A Day in the Life of a Royston Cave Guide - Part 2
Meet Jane. She joined us as a tour guide in 2019 and has since been an invaluable member of the team, being one of only three guides that provided tours during the pandemic. Jane is a professional and eminent geologist and provides visitors with a unique perspective on the chalk geology of Royston Cave. We caught up with Jane to hear her tales of working at one of Britain’s most unique and mysterious sites.
What made you want to become a tour guide at Royston Cave?
I’ve lived in Royston for over 40 years and had visited Royston Cave several times, usually with groups from one of Royston’s twin towns in France, Germany and Spain. In 2019, I saw that they were advertising for cave guides and immediately knew that it was one for me. I’m semi-retired and was looking for something interesting to do. As a professional geologist, I love all rocks but, as a specialist in groundwater, I have worked on chalk aquifers for many years. Spending time in a chalk cave is a pleasure but the intriguing carvings and peaceful atmosphere make it even better.
What does an average day for a tour guide at Royston Cave look like?
I walk down to the cave to arrive a bit early and open up. I look for any notes from the manager, put the tunnel lights on and make my first journey down to put the main lights on, check the cave and sweep up. We used to sell tickets on the day but in 2021 everyone has a timed slot, pre-booked online. It’s easier for the guides and gives the visitors an extra five minutes to look around. On a normal day we do four tours so it’s sometimes difficult to remember if I’ve left anything out by the last visit of the day.
I greet the visitors by the entrance, explain that the cave is at the crossroads of the Ancient Britons’ Icknield Way and the rather more modern Roman road, Ermine Street, and point out the grille in the pavement. Then everyone has to pay attention to the health and safety briefing: don’t touch anything except the handrails and do take care on the steep access. Once in the cave, the guided tour lasts about half an hour. I explain the features of the cave, how it was discovered and then describe the carvings and who they represent. I’ve now learned the dates for the historical figures and know a lot more about the four saints than before. The visitors are impeccably well behaved, unlike the 18th and 19th century ones who graffitied their initials on the carvings!
What is your favourite thing about working at Royston Cave?
Definitely the visitors. I was tempted to say that just being in the cave is a privilege but it wouldn’t be the same without the visitors. I also occasionally find it a little creepy when I’m down in the cave alone. I enjoy explaining things and the questions and comments are challenging, so I gain a lot of insights from the visitors. The children usually have the best questions, although some of the little ones are a bit intimidated by being in a real cave and the older ones are either horrified by the nasty fate of the martyrs or enjoying the gory details.
Which question do you get asked most frequently by visitors?
When was the cave created and what was it used for? Of course, nobody really knows because there are no records from before its discovery in 1742. So anyone’s guess or theory is as good as mine and the ones in the history books. It’s really a place to let your imagination roam for ideas and that also helps you to pick out the fainter carvings too. I’ve also been asked about the acoustics and if it could be used as a wedding venue!
What is your strangest experience at Royston Cave?
Not really strange but quite funny: a visitor pointed out that the semi-circular carving on the south wall near Jacques de Molay looks like Humpty Dumpty. It does! And now I have to show everyone. It does lighten the atmosphere after hearing about poor Jacques unfortunate end.
What is your favourite memory from working at Royston Cave?
I’ve been lucky enough to guide tours of Royston Cave by candlelight. That makes the cave very atmospheric and the soft candlelight highlights features of the carvings that are less obvious in brighter light. It’s definitely the right lighting for seeing the relief on the figures. But we have about 100 candles so it’s much brighter and nicer than the very little light they would have had in the middle ages.
Which is your favourite carving in Royston Cave?
It’s hard to choose. They’ve become so familiar, like old friends. I do like St Catherine but my real favourite is St George. I think that he looks quite friendly, despite him wearing armour and brandishing an enormous sword! That’s quite a surprising feat as he’s got puny little arms. Like many of the young visitors, I’m a bit disappointed that there’s not an impressive dragon at his feet.
As an hydrogeologist yourself, you were instrumental in orchestrating the project with Hertfordshire Geological Society to study the chalk in Royston Cave in 2021. What was it like to be involved?
The cave provides a unique opportunity to observe the chalk beneath Royston, because there are very few rock outcrops, but I couldn’t find any up-to-date descriptions of the cave’s geology. I knew that the best chalk geologists in the Hertfordshire Geological Society had looked at the tunnel on Baldock Bypass and was delighted that they were as enthusiastic as me about the cave. Even better, we managed to get permission from Historic England to take some miniscule samples from the tunnel for nannofossil dating. It was great to be involved in some real geology and if you’re a geologist, the conclusions are exciting - that the rock is slightly younger than shown on the published maps and has not been moved by glaciers.
You can read the full report here: roystoncave.co.uk/post/geology