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'Gateway to Hell': Hundreds of historic anti-witch marks discovered in Nottinghamshire cave

Locals scrawled them there to protect against evil spirits coming up from underworld

Colin Drury
Friday 15 February 2019 11:52 GMT
UK's largest collection of 'witches' marks discovered in caves

The entrance to Hell may have been discovered – and it’s on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border, it seems.

Hundreds of protective "witch marks" have been identified at a cave in the region’s prehistoric Creswell Crags gorge.

Experts say the scrawls – until recently thought to be graffiti – are actually the work of locals who once believed the ominous deep openings were a gateway to the underworld. The etchings were an apparent attempt to keep devils, witches and other evil occupants from spilling out.

“These marks were either to keep something in, or to keep something out,” said Paul Baker, director at Creswell Crags Museum and Heritage Centre. “I think over a period of time this hole was blamed or associated with a series of events, illnesses or crop failures to the point in which they hoped the marks would protect them. “

Ritualistic protection symbols are not uncommon in Britain. Most are found near the entrance points – including doorways, windows and fireplaces – of historic churches. Fifty-seven of them are scrawled at a cave in Somerset.

But the discovery at Creswell Crags makes it the largest number ever discovered at a single site in the UK.

“They clearly felt that whatever was inside it was so powerful that they had to keep going back to add more and more marks,” Mr Baker told The Daily Telegraph. “Just when you think Derbyshire can’t throw anything else at you, it gives you The Blair Witch Project.”

The identification itself was made by chance.

Hayley Clark and Ed Waters from the Subterranea Britannica caving group were taking a guided tour of the site’s Robin Hood Cave when they spotted the distinctive shape of many of the marks: two "V"s crossed.

This, they knew, represented the phrase “Virgin of Virgins”, a plea to Mary for help against evil spirits.

When other experts were called in to analyse the symbols, they found hundreds more on the walls, ceilings and crevices, including diagonal lines, boxes and mazes which were believed to be capable of capturing demons. “It was like something from 'The Shining',” said Mr Baker.

Although it is unclear when they all date from, it is thought they may stretch from the 14th century all the way through to the 18th century.

Anti-witch marks at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire (Historic England)

John Charlesworth, the tour leader at the time the marks were recognised, said: “People may have thought the big hole was some kind of door to the underworld of even a demon prison, but they were certainly worried about what was going to come out of it.

“You could think of the witch marks as worry lines that demonstrate the anxieties of the time. These marks are a kind of folk magic and the hole in the ground may have represented some kind of Pandora’s Box.

“These witches marks were in plain sight all the time. Being present at the moment their true significance was revealed will stay with me forever.”

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