Entrance to hell discovered... in Nottinghamshire as witch marks reveal what Britons centuries ago thought was doorway to underworld

Sarah Knapton

Even in the bright winter sunshine the dark, craggy entrance to Robin Hood’s cave at Creswell Crags on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire has an ominous sense of foreboding.

But for hundreds of years the cavern has held an even more sinister secret. 

It was once believed by locals to be the entrance to the underworld, which held demons so terrifying that locals regularly carved protective ‘witch marks’ onto the walls to bind its evil occupants inside.

Until recently, experts at the caves believed the marks were simply graffiti but a chance encounter shortly before Halloween last year has led to a complete reevaluation of the site.

The chance discovery was made by two keen-eyed enthusiasts, Hayley Clark and Ed Waters - ©2019 Charlotte Graham - CAG Photography

Hayley Clark and Ed Waters from the Subterranea Britannica caving group, were taking a guided tour when they spotted the distinctive shape of two ‘V’s crossed, representing the phrase ‘Virgin of Virgins’, a plea to Mary for help in times of trouble. 

When experts from the site started to look around they were astonished to find hundreds of similar marks, on the walls, ceilings and in crevices, invoking aid from Jesus and the Holy family. Other engravings of diagonal lines, boxes and mazes are believed to be ancient devices for capturing or trapping ‘evil’. 

And towards the back of the cave something even more eerie. In an area screened off from the public, a four-foot round hole descending into the darkness where the marks reach a terrifying crescendo.

Rare protection marks were found scribed onto the cave surface Credit: Charlotte Graham

“It was like something from The Shining,” said Paul Baker, director at Creswell Crags.  “These marks were either to keep something in, or to keep something out.

“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. 

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

Other protective symbols include a ‘B’ representing the word beneficium or blessing in Latin, ‘R’ for rex, king of heaven, ‘S’ for salvator, saviour and PM for Pace Maria, calling on peace from the Virgin Mary.

John Charlesworth, Heritage Facilitator and the tour leader at the time of the discovery, added: “The people who made the marks 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.”

Ritualistic protection marks are most commonly found in historic churches and houses, near the entrance points, particularly doorways, windows and fireplaces to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. 

Ritualistic protection marks are most commonly found in historic churches and houses Credit:  Charlotte Graham

It was thought that the largest quantity of witch marks in British caves existed in Somerset, at 57 marks,  but the number at Creswell Crags far exceeds that, numbering in the high hundreds in one cave alone. 

Although tricky to say when they were carved, some sit alongside inscriptions of dates from the 18th century, and some may be pre-reformation. 

Marks have since been found in all caves at Creswell Crags, which previously were known for their Ice Age art, the only example of Prehistoric cave art in Britain. 

Alison Fearn, a research postgraduate at The University of Leicester, and an authority in protective marks, said the fact that the marks specifically called on The Virgin Mary show the carvers were concerned about demons.

“There is mention in Christian doctrine about Mary and Joseph being the ‘terror of demons,” she said.

“The marks are incredible. I did actually swear when I first saw them, I had never seen anything like them.

“They probably acted as protection, from spirits, demons fairies, and witches. We know that witches were feared and witch hunts were happening all over Europe. They definitely seem to have some kind of fearful context.”

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England added: “Two hundred years ago, the English countryside was a very different place, death and disease were everyday companions and evil forces could readily be imagined in the dark.

“We can only speculate on what it was the people of Creswell feared might emerge from the underworld into these caves

Tours of the cave and new markings begin on Saturday.