The only thing Google came up with when I did a quick search of tourist attractions around Buntingford was Royston Cave. ‘Not interested’, I thought, and resigned myself to three weeks of reading books, sorting out Tokyo photos and playing catch up with blog writing. But after a week of damp, mist, and leaden skies I was going a little stir-crazy and suddenly a visit to a hole twenty-six feet under Royston High Street gained in appeal.
Instructions for ticket-buying were specific. The window of opportunity was small: 13.30-13.55. We waited outside the entrance. There was no one else. I was convinced there would be no one else. It was Grand National day, and sunny for the first time in two weeks. But then an old lady appeared. She’d lived in Royston for eight years, she told me, but she’d never been in the cave. Nor was she about to start today. ‘All those steps’, she shuddered, ‘I have trouble with my knees’. She was buying a ticket on the last tour of the day for her son. ‘He likes this sort of thing’, and she shook her head sadly, seemingly wondering where she’d gone wrong. By now there were more people waiting; but there was still no sign of a ticket-seller. ‘People come from all over the world’, the old lady told me,’and it’s been on the telly. You know, on that antique programme – with the man in the tight trousers’ – I did know, but had never noticed his trousers. ‘Especially from Australia – there’s often a queue…’ Well, blow me down, I thought. I guess it was a good job we’d decided to visit – now if only we could get a ticket.
An old man, leaning on a stick, made his way through the crowd. ‘Good afternoon everyone’. His movements were unhurried, determined, forceful in a timid kind of way. He un-padlocked the door and fixed the iron bar into an upright position, but the entrance was just as swiftly re-blocked by a wooden strip. ‘No entrance’, it proclaimed, for good measure. More wooden boards appeared, announcing the time of the tour, and indicating the direction of the queue. (To the right of the door for tickets, to the left for those with tickets). And then he turned to us. Now surely was the moment. ‘I have about ten minutes of health-and-safety checks to get through’, he said, ‘please bear with me’, and he turned his back and was gone.
Finally he sold tickets, we all queued correctly, shuffling from one side of the door to the other, and with him leading the way, and pointing out where we should mind our heads, we followed a short tunnel to the cave. It was like stepping in the Tardis and travelling back to the thirteenth century.
The cave was shaped like a bee hive; small and circular and covered with carving – which was overlaid with eighteenth-century graffiti. Whose hand made these carvings? Gangly naïve figures, some with crowns upon, or floating above their heads, palms engraved with hearts, a horse. I was filled with wonder. For me there was no bad feeling about this place. It felt safe, secure, secret, but sweet. There were lots of Christian references, St Catherine, St Christopher, crucifixes, and Christ himself. None of which meant anything to me. There were also medieval carvings, pagan images, a mysterious mixture of – what? No one knows what the cave is, or why it’s there. The imagination runs riot. Suggestions are many – a freemason lodge, a Hermitage, a healing sanctuary resting on ley lines, a portal to another world, a Knights Templar temple?
For me, none of this mattered too much. It’s all head-work. I was moved because so long ago, somebody (or bodies) made these carvings to express themselves, because they believed in something, because it meant something to them. And so it meant something to me.
Royston Cave. A mysterious place. A place to touch the heart.
Once, in Myanmar, a man (who was trying to sell us something) told us: ‘If you don’t go, you won’t know’. I’ve never forgotten it. It’s become a kind of mantra for us on our travels. Engage, listen, be open, make your own mind up. I had no expectations of Royston Cave, and almost didn’t go, but it turns out, it really was a special place.
Royston Cave is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from April until September. In August also on Wednesday afternoons. Visit by tour only. Tour times – 14.00, 14.40, 15.20 and 16.00. Private visits can be arranged. Tel: 01763 245 484. Tickets sold only at the entrance to the cave on open days – from 13.30-13.55 and at tour times. See http://www.roystoncave.co.uk