-long tradition of visiting this tourist trap – overpriced or not, I wanted the Mother Shipton’s experience.  The main draw of Mother Shipton’s (and I suspect the real reason why the area became a tourist attraction in the first place, since the story of Mother Shipton is heavily mythologised, if not outright made-up) is the petrifying well that turns objects to stone thanks to the extremely high mineral content of the water, but they’ve attempted to turn it into a whole complex with a small museum, wishing well, a few playgrounds, and a forest full of random wood carvings.

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Admission is £6 per person, with an additional £2 charge for parking, which I suppose isn’t really too extortionate, even though the well itself feels like the type of thing you should be able to see for free.  The area is extremely pretty, as is all the countryside in North Yorkshire, so at the very least you get a scenic walk out of the experience.  And it is a fair walk from the parking lot down to the well and cave area – be forewarned that the only toilets in the place are right near the chequerboard patterned entrance (many of the houses in the village seem to share this chequerboard motif, which I found rather charming).

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On the way, you’ll find lots of logs and stumps with faces carved into them – I guess to make the forest seem more darkly atmospheric.  It was of course raining during our visit, but the leaves were thick enough overhead to provide a protective canopy.  The forest includes unusually tall beech trees that thrive from growing on the banks of the Nidd (the river that feeds the well).

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The well itself is very, um, petrifying.  The lumps sticking out the side are apparently a top hat and bonnet belonging to a pair of Victorians, which have since grown into the stone.  You’ll notice there are things hanging from the side, mostly small teddy bears, which they sell online once petrified, though curiously, not in the shop, at least on the day I visited.  Celebrities (well, mostly very minor celebrities, like soap stars and the cast of Blue Peter) frequently are permitted to hang choice objects from the side, which end up in the small museum, but not so for us ordinary folk, which is where I think they’re missing a trick.  I’m sure that people would be thrilled to create their own petrified objects (the process takes about 3-6 months, so perhaps people could leave their address and have their stuff sent to them once petrified) for a small fee – I know I would!

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There’s a cave nearby with a Mother Shipton statue in the back – this is where Mother Shipton was supposedly born, as her teenage mother had fled to the cave to give birth, rather than be forced by the midwife to reveal the name of the baby’s father.  Again, this is all just based on local folklore, but they flesh out the story in some detail via a audio guide mounted in the cave.  Poor Mother Shipton just happened to look exactly like a fairytale witch, with a nose and chin so pointy that they almost touched.  The audio guide included some of Mother Shipton’s prophecies (which is her main claim to fame, though most of them seem to have been written centuries after she was meant to have lived) – she was allegedly visited by a few of Henry VIII’s cronies, and accurately predicted their deaths (though she doesn’t appear to have given them any information regarding that which might have been useful to their avoiding execution) and the 1665 plague, which really doesn’t seem like that much of a challenge, even if true.  I mean, Henry VIII obviously liked to turn against friends and wives and have them killed, and the plague was always reoccurring in England, so she really didn’t have to have any “powers” to come up with this crap.

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There’s a wishing well hidden round the side of the well, with very specific instructions.  You must dunk your right hand in the extremely cold water, and then let it dry naturally – my hand felt as though it was about to drop off from frostbite, which I guess would be my own stupid fault for buying into it.  My wish hasn’t come true yet, so I can’t say what I wished for, or whether the well works (yeah, I’m definitely not superstitious).

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And then there is the very small museum/gift shop, which had the Aladdin soundtrack playing when I was inside (bonus!).  It holds a few cases of petrified objects, mostly, as I said, from “celebs” I’d never heard of, but there was a shoe belonging to Queen Mary (wife of George V), Agatha Christie’s purse, and John Wayne’s hat.

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And there were a few life-size tableaux round the corner of notable locals; some random local politician, a very tall blind man who worked as a guide in Mother Shipton’s Cave (pictured above), and once again, Mother Shipton herself.

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Aside from the couple “adventure” playgrounds for children (which looked like very standard playgrounds to me), and a small cafe, that was pretty much all there was to Mother Shipton’s (and of course, those adorable ducklings in the river), so it really doesn’t take more than an hour to see, and that’s assuming you stand there and listen to all the audio information down by the well.  It’s not a terrible stop if you’re in the area, and want to see the original British tourist trap and some petrified crap (which is not necessarily an unworthy goal), but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.  Very lovely area though, I will give it that.  3/5

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Reigate, Surrey: Reigate Caves

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Last Saturday began much like every other weekend – with my boyfriend and I sitting around eating waffles in our jimjams, and debating what to do whilst waiting for vintage episodes of The Simpsons to come on.  Excitingly, it soon became apparent that this wasn’t like every other weekend, as we had actually found a reason to leave the house!  I’m totally a list-maker, though unfortunately, not well-organised enough to keep them all in one location.  One of the many lists I have is on Google Maps, and includes various attractions around Britain I want to visit.  We’ve already been to most of the caves within an easy drive from London, but Reigate Caves were ones we hadn’t visited, due to them only being open 5 days a year.  I happened to check their website for the next open day, not really expecting it to be any time soon, only to find out it was that very Saturday!  With a destination sorted, we hopped in the car, Reigate bound.

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The Reigate Caves consist of three separate caves (which aren’t actually caves as such, but old sand mines, which is fairly typical of “caves” in the Weald): Baron’s Cave, which is under the old Castle grounds, and the Tunnel Road Caves, which are opposite each other under (appropriately enough) Tunnel Road.  It was £3 for Tunnel Road Caves, and another £2 for Baron’s Cave, both of which included a guided tour.  The whole enterprise is run by the Wealden Cave Society, who honestly seemed like delightful people.  We began with a tour of the Western Caverns, led by a guide who was seriously pretty great.

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He was very laid back, to the point where he would just start talking whenever he got to a point of interest in the cave, whether or not the group was with him.  I thought that was fantastic, because why should everyone have to wait for stragglers?  That way, if people with children wanted to hang back, and didn’t really care about the tour, the rest of us didn’t have to wait for them to catch up.  There was a second guide to bring up the rear, to ensure the stragglers didn’t get completely lost, and help answer questions.  The main guide also reminded me a bit of Chris Packham (they had the same w’s for r’s speech thing going on), which I think is part of why I liked him so much, since I adore Chris Packham, (and agree with him that pandas are completely overrated).  He was clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about the caves, which I always like to see (people with slightly eccentric interests, that is, as I have many of those myself).

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The caves are currently owned by a gun club, who normally have target practice in the caves, though obviously not when the tours are going on.  Therefore, the caves were littered with spent casings, and we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the target areas.  I’m no fan of guns (perhaps surprising coming from an American), so I felt slightly uneasy at the start, until it became apparent that no one was going to emerge from a hidey-hole and start shooting at us.  Otherwise, I’d say the dominant feature of the caves was sand, which was apparently also scattered with bits of broken glass, so it’s probably not the best place to wear open toed shoes.

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The caves have what is an extensive, yet strangely poorly documented history.  Obviously, their main use was as a source of sand, which was used for glass making, ink blotting, and to soak up spillage on local pub floors, which I’m told is what gave rise to the local saying, “happy as a sand boy,” (which I must start using) as the sand boys would get a free drink at each pub they delivered sand to, thus ending up plastered by the end of the day.  During WWI, they were used to store explosives, which likely would have resulted in the complete annihilation of Reigate had any of them actually gone off. During WWII, the townspeople used it as a bomb shelter, which I also have to question the efficacy of, as sand isn’t the sturdiest material, but thankfully, it was never put to the test.  It seems like mostly what people did in them was carve things into the walls, judging by the enormous amount of graffiti (which included an excellent war-era caricature of Hitler, which I was unable to get a picture of).

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Me and some face graffiti

Being man-made, the caves had reasonably high ceilings, so might have more appeal for claustrophobics than the average cave. Though there was a large skull carved into one of the walls, which might manage to freak someone out if the caves themselves hadn’t.  I reckon the tour lasted about 35-45 minutes, after which we entered the Eastern Caverns, which were self-guided (though naturally, required hard hats).

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HAA!

The Eastern Caverns detailed more of the history of the caves with the use of posters (though our guide had already covered most of it during the tour), and featured things like a recreation of a bomb shelter (complete with scary sound effects), a Cold War room, and a men’s urinal trough.  I think it was meant to be more of a “spooky” experience, as they had fake bats hanging throughout for children to count, and little signs with a ghost on them, which is of course exactly my cup of tea (Earl Grey, two sugars and a splash of milk).  It even had authentic smells (as did the stairs leading down to Tunnel Road, come to think of it) thanks to a paraffin lamp, which also had the effect of making the air authentically smoky.

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Finally (after procuring a cookie sandwich from a local bakery, as there was no ice creamery on the high street.  Get on that, Reigate!), we hiked up the hill to Baron’s Cave, following the directional bat signs.  We were given lamps this time, in lieu of hard hats, and caught up with a group who had just begun the guided tour.  This guide was rather dour compared to the first one, but he was still informative (and was quite stern with an exceptionally bratty child, which I appreciated).  Baron’s Cave was originally constructed in the 11th century as part of Reigate Castle, and was probably used primarily as a wine cellar, and alternate exit from the castle.  It is also rumoured to have been the meeting spot for the barons on their way to Runnymede to sign the Magna Carta (hence the name), which is pretty cool.

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As such, although it was much smaller than the other caves, it had even older graffiti, including carvings of a horse and cow.  Most of the stuff we saw was from the 18th century, although much of it goes back even further, but has been covered over by newer carvings.  Other than the graffiti, the main attractions were a staircase that once led to a pyramid on the castle grounds, but now leads to nothing (though the pyramid is still there, and you can go up and see it!), the wine cellar room, and a random T-Rex.

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You can just see him hiding in the back. Rawr!

I’m happy we discovered the open day in time to go, because the Reigate Caves were a very nice experience.  I’m rating them as 4/5, and certainly better than Chislehurst Caves.  I think the fact that the Cave Society run the tours help turn it into a quality experience, as they clearly have a vested interest in all things underground.  The only other open days this year are the 13th July, 10th August, and 14th September, so I’d definitely recommend heading down to Reigate on one of them to take in the cavey goodness.

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Postojna, Slovenia: Postojna Cave

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I’ve been to a lot of caves over the years.  I’m not entirely sure why, as I’ve no particular interest in geology – I just like caves.  I think it may have something to do with the fact that they’re dark and quiet; as you can probably tell from my complexion, I’m no fan of the sun.  I’ve no doubt there’s a disturbing Freudian interpretation behind my fondness for them (actually, I can pretty much guess what it would be; Freud wasn’t exactly subtle in his use of metaphor), but they’re neat looking, so let’s leave it at that.  All of this is a somewhat awkward lead-up to my visit to Postojna Cave.

All aboard the cave train.

All aboard the cave train.

Slovenia seems to have an unusually large number of caves for such a small country.  I’m sure there is some geological reason for this, which I should have consulted my boyfriend about before posting (what with him being a geologist and all), but to be fair, he probably already explained it to me when we were at the caves and I wasn’t paying attention.  Of these many caves, Postojna is the most famous.  In fact, when we drove up to Graz, and then back down to Ljubljana, we started seeing billboards for it as soon as we crossed over the Slovenian border.  (Well, that and signs for paczki, or whatever the Slovenian equivalent was (I’m from Cleveland, I know paczki when I see them), but I never managed to track down one of the elusive paczki huts, more’s the pity).  I think the main reason Postojna is so famous, aside from the quality of the caves, is the cave train, of which more later.

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I should apologise for the rather crap photos. You were only allowed to take pictures in one small area of the cave, and I neglected to bring a camera, so these were taken with a phone, which was obviously not ideal.

Firstly, you should know that the caves are not cheap.  They cost nearly 23 euros per person, for a 90 minute “experience.” They’ve actually managed to turn the entire cave complex into quite a little tourist destination, complete with overpriced shops selling the most awful tat, restaurants, and even a hotel.  I’m not knocking it, as I rather enjoy tourist traps under the right circumstances, and it helped us kill some time before our flight that afternoon, but it can add up to a pricy outing, especially if you rent one of their capes for warmth (honestly, I wished that I had, as they looked lovely and toasty).  That being said, you do get to ride the freaking cave train, so I don’t think I can justify complaining too much about the price.

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So after we parted with a substantial chunk of cash, we made our way into the caves, to catch the next tour (I believe they’re hourly).  We piled onto the cave train, which bears more resemblance to something you’d ride in Disneyworld than an actual train, and embarked on a 2 km journey into the heart of the cave.  I think the ride is only about ten minutes long, but it felt longer because I was freezing my ass off.  To be sure, you get to see some incredible stuff from the train, including a gorgeous chandelier suspended from the cave ceiling, and all manner of stalagmites and stalactites, but it’s small consolation when you’re shivering uncontrollably.  Therefore, I highly recommend that you wear something warmer than just a hoodie over a cardigan, because it was not enough.

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Upon reaching a platform, we were all herded off the train, and directed to go assemble ourselves by language (with the help of signs, obviously).  They offer tours in English, Slovenian, French, German, and Italian, but they have audio headsets available for most languages, and I think they do tours in a few other languages by advance request.  We were met by our guide, and conducted through the caves, which included the “Spaghetti Cave” (so named for the thousands of skinny stalactites hanging down), and the “Concert Hall” (where I think they’ve actually had concerts).  We mainly walked through in silence, with our guide stopping us at various points throughout the cave to provide commentary, which was nicer than him just rambling on all the time.  The first part was pretty steep, but the paths were level and not terribly slippery, so it wasn’t like some caves where you worry about tripping over something the entire time.  This seems to be in large part due to the labour of prisoners during WWI, who we were told constructed the bridge.  Our guide actually had a few fascinating wartime anecdotes like this, the other being a story about the Yugoslav army blowing up German fuel tanks hidden in the caves, which created so much smoke that it permanently blackened the outer caves.

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Aside from the train and the vast size, the main difference between Postojna and other caves is the olm.  Otherwise known as the human fish, or Proteus, the olm is the largest cave amphibian in the world (which isn’t really saying much, as it’s still less than a foot long), and gets the name “human fish” from its skin colour, and life expectancy, which is usually between 60-70 years.  To ensure that you see one, they have a tank holding five of them at the end of the tour; naturally everybody crowds around, so it’s hard to get a good look, but I pushed and shoved my way in there.  I have no shame.  The other major attraction is a stalagmite named “Brilliant” on account of its white colour, which is cool and all, but it’s just a stalagmite.

Pivka River

Pivka River

At the conclusion of the tour, we were led into a cave that conveniently contained a gift shop (with working post office, so you could mail a post card from underground), and given some time to look around (and buy stuff) whilst waiting for the train back.  The return trip was just as cold, but still pretty fun.  I mean, that train is surprisingly speedy.  I went on a cave train in some salt mines in Germany, and it was some weird tiny train that you had to straddle and it kind of putzed along.  The Postojna train can move!

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Once back outside, we wandered into the aquarium, but it turned out you had to pay extra for that (like 23 euros wasn’t enough), so we gave it a miss and just wandered around outside for a while (which felt pleasantly warm after the caves).  There was some sort of mill, but it wasn’t running, so we went to look at some stagnant pool of fly-infested water instead.  No one else was down there, for some reason.  They only had crappy Carte D’or ice cream in the restaurant, so I got a pink Magnum bar instead, because I’d never seen a pink Magnum.  It turned out to be champagne flavour, which was tastier than a normal Magnum.  (Because I know you all care about the ice cream I eat).  The gift shops really did have the most horrible crap inside, so after using one of those souvenir coin machines (I have a collection), we headed for the airport.

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Yep, upon closer inspection, that water is as scummy as it initially appeared.

Tourist trap it may be, but Postojna Cave is still undeniably rad.  I don’t think a couple tacky shops really detract from the beauty of the caves, or the delight of the cave train.  4/5 for Postojna, though I’d love to visit some other caves in Slovenia the next time I’m there to see how they compare.