When hyena remains were found in a limestone cave on the Doward they attracted the attention of a well-known Victorian geologist – the Reverend William Symonds. Miners looking for iron ore had discovered the bones in King Arthur’s Cave, which soon became known as the Hyena’s Den. In 1871 a local man called Slippery Jem, who lived with his wife in another nearby cavern, helped Symonds locate the Hyena’s Den. Symonds removed huge amounts of debris that had accumulated over thousands of years in the cave. Unlike modern archaeologists, he excavated in a very destructive way, using dynamite to blast layers of concrete-like stalagmite deposits from the cave floor. He discovered bones from lion, horse, giant deer and hyena and, well below the 19th century floor level, the bones of Ice Age animals – woolly rhinoceros, cave bear and mammoth. ‘It was clear from the state of the bones that the cave had been the resort of hyenas, as many of them had evidently been dragged in and gnawed’, wrote Rev. Symonds. He also reported how a local farmer had ‘for some time manured his fields with bones of extinct animals which ages ago ranged over his holding’!
The variety of animal remains found here helps to illustrate how the climate has changed. In the colder periods mammoths and woolly rhinoceros were common; during warmer times hyena and deer thrived. In the last Ice Age when this area was on the edge of the tundra the Hyena’s Den provided shelter for humans too. Bones found during the excavations suggest that some 12,000 years ago they sat around a fire eating red deer. So Slippery Jem, who boasted he had lived in his cave for 30 years (and not washed during that period), was following a long tradition of cave dwellers. Jem and his wife Betsy were probably the last cave dwellers on the Doward. Betsy picked wild strawberries and sold them to tourists at Symonds Yat. Jem made fur slippers from the skin of animals he trapped (hence the name Slipper) to sell as souvenirs.
William Symonds, born in Hereford 1818, was a founder member of the Woolhope Naturalist’s Club. They organised excursions to sites of interest in the Wye Valley and their notes provide a delightful insight into the age of the Victorian enthusiast. This lives on as the Club continues to this day.
How did these caves form?
The limestone cliffs in this area were formed 345 million years ago, when England and Wales were part of a continent called Laurasia. Sitting just north of the equator, this area was covered by a shallow subtropical sea full of life. As creatures died their remains fell to the sea floor and compacted over time to form limestone. The caves here were cut into the rock by a river, flowing along the base of the cliff. Over time water dissolved the limestone to form King Authur’s Cave, Merlin’s Cave and others.