Widecombe History Group Talk on the Pengelly Caves

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The Pengelly Trust and Caves.

by Sheila Phillips.

It may be news to some to realise that the Pengelly Trust is responsible for the largest cave system in the United Kingdom. The Trust maintains the only caving and scientific research unit in Britain. Our speaker, Sheila Phillips, is mainly responsible for the running of this Centre. Due to its situation it is sometimes referred to as the “Shed in the Woods”. Much of the finds are held in the Natural History Museum in London to which it is affiliated.

The ‘finds’ within the cave are the best bones assembly and come from a period when the last warm era of the Northern hemisphere existed. There are two guided walks associated with the Centre, (1) a guided walk of Buckfastleigh, which is a ‘do-it-yourself’ guide with the help of a detailed leaflet, and (2) a guided walk known as the ‘Higher Kiln Walk’, which has to be pre-booked. The rock in which these caves are found is Coral Limestone, known locally as Ashburton Marble but it is not marble.

Geologists tell us that this Limestone was laid down fourteen degrees south of the Equator, and contains many coral fossils. The fact that it is now here is due to continental shelf movement, this still takes place, an example of which caused the ‘Tsunami” in the Indian Ocean on the 26th December 2004.

Situated at the top of Russets Lane, off the old A38 Dartbridge Road and just below the ruins of the old Buckfastleigh Church of St. Luke, devastated by fire some years ago. Walking up the lane, a Devonshire Green Lane, once used by pack-horses, villagers, mariners and funeral processions, each having to pay a small toll to the owner, a local farmer, now full of interest for the keen observer. Look out for the Badger tracks through the hedges, the stones and the vegetation. At the top of the lane is a field, known as ‘Baker’s Pit’, at one time a quarry but in recent years, used as a tip. Protruding from the centre is a large pipe at the bottom of which is an entrance into a caving system.

What made these caves?

Limestone has a system of faults within the rock and rain water together with carbon dioxide seeps through these joints dissolving the limestone as it goes. These small trickles of water gradually get larger and in turn increase the size of these fault lines making tunnels, caves and in some cases, large caverns within the rock. As the water seeps through and evaporates it leaves stalactites, hanging from the roof, and on the floor of these caverns gradually building up stalagmites, also leaving calcite crystals on the ground, some of these are a beautiful orange colour created by the iron oxide from the sand dunes that thousands of years ago were part of a desert above.

One small stalactite appears like a statue of a man, known as “The little man of Buckfastleigh”. Above in the Church Yard is the ‘pent-house’ style tomb (only one other of this type is known in the Country) of Sir Richard Cabel of whom there is an horrendous legend, in folklore the two are connected.

Standing in Bulley Cleave Quarry, last used to supply stone for the construction of the A38 dual carriageway, one can notice two types of landscape. Towards Dartmoor a jagged looking skyline while to the right a rounded outline to the landscape depicting the coral islands of thousands of years ago. The limestone needs a secondary reaction to turn it into marble, more pressure and heat causes a chemical reaction. The slate beneath it, caused by layers of sedimentary mud, needs weathering and contact with the present climate, to cause it to split or cleave and then be of use to man for hedges and roofs etc.

There is the ruins of a small Chapel in the Buckfastleigh Church Yard dating from c.1212 close to the edge of a quarry. Returning to the Centre, a large round boulder, known as an “erratic” can be noticed in the hedge of the lane. This stone has been transported by the action of a river years ago from some fourteen miles away. Stones of this size can be moved by either river or glazier. It is not a perfect sphere, only the action of wind can create that. Entering the quarry there is a series of caves. Reed’s Cave found by a Mr. Reed, hence it’s name, the stalactites within it are very precious and fragile. Next ‘Disappointment Cave’, it is only four feet deep, hence it’s name. Then ‘The Rift Cave’ formed where there a reverse fault plain, this is where the observer can see the fault running diagonally up the face of the quarry and the layers several feet apart showing the shift along the fault. This cave contains some fascinating wild life. National History Specialists visit the Centre from all over the World to study this unique environment. There are shrimps, spiders, moths and bats, making this place of special scientific importance today. Go back ten thousand years and the wild life of the present Russian Tundra lived in this area, the Arctic Fox, the Snowy Owl and Reindeer. Go back one hundred and twenty-eight thousand years and the scene at Buckfastleigh would be comparable to Africa of today, elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, hyenas, bison and deer roamed here. The bones of all these animals can be found in the ‘Joint Mintnor’ Cave, named after three local boys , Joint, Minter and Norsworthy who discovered the Cave. Bones, crystals and boulders are still within the caverns of the Cave, four thousand bones from these caves are in the British Museum. Nearby there are three Lime Kilns, the last of which was used in the 1920s, but date from medieval times.

Students from all over the world visit these caves during their periods of study, to examine the geology, archaeology and wildlife of this special site. Visits can be arranged by prior booking but on Wednesdays during the month of August the Centre will be open for Guided Walks at 11.00 a.m. and 2.00 p.m. at the cost of £4.00 per person. Illustrated leaflets are obtainable for both walks.

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:55:26.

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