Royston Cave's History as a Visitor Attraction
Royston Cave has been welcoming visitors since its discovery in 1742. Original visitor entry was only available upon request and via a rope down a narrow, vertical shaft on the northern side of the cave.
It wasn’t until the current visitor entrance was dug in 1790 that formal, paid visits were introduced. The current entrance penetrates the base of the eastern wall, the only part of the cave not covered with carvings. It is reached via a gradually descending tunnel cut through the chalk, which passes from the Town House on the opposite side of the road, under the ancient Icknield Way (now Melbourn Street), to the cave below. The 22 m (72 ft) long tunnel was dug by local builder Thomas Watson, the then occupier of the Town House, as a means to employ his workmen during a hard winter. Niches in the tunnel wall, built to hold candles, can still be seen.
Mr Watson effectively took private ownership of the cave and, with an eye for business, started charging visitors sixpence for entry. Watson advertised Royston Cave as ‘the greatest curiosity of the kind in Europe’, issuing the following announcement in 1794:
‘ROYSTON CAVE OPENED.
T. Watson respectfully informs the public in general and the antiquarians in particular, that he has opened (for their inspection) a very commodious entrance into that ancient Subterraneous cavern in Royston, Herts. which has ever been esteemed by all lovers of antiquity as the greatest curiosity of the kind in Europe. T. Watson hopes that all those who may think proper to visit the above Cave will have their curiosity gratified to the full extent. The passage leading to it is itself extremely curious, being hewn out of the solid rock. N.B. - It may be seen any hour of the day.’
Watson and his wife were known to talk at length to visitors about the cave and its carvings, often mixing up legends of the saints and figures depicted.
Easier access and improved advertisement increased footfall, bringing numerous and distinguished visitors. Among them was King Louis XVIII of France, who visited while in exile in England (1808-14). During this period, he occupied Goss Hall, near Braintree, Essex, and is thought to have visited to pay homage to his ancestor, King Louis VII, who William Stukeley suggested was carved in the cave.
In subsequent years, the various tenants of the Town House continued to act as curator and guide to visitors, often fitting stories of the cave’s history to suit their own narrative. It is not possible to determine exactly how often the cave was open to the public at this point - whether it was on a daily, weekly or monthly basis is unknown - but by 1825, the number of visitors warranted the cost of producing a visitor booklet, published by J. Warren of Royston.
By the 1880s, Watson’s Town House had become a shoe shop. Its owner, George Pool, took visitors down to the cave for a shilling and entertained them with his own version of history. After his death, his family continued to guide tours until the 1950s. His daughter-in-law, Lilian Pool, was the last private key holder of Royston Cave.
By the 1960s, the cave belonged to George Bedwell of Old North Road, Royston. On 19 October 1964, it was leased for one shilling a year by Royston Urban District Council, who installed railings and electric lighting. The lease stated as follows:
‘ The Landlord demises unto the Council insofar as lies within his power to do so ALL THAT excavation situated beneath Melbourn Street, Royston in the Co. of Hertford and known as the ‘The Cave’ and the passage or tunnel connecting the same with the premises known as No. 8 Melbourn Street Royston aforesaid…
…TO HOLD the same unto the Council from the nineteenth day of October One thousand nine hundred and sixty-four for the term of ninety-nine years Paying Therefore the net yearly rent of One shilling..’
In 1969, management of Royston Cave was instructed to Royston and District Local History Society who oversaw its operation and provision of guides during the summer months. In 1974, Royston Town Council was formed as the successor to Royston Urban District Council and, in 1998, Royston Town Council bought Royston Cave outright. Royston and District Local History Society continued to manage the cave on the Council’s behalf and introduced the current timed tours.
Interest in Royston Cave began to increase more rapidly following the cave’s association with the Knights Templar. The Templar theory gained prominence in 1992 with the release of ‘Royston Cave: Used by Saints or Sinners?’, written by local historian Sylvia Beamon. Sylvia’s work has been extremely influential on Royston Cave’s contemporary narrative. Visitor numbers increased further still following the publication of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel 'The Da Vinci Code' in 2003, with subsequent conspiracy theories shifting interest in Royston Cave toward its supposed links to the Holy Grail; a theory encouraged by Peter Houldcroft, ex-manager of Royston Cave (1990-2008), who believed 'The secret of the Holy Grail can be found in Royston Cave'.
In 2018, management of Royston Cave reverted from Royston and District Local History Society to Royston Town Council. Despite its limited open season, Royston Cave receives an average annual footfall of 3000 visitors, with numbers expected to steadily increase.
Like all visitor attractions and heritage sites, Royston Cave has had to adapt. Today, unlike the 18th century, online platforms generate most of our visitor engagement and we'll continue to work hard to provide improved online resources to accommodate this. Our future will be focused on preserving the fabric of Royston Cave, while providing sufficient infracture to support a projected increase in visitor numbers. We must continue to diversify and introduce initiatives that are informed by contemporary practices and trends, to meet the needs of a modern society. We must maintain a commitment to education, inclusivity and accessibility for all.
Beamon, S. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.
Kingston, A. (1906). A History of Royston. Royston: Warren Bros.
Beldam, J. (1898). The Origin and Use of The Royston Cave. Fourth Edition. Royston: Warren Bros.