There are two important caves in Brixham. Ash Hole Cavern between the town and Berry Head was explored in part by Rev. Henry Lyte in 1840 and later by William Pengelly. Windmill Hill Cavern was discovered in 1858 and excavated by a committee set up jointly between the Royal and Geological Societies. There was a third cavern, the Bench Bone Cavern in the quarry at Freshwater. This was later destroyed during quarrying .

Ash Hole

In the 1890s this was described as being opposite the Naval Reserve Battery on Berry Head Road. It can now be seen on the landward side of the road behind a small coppice. A century ago Charles Gregory wrote: "Many human bones, with fragments of rude pottery, supposed to be of British manufacture, have been dug up. These are in the Royal Society of Antiquaries museum in London. Romans coins, including those of Claudius and Nero were found in 1831. Lyte wrote to Blewitt and the account reads:

"We beg however to introduce the following interesting account with which we have been favoured by the Rev. H. F. Lyte. Excavations were made here to some extent two or three years since... in search of organic remains. A vague report existed that such remains had been discovered in this neighbourhood; and the tibia of an elephant is in the possession of Captain Cumby RN, of Upper Brixham, which was many years ago taken by a quarry man out of a fissure in Berry Head. It has not been possible to ascertain the circumstances under which this bone was found; but as it was not gnawed like those obtained in the hyenas' dens, it may be conjectured that (similar to those discovered in the Oreston quarries near Plymouth) it is part of the skeleton of an animal which fell from the surface of the rock into the fissure and then perished. It is in substance precisely similar to those found in the bone cave near Torquay, and has doubtless been preserved in the same manner... The discovery of this bone proving that this side of Torbay has been formerly frequented by the same animals whose fossil remains are found so largely at Kent's Cavern, stimulated Mr. Lyte to make an exploration of Ash Hole; and as the results were rather curious, it may not be amiss to give a slight detail of them and of the operations which led to them.

Ash Hole is a large open cavern, about 30 yards in length, about 7 in breadth; and the same in height, with a large entrance in the centre. Tradition says that the cave was once open to a much greater extent than at present, and that one passage led to Kingsware [sic], four miles distant. The first object therefore was to look out for this traditionary passage, and it might possibly be stopped up with an accumulation of rubbish or stalactite, every hopeful spot was carefully examined for it, especially the extremities of the cavern, where the stalagmite was quarried through in several places in search of it, but in vain, and from subsequent evidence, there appeared to be reason to believe that no such passage ever existed.

All attempts at exploration laterally having thus failed, a perpendicular shaft was next sunk in the lowest part of the floor of the cave, and after four feet of rubbish had been worked through - (for the entrance of the cave sloping inward peculiarly favoured the accumulation of rubbish) - a layer of bones, about half a foot in thickness presented itself, and on further examination this layer was found to cover the whole of the floor of the cave at about the same depth. These bones however were anything but those which the explorers were in search of; they consisted of sheep, ox, rabbit and even goose and chicken bones; their vast quantities were very puzzling, and gave rise to a variety of theories more or less ingenious, which however were a few days after completely dissipated by the information of an old inhabitant of Brixham. He remembered that about fifty years before, a large military encampment had been held on the neighbouring down for the whole of a summer, and the weather being extremely wet, the soldiers had resorted to the Cavern to dress and eat their dinners; which at one accounted for the accumulation of unscientific bones in the place, and showed the value of local information in conducting researches of this nature.

The shaft was subsequently enlarged, and driven about 20 feet deeper, the remains of a human skeleton presented themselves, - the head entire, and apparently belonging to a body of large stature. Immediately under this were found considerable quantities of charcoal and ashes, and half-consumed bones, mixed with broken pottery, which proved the cavern had been a place of sepulchre, and perhaps accounted for the name of Ash-hole - a receptacle for the ashes of the dead. The pottery was Roman, for the most part very coarse, unglazed, and scored on the outside in short parallel lines of about an inch in length, an occasionally perforated around the rim. No single urn was found perfect but specimens of the sherds were preserved along with the bones, etc.

Several human skeletons were subsequently discovered, together with some sling-stones, bits of brass and ivory, and pottery of a rather finer texture; but although another chamber of the cavern was opened out, and the shaft in the floor sunk to a perpendicular depth of seventy feet, nothing else of a remarkable kind was discovered, nor indeed was the original floor of the cavern ever reached; the workings having been carried altogether through rubbish and vast fragments of rock which had fallen into the cave from the sides and mouth of it, and the excavation among the loose stones becoming so dangerous that it was impossible to proceed. There can be little doubt however from the explorations made, that if the whole cave were cleared out, many objects of curiosity would be found, although the expense of such a measure would be considerable. The scientific world is largely indebted to Mr. Lyte for his indefatigable exertions in this interesting cavern, and we hope to see a subscription entered into, at no great distant day, for the purpose of continuing the researches which he has so ably begun". It later states that "Mr Lyte's researches established that it [Ash-hole] was the burying place of the Roman garrison". (Peter Berridge, a former curator of Torquay Museum states: "Lyte wrote to McEnery on the subject but only a copy of the letter survives"). Gregory also says: "Above Ash Hole was a small entrenchment, said to be a camp of the Danes". [Lyte paid tithe on Castle Land according to the Tithe Apportionment. Blewitt, however, considers that "castor" indicates the existence of important and permanent Roman stations. cf. castor nearby on the same document].

Philp's or Brixham Cavern

In January 1858, whilst quarrying in the upper part of Windmill Hill, a crowbar disappeared into a open crevice. The owner found that he was able to descend and retrieve it. He found a vertical chamber communicating with a long narrow tunnel extending south for 50 feet then a second gallery going west. The natural entrance was sealed up by angular limestone fragments cemented by stalagmite - in other words a sealed find.

Between July 1858 and June 1859 the Cavern was explored under the auspices of the Royal and Geological Societies, and under the watchful eyes of the foremost geologists and palaeontologists of the day. Dr. Hugh Falconer laid down the plan of operations and William Pengelly was given the important task of supervising the work.

The smallness of the cave permitted a very exact and sure method of working. Instead of digging trial pits through the stalagmite and cave earth, the contents were moved bodily in sections layer by layer, like sheets of paper in a pad. Fossils and flints were thus revealed in their "proper horizon" and all danger of mingling and confusing objects from different levels was avoided. Four levels were found; man's flint implements lying with the remains of mammoths, rhinoceros and cave lion in the third level.

These, with other evidence from Kent's Cavern and elsewhere in Europe, finally convinced geologists of the antiquity of man and his coexistence with extinct animals. Sceptics, however, continued to question these facts. In 1874 the Torquay Directory contained letters which showed that the authenticity of the finds was still being queried.

Laywell Spring, Higher Brixham

In 1797 Polwhele wrote: "Laywell Spring is intermittent, clear as crystal, very cold in summer, and never freezes in winter". All was well when Blewitt wrote his Panorama of Torquay, describing it as a "celebrated reciprocating spring in Upper Brixham, situated at the foot of a ridge of hills, immediately below the lawn of Laywell House, the residence of Mrs Admiral Pierrepoint. This natural curiosity has been so frequently described, particularly in the Philosophical Transactions, vols. 17 and 36, that it is useless to enter largely on the subject here. The basin is smaller than it is usually represented: there are other springs outside the well which are subject to the same changes as the principal one; of which they are are probably the branches. The well admeasures six feet by four The ebbings and flowings are extremely irregular, and often disappoint the visitor, who frequently exhausts his patience before the spring begins to play. The phenomena are of course explained on the principle of the syphon".

© copyright John Pike

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