The Witches of Creswell Crags

If there is a gateway to hell, a portal from the underworld used by demons and witches to wreak their evil havoc on humanity, then it could be in a small east Midlands cave handy for both the M1 and A60.

Thanks to @qdnoktsqfr for sharing this #CaveTwitter tip-off.

The Guardian reports that, in the town of Creswell, between Sheffield and Mansfield, two cavers have discovered “the biggest concentration of apotropaic marks, or symbols to ward off evil or misfortune, ever found in the UK.”

The two keen-eyed cavers thought there were perhaps two or three markings; it soon became clear there were dozens and then on further investigation up to a thousand. And counting. “They are everywhere,” said Baker. “How scared were they?”

I spend a lot of time in this part of the world, home as it is to my in-laws, so here’s hoping we get a Xenogothic field trip out to the crags sometime in the future. In fact, there are a lot of areas like this in the area. The Devil’s Arse at Castleton, for instance, has a very similar atmosphere, by the sounds of it.

John Charlesworth, the caves’ heritage interpreter, said natural landscapes were once regarded as scary places. “These are places where supernatural forces in an untamed non-human environment could be at work. Local people are in the jaws of this monstrous landscape.”

I’d never quite thought of this before, but it’s very true. Castleton is likewise famous for Mam Tor, on its outskirts, a Bronze Age hill fort high up on the nearby “shivering mountain”. These hilled areas are exposed and must have been tough places to live, but at some point these settlements moved down from the hills and into the valleys, and these valleys are intimidating landscapes. Snake Pass is out in the open air but its steep descents makes you feel like you’re entering the bowels of something.

The article continues:

Up close the walls are a remarkable frenzy of marks. Everywhere you point a torch there are overlapping Vs, a reference to Mary, virgin of virgins. There are also PMs, as in Pace Maria, and crossed Is, referring to Jesus on a cross, and odd-shaped As.

Alison Fearn, a Leicester university expert on protective marks, recalled first shuffling on her backside in to the cave and realising what she was looking at. “I think I said a very naughty word.”

The letters and symbols were Christian but should not be looked at in that context, she said. From the 16th century to the early 19th century, when people made witches marks, there may have been a lack of association with religion, such as today when people might cross fingers or say “oh god”. She said: “It just becomes a protective symbol. It was a mark you always made to protect yourself.”

What the marks were keeping out, or in, can only be speculated on. “It could be fairies, witches, whatever you were fearful of, it was going to be down there.”

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