Spooky Geology: Caves / / by BGS Comms

First we talked about spooky water and now we're back with some super spooky geology for you in the run up to Hallowe'en. Read on and howl with fright (or is that just the wind?) as we tell you tales of some of the most well known caves around the country!

Again, we can't claim to know the truth to these stories but when you work a lot in caves, things definitely go bump in the night - and that's not just the sound of hardhats hitting rock!

Mother Shipton's Cave, North Yorkshire

The entrance to Mother Shipton's Cave with visitor noticeboard outside and vines growing over the top of the cave entrance
Mother Shipton's Cave

Ursula Southeil, or Old Mother Shipton as she was called, was a soothsayer born at this cave in the Cadeby Formation (Permian) near Knaresborough in 1488. It is now a popular spot for tourists who wish to learn about her fascinating life. Mother Shipton apparently looked like the stereotypical witches made popular in fairy tales. It is said that as a teen, Ursula could move things with her mind and imps visited the house but it was her ability to see the future and found lost items that really brought Mother Shipton fame. In 1641 The Prophesie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry the Eighth was published. Two later versions of the book were published, the latter including a prediction of cars, planes and even what could be imagined as the internet.

Besides the fascinating tale of Old Mother Shipton, the cave site also houses the Petrifying Well – said to be the oldest visitor attraction in England - which petrifies objects in just a few months. On visiting many half petrified objects hang from the well, which adds another spooky element to the already creepy caves. 

Cresswell Crags, Nottinghamshire

The entrance to one of the Cresswell Crag magnesian limestone caves
Cresswell Crags © Nigel Homer

Cresswell Crags is an impressive dolomitised limestone gorge on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The bedrock is the Cadeby Formation of Permian age (~273–252 Ma), and used to be known as the Lower Magnesian Limestone. It is a treasure trove for archaeologists who have found prehistoric tools, cave art, carved bone and abundant remains of animals including lions, hyenas and woolly rhinoceros.

For our spooky blog, we are focusing on perhaps the most terrifying discovery – Witch Marks. These marks, thought to be from the 17th and 18th centuries were used as ‘apotropaia’, a type of magic to protect from evildoings or black magic. There are hundreds of these marks at Robin Hood’s cave – more than anywhere else in the UK. The marks include ‘VV’ which is thought to stand for Virgin of the Virgin; a reference to the Virgin Mary, and ‘PM’, a reference to Pace Maria.

The have been digitised to allow for online viewing.

Creswell Crags Witch Mark Cave from Jeremy Lee on Vimeo.


Winnats Pass, near Castleton, Derbyshire

The sun sets over the steep, partially exposed limestone formations creating Winnats Pass
Winnats Pass

Winnats Pass has many mysterious tales surrounding it, not least because of the eerie wind that howls along it night and day. One of the most famous cases is of Alan and Clara, a couple who were brutally murdered on their way to be wed. Apparently, on the night of the murder, as Alan and Clara travelled the pass they were set upon by drunken lead miners, who brutally attacked them and stole what would equate to about £35,000 in today’s money – the couples’ life savings. It is said that the lead miners all befell horrible fates after the murders, committing suicide, losing their sanity and all their money. Alan and Clara can now be found on dark, moonless nights wandering the pass, restless from the injustice done to them.

Geologically speaking Winnats Pass, or ‘windy gates’, is a thoroughly interesting place and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), formed of Lower Carboniferous limestone which is full of marine fossils such as brachiopods, corals and crinoids. The pass was carved by erosion caused by the huge volumes of glacial meltwaters during the Ice Age. Intensive lead mining was undertaken in this area in the 17th and 18th centuries. The gemstone Blue John is unique to this area, and is still mined on a small scale to this day.

Wookey Hole Caves, Somerset

The entrance to Wookey Hole © Chris Talbot

Our second ‘witch marked’ cave and another SSSI - is Wookey Hole. Although other ghosts abound at the cave, by far the most compelling legend of this iconic Somerset location is the Witch of Wookey Hole. Wookey Hole Caves are a large complex of karst caverns formed in Triassic breccia. The breccia is made up of fragments of Carboniferous limestones that were deposited as scree slopes and alluvial fans along the flank of rugged mountain range during the Triassic (bit like the mountains and wadis of northern Oman), and later cemented together.  They are part of the southern escarpment of the Mendip Hills.

The witch – once a beautiful young woman – was living in a nearby village. She took a suitor and fell deeply in love but was quickly jilted by him in favour of another woman. Devastated, she ran away to the caves where she hid. On the night of her disappearance she was visited by a demon, who offered her great powers in exchange for her soul. The heartbroken woman quickly accepted and black magic was bestowed upon her. The next morning she cursed her ex-suitor, his new love and any other lovers in the area. This apparently did not appease her however, as she grew increasingly evil and caused many more problems in the village, which the villagers could no longer handle, calling on the Abbot of Glastonbury to help them.

The Abbot made an attempt to exorcise the witch, and as the tale goes a huge fight between good and evil took place, with fire and brimstone cascading down. Finally the Abbot prevailed by sprinkling the witch with water, turning her to stone. To add credence to the story, in 1912 the remains of a woman, a goat and her kid, and a round stalagmite which looked like a stone-turned crystal ball were found, all in keeping with the legend. The witch’s bones are currently kept in the nearby Wells and Mendip museum, however you can still see the stalagmite which is widely believed to be the petrified witch at the Wookey Hole Caves and exhibition centre to this day.

 Sawney Bean's Cave, South Ayrshire 

Sawney Bean's Cave © Mary and Angus Hogg

For a change of pace, this horrific tale involves Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean, a cannibal.

The bay around the Bennane Cave, where Bean and his family lived, is known for some pretty wonderful geology. This includes ophiolite rocks which represent a section of ocean crust and the underlying upper mantle. Serpentinite, a highly altered bit of oceanic crust which used to be deep below the sea floor is exposed around the entrance to the cave. A fault marks the entrance of the cave, which is excavated out of basalt erupted on the ocean floor.

In the 16th century, a man called Sawney Bean and his partner, the witch Black Agnes, lived in one of the caves as the head of a clan of incestuous cannibals. It is estimated that they killed and ate up to 1,000 people. Their victims’ body parts were then kept in the cave, although often parts were washed away during high tide and found on the shore. The Beans were so sneaky with their killings (though we fail to see how this could be, with body parts everywhere) search parties were dispatched, to no avail. The clan were finally spotted trying to kill a skilled swordsman returning from a fair and a manhunt was quickly established, with the Bean’s cave being uncovered and the extent of their crimes established. The Beans were taken to Edinburgh where they were executed without trial. 

The veracity of the Sawney Bean legend has long been questioned but it makes for a spooky Halloween tale and an excuse for one of our favourite pastimes – visiting caves!

Do you have spooky cave tales of your own? Let us know in the comments!