People who come to Torbay don’t think of it as somewhere with much history, and it’s true in some respects, but search a bit deeper and you’ll find that the area’s history goes back a long way – about 400 million years in fact – give or take a few million.
Explaining the planet’s history is really best left to the experts, but as one of the geological time periods is named after the county of Devon, I think it’s worth knowing how this occurred and how it all fits into the grand scheme of things.
To put it into some sort of perspective, geologists tell us that the earth was formed some 4,600 million years ago, with the oldest rocks in Britain being about 3,000 million years old (and found in North-Western Scotland). From this we can see that Devon’s beginnings don’t go back quite as far back as they might first appear, so why was the Devonian Period so named?
We only need to go back to the 1830s to find the answer. Up until that point, scientists from the early 18th century onwards were trying to map and categorize different geological time periods, and Roderick Murchison and Adam Sedgwick, two eminent members of the Geographical Society in London, had identified two separate eras which they called the Silurian and Carboniferous Periods.
This neat classification was thrown into some disarray when a colleague, Henry De la Beche, who was categorizing rocks himself in Devon, suggested there was also likely to be an intermediate period: The disagreement between the two parties led to the debate becoming known as the ‘Great Devonian Controversy’.
Paradoxically, it was Murchison who made the discoveries to prove that De la Beche was right all along. This intermediate era was determined to be between 359 and 419 million years ago, and was subsequently called the Devonian Period.
In the chart below, the Devonian Period is half-way down the Paleozoic column coloured brown.
You’ll be pleased to learn that this isn’t a Geology lesson, not only because I don’t know enough about the subject, but also because I write travel blogs not theses.
With that in mind I’m not going into detail about what rocks there are and how they were formed, but instead I’m going to just give a brief explanation of what there is to see around Torbay for the casual observer.
The first thing that you’ll probably notice is how red the soil is. This is all due to the fact that the crust of the earth has been moving around ever since the planet was born, and at the time these sedimentary sandstone rocks were formed (approximately 250-300 million years ago), Torbay was on the same latitude as the Sahara is today.
The other most notable features of Torbay’s geology are the limestone headlands which form the arms of the bay at Berry Head and Hope’s Nose. These are amongst the oldest of the bay’s rocks and were formed around 360 million years ago.
Both Berry Head and Hope’s Nose are worth visiting, even if geology isn’t your thing, but the most interesting place to visit if you are, is undoubtedly Kent’s Cavern.
Kents Cavern is made from the same Devonian rocks as Berry Head and Hopes Nose, and on a tour of the caves you’ll find out how all those millions of years ago, small organisms took calcium carbonate from the sea water to produce hard shells and bones, which over millions of years were compressed into limestone rock.
The formation of the cavern itself began around 2 million years ago when rainwater permeated its way through cracks in the limestone: The cracks grew into fissures and the fissures grew bigger and bigger until they became large enough to provide shelter for animals such as hyenas, lions, wooly rhinos and Mammoths, and before you enter the cave there’s a bear’s skull on display that has been put at around 420,000 years old.
Of course, it wasn’t just animals that lived in the caves, but also humans, and stone axes have been unearthed here that can be traced back half a million years. The history of man is another branch of science that is best left to people who are far better qualified to speak about it than me, but archaeologists found an object in Kents Cavern that was pretty significant – a human jawbone: It has recently been dated between 41,500 and 44,200 years old which makes it the earliest modern human (Homo Sapiens) fossil found in N.W. Europe. It can be seen in Torquay Museum where many other finds from the caves are kept. I’m a bit annoyed with myself here because I took a picture of it and seemed to have lost it: I don’t think I would make a very good archaeologist somehow!
Records show that exploration of the caves go back as far as 1571, and were opened up to the public for the first time back in 1880. These days, they are in the hands of the Powe family, which they have been for five generations, each one of which have been instrumental in exploring and maintaining them ever since.
Apparently, Kents Cavern was originally known as Kant’s Hole, which is derived from an old Celtic word meaning headland, but you might have noticed that I’ve been referring to the attraction as caves, that’s because there’s more than one cavern: Only about a third of the system can be seen by the general public and the tour takes about an hour.
You’re guided through a labyrinth of corridors and caves, which have not only unearthed archeological treasures, but are also a visual treat, with stalactites and stalagmites transforming the rocks into a variety of different colours and shapes, some of which resemble human faces.
In 2007, in recognition of all these features I’ve been talking about, Torbay was granted the status of UNESCO’s first world urban geopark. That may sound pretty impressive, but I don’t think it would be fair to compare Torbay with other more geologically significant parts of the world – having said that, it’s probably more significant than most people ever realised.
ORIGINAL POST – OCTOBER 2019
LATEST UPDATE – DECEMBER 2020