A Day in the Life of a Royston Cave Guide
Meet Luke. He’s our current longest serving Cave Guide having presented tours at Royston Cave for sixteen years. Luke has worked alongside three managers, welcomed thousands of visitors and shared many unique experiences. We caught up with Luke to hear his tales of working at one of Britain’s most unique and mysterious sites.
What made you want to become a guide at Royston Cave?
I have been interested in history and archaeology from a young age. Visiting an historic site was a common family day out when I was growing up so I've been lucky enough to visit lots of interesting places in the UK and abroad. As I approached leaving school, I started to think about the types of career that might interest me and something in the heritage field was an obvious choice.
Living in Royston, I had visited Royston Cave a few times while at school and had always found it interesting. It was by chance that a family member spotted an advert for tour guides in the local paper by the then keeper of the cave, Peter Houldcroft. I called Peter the next day and met with him in the cave shortly afterwards so he could show me the ropes. Little did I know that that tour he gave me was the entirety of my training and I presented my first solo tour the following Saturday!
What does an average day for a Cave Guide look like?
In terms of providing tours, most days are fairly similar in format. I arrive around 30 minutes before the start of the first tour to unlock, turn on the lights, hang the signage, sweep up any debris that has fallen into the cave through the grille in the pavement above and carry out health and safety checks. I then begin selling tickets to visitors.
Before each tour I start with a health and safety notice and a brief overview of the situation of the cave within the town so that it is easier for visitors to orientate themselves. I then lead the group down in to the cave and collect their tickets.
Each guide at Royston Cave likes to present their tours slightly differently. Personally, I like to start with a brief introduction of myself followed by the conservation issues affecting the cave, an overview of the two leading theories regarding the caves origins and, the main event, an anti-clockwise tour of the most prominent carvings. It is at this point where tours can deviate in focus and length, meaning no two are identical. Visitor questions can lead tours off on tangents or delve into certain parts of the history more deeply than it might otherwise. Children, for example, are often interested by the presence of chalk-eating worms or the replica skull, while others might have a special interest in the specific story behind a saint or figure depicted in the carvings.
My tours normally last around 30 minutes. At the end there is opportunity for visitors to ask additional questions and have a closer look at the carvings. Finally, I lead the group back to the entrance and repeat the process for the 3 remaining tours that day.
What is your favourite thing about working at Royston Cave?
Having been a guide for sixteen years, I have been lucky enough to share the cave with thousands of visitors from countries all around the world, as well as many from Royston who have lived here all their lives and only just got around to visiting. (It’s more common than you might think!)
I’ve given tours to professors of medieval history, students, military personnel, ghost hunters, Pagans, Freemasons, children and people simply passing by on their way back from the shops, each with a different focus of their interest. One of the beauties of Royston Cave is that you don’t need a PhD or any particular specialist knowledge to appreciate its carvings.
As an enigma, very little is known about the meaning of the carvings, or even what they depict, so everything is open to interpretation, including the use of the cave itself. This allows each visitor to explore, discuss and view the cave in their own way.
The best part about working at Royston Cave, therefore, is meeting the visitors, hearing their theories and answering questions that may arise. More than once has a visitor put forward a theory about an individual carving or feature which I have then gone away to research and included in subsequent tours. I do also, of course, hear my fair share of slightly less credible theories such as the cave being used as a gambling den or brothel! But then again, as an enigma, these are hard to discredit.
Thought to lie on a node of the Michael and Mary Ley lines, the cave is also popular for special interest groups. These groups often arrange private tours and have a specific aspect of the cave they would like to focus on. Such groups have included spiritualists undertaking a séance, dowsers, healers, Pagan groups, conservators and archaeologists.
Which is your favourite carving in Royston Cave?
I don't think I have a favourite carving because they all tell an interesting story. If I absolutely had to choose, I would probably say the Pagan symbols for fertility (Horse, Sword and Sheela-na-gig). They are large and prominent and very nicely carved. They are also some of the only non-Christian carvings in the cave, which is probably significant to their meaning.
Second would be that of Richard I and his wife Berengaria, for the story it tells and the links to the history of Royston. Third would be St. Catherine, for the intricacy of her crown.
Horse, Sheela-na-gig and Sword © Royston Cave.
Which question do you get asked most frequently by visitors?
The most common question I get asked is also the one I like to be asked least; when do I believe the cave originated? The very nature of Royston Cave, and the changes it has undergone over time, make this almost impossible to answer. I normally play it safe and offer a period between 1300 - 1742, almost never to the satisfaction of the asker! Other popular questions include: what are the little black and white markers on the walls?; were the carvings coloured?; do we know what the lost carvings showed?; and does the cave flood?
What is your strangest Royston Cave experience?
I have had a few strange experiences. One that particularly sticks in my mind was a ghost hunting group that visited for a private tour one cold winter's evening. As the guide, I gave a short tour and was then required to stay in the cave with them while they tried to contact the spirits. I can't give too much away but they did apparently make contact and were able to communicate with something. It was very interesting to see although it did make locking up on my own in the dark at the end of the evening a little scary!
I have also seen many people have religious and spiritual experiences in the cave, often in the form of a vision. There’s been a fair few who have fallen ill in the cave too, although that’s not a reflection on my tour giving (I hope)!
What is your favourite memory from Royston Cave?
One of my fondest memories is of a small group whose train had been delayed. They arrived at the cave at about 4.45 pm on a Sunday which, in those days, was well after the last tour had started. Luckily, that day had been fairly quiet and so there hadn’t actually been a final tour. I was in the process of locking up when they arrived but, rather than turn them away, I decided I would give them a tour. I'm pleased I did because they turned out to be students of medieval Christianity and we ended up discussing the cave and it's carvings for well over an hour. They provided me with a few useful pointers that I was able to go away and research for inclusion in future tours.
In 2014, I proposed to my now wife in Royston Cave which is, of course, my favourite memory.
How has Royston Cave changed since you started working here?
Luckily, the carvings haven't changed significantly in the time I have been a guide, even with all the conservation issues affecting Royston Cave.
However, there have been numerous changes to its management and operation. These include the guides now being responsible for selling tickets at the entrance, a revamp of the audio tour, production of a DVD and, more recently, the 3D digital replica of the cave.
There have also been changes in the leading theories around the history of the cave. When I became a guide, the theory of the cave as a Templar meeting place was entrenched. Since then though, the theory of the cave as an early Masonic lodge has gained prominence and now, from feedback on tours, seems to be the generally preferred theory. This has allowed other less well known theories to come to the fore as well, such as the cave being a wayside hermitage.