Stalactites and stalagmites in the caves
Kents Cavern caves
The Palaeolithic caves at Kents Cavern sheltered prehistoric animals and contain evidence of the oldest human home in Britain. This part of the route is optional - but well worth the visit. There is a charge to visit the caves.
Kents Cavern is one of the most important Palaeolithic cave systems in Europe. It's a scheduled ancient monument and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
And here's why. The Devonian limestone which forms the walls of the caves started its life around 370 million years ago, when Torbay was under the sea, some 3,500 miles away and south of the Equator.
The caves themselves were probably initially formed 2.5 million years ago - and they're still changing to this day. Because of the way the caves developed, they trapped and preserved some of the most historic remains of man and beast ever found in Europe.
The cave formation process began when cavities were formed in the limestone rock. Rainwater then seeped in through cracks, which grew bigger and bigger as the acid water etched the rock away.
Spaces in the rock below ground filled with water, which surged at high speed to form the passages.
Water gushed into the caves through phreatic tubes
Over time, air spaces formed - but water continued to get in, making the caves bigger. However, mud and stone started to make its way through the bigger cracks.
A pattern of erosion and filling up developed, with incoming rubble sealing in sections of the cave - which is how many of the remains of ancient human beings and animals were buried and preserved.
The amazing stalactites and stalagmites are formed by drops of water seeping in. The carbon dioxide from the water is released into the cave atmosphere, leaving a tiny ring of calcite around the water drop.
Eventually, with every drop of water, the calcite deposit grows. But don't hold your breath - the stalactites hanging down from the ceiling and the stalagmites reaching up from the ground grow at a rate of 1cm every 500 years!
But it's quite fun to measure backward in time, to see how big the structures were when, say the Romans were here, and before that, ancient man.
Because the water is still dripping in (a hat would come in handy in some parts of the caves!), the process is still happening. Eventually, the stacks will meet up to form columns.
At the moment, we're in an interglacial period. When we have another ice age, the stalagmites and stalactites will entomb the evidence of our time here - but that's a long way off yet!
Disabled facilities are available on site. The caves are open to hand-pushed wheelchairs no more than 70cm wide. However the person pushing the chair must be physically strong. Special arrangements have to be made so please make the ticket staff aware when you arrive.
There is an entrance fee to view the caves at Kents Cavern.
Read on for more about Kents Cavern...
last updated: 03/04/2008 at 14:13
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