Away with the fairies

We haven’t done any more geophysical survey since last week as Simon is away but I was back out at New Laund Farm this morning to meet up with John. We went to explore Fairy Holes cave, where I am hoping we can do some work in the future. This is a cave in the Hodder valley itself, south of the farm and facing across the river towards the Inn at Whitewell. The site isn’t very accessible, it is either a steep climb up or a treacherous slide down the river cliff depending on which way you approach it. We will also need to talk to the shooting tenants of Fairy Holes Wood about access as it is on private land and to English Nature as bats have been known to hibernate there.

This is what the cave looked like this morning when we got there. There are actually three caves close together. The main cave is to the left on this shot with the much smaller entrance to the eastern cave to the right. There is a third, even smaller, entrance to the west of the main cave.

Fairy Holes was originally dug by Reginald Musson in the spring and summer of 1946 and the excavation was reported in the 1947 volume of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society Transactions (see the reading list) . He had help from a committee of interested local and not so local cave archaeologists; these included the recently retired Wilfred Jackson, who started his cave digging career as William Boyd-Dawkins’ assistant, so they were not short of experience or know-how. Most of the work was done by Musson and Mr Dobson, honorary curator of Clitheroe Museum, and it took them until August to clear the deposits out of the front of the main cave chamber and over the platform outside.

This is the view into the main cave as dug by Musson and Dobson, including some very modern looking rock art. Unfortunately there is more of this aerosol damage further into the cave but otherwise it seems to be undisturbed since the 1946 excavations.

The main aim of the 1946 dig was to see whether the ‘cave dwellers’ of the Settle district had made it down the valley into Lancashire. Very early on in the excavations they found evidence of prehistoric activity in the cave. There were sherds of pottery on the platform outside the entrance, which should be right in the centre of this photograph, and lots of animal bone. Just inside the cave Musson and Dobson found the remains of two low dry stone walls running across the passage. The bases of these are still just about visible, in front of the plastic bag in the cave. The area between the walls was completely free of animal bone. Musson suggests that this might mean that this was a living area with midden material outside it. They also found what they thought was a hearth about a metre beyond the inner of the two walls.

According to the report all the sediment was dug out of the cave to a point about half way along its 19.5 m length. Certainly there is a big step up about half way into the cave, shown in this photo, which looks as if it marks the end of their dig. It is a vertical face of undisturbed cave earth which matches their published section drawings well. Interestingly, before we got to this point of the cave there also seemed to be some undisturbed deposits on the floor too. Reading the report, there is a certain air of world-weariness about the description of digging towards the back of the cave. As the finds were getting less frequent and the hoped-for Palaeolithic finds never materialised you can easily image how the urge to push every spit right down to the cave floor would evaporate.

Musson’s report lists all the finds from this cave. There were eight sherds from the same collared urn and a very small assemblage of chert and flint stone tools. Most of the finds were animal bone but ‘nothing of importance as there were none of extinct animals or humans’. Collared urns are an Early Bronze Age pottery type and the stone tools also sound very similar to what we found both at Mouse Hole in 2011 and on the enclosure last summer. Stuart Noon tells us that the finds are in the Museum of Lancashire collections at Stanley Street so one job I need to do over the winter is to get myself along to the museum and have a look at this stuff first hand.

The two side caves have never been dug to the best of my knowledge. The western one is very small but this eastern one opens out a bit once you are inside. I haven’t been in but Daniel, who has had his whole life to explore the caves on the farm, tells me that if you squeeze past this constricted entrance there is a reasonably big chamber beyond.

We know the main cave was occupied in the Early Bronze Age, at the same time that the New Laund Enclosure was in use. The question now is what can we find out from Musson’s notes and finds and any new work here to see what the connections between the two sites might have been. Once I had finished crawling around trying to keep my camera out of the puddles I climbed straight up behind the caves to the top of the wood.

This is where I came out, looking straight across at the enclosure on the side of New Laund Hill. With the eye of faith you can just see the enclosure bank and ditch on the near horizon above the wood at the right hand side of the hill.

Wildlife of the day was hares again (or hurrs as we know them in Preston), there was a pair of youngish ones playing around the lower slopes of the wood just after I took this photo.


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