Saturday 5 December 2015

27 Bacon Hole and Minchin Hole

 27. Bacon Hole and Minchin Hole (photo: Red Lady of Paviland) - 5 December 2015

Climate change is nothing new: several millennia ago the area now occupied by the Bristol Channel was a vast plain containing immense herds of game, which explains the variety of animal bones found in the limestone caves of peninsular Gower’s south coast.  The famous Red Lady of Paviland, which is the earliest human skeleton found in the British Isles, dates from that time before the sea swept in.

The entrances to Gower’s many bone caves are 20ft to 30ft above the present sea level at high tide.  Pennard cliffs, which were given to the National Trust in 1954, contain two of particular note that are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest - Bacon Hole and Minchin Hole. 

Bacon Hole is just west of Hunts Bay and east of the National Trust car park, and can be approached from above.  Bones of giant ox, bison, reindeer, wolf and hyena have been found there, and been deposited in Swansea Museum and the National Museum of Wales.  The larger animals would not have got inside the cave, but their carcasses would have been dragged there by wolves and hyena.

In 1912 ten dark red horizontal and parallel bands at about one metre high were discovered on a cave wall and it was hoped this might be an example of early man’s cave drawing, as in the cave art in France and Spain.  Two experts were called in - Abbé Henri Breuil from Paris and William Sollas, Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford.  The markings seemed authentic, and an iron gate was placed just inside Bacon Hole to prevent damage to the markings.  When the two professors had visited, the conditions had been especially dry but over time the markings were seen to change shape, and it seemed that they were caused by the seepage of minerals within rather than by any human activity.  By 1914 much of the gate could be removed.  Such items as an Iron Age bowl and a Dark Age bronze brooch were recovered from Bacon Hole, whose name might be from a large stalactite near the entrance which resembles a flitch of bacon, or perhaps the name was suggested by the red ochre on the walls.  Over 300 pounds of bones have been recovered.

Nearby Minchin Hole (sometimes rendered Mitchin Hole) is Gower’s largest cave, and is best approached going from the car park straight down to Foxhole Bay, with a short scramble eastward over the rocks.  The cave floor of stalagmite and breccia slopes up steeply.  In the 1850s the first excavator was Colonel Edward Wood, who lived at Stouthall from 1842 until his death in 1876, along with the Scottish naturalist and palaeontologist Dr Hugh Falconer.  Subsequently there have been thorough post-war excavations which have yielded immense finds.  Bones of reindeer, wolf, hyena, bison and even lion bones have been found there, along with remains of soft-nosed rhinoceros.  Roman pottery has been recovered, 750 shards of pottery, and coins from Roman times spanning three centuries through to one from the time of Edward III, in over 100 tons of cave deposits that have been examined. 

Minchin Hole may have been occupied during the late third and the early fifth century, during Roman times and the Dark Ages, for traces of hearths indicate human occupation, along with the pottery and various utensils.
During the campaign for female enfranchisement, Miss Emily Phipps, headmistress of Swansea’s Municipal Girls’ School, spent the night of the 1911 census with some female companions in a cave in Pennard.  She reasoned that since women were denied the vote they should not be included in the census return.  We do not know precisely which cave was used, but for ease of access and comparative comfort one hopes that it was Bacon Hole where she stayed until daybreak.

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