A crazy thing happened at Creswell Crags

Yesterday, the first Sunday of half term I wanted to do something countryside-y, spurred on by PM’s reporting of autumnal colours and conscious that the trees outside my house had lately been hugely denuded by frost. There can’t be many days of leaf left in 2012.

I decided on Creswell Crags, a prehistoric site on the Notts/Derbyshire border, that I have been meaning to visit since first becoming aware of it, probably by reading about it on Liberal England.

And so we set off. Google Maps told me there were just three different roads between here and there, as I live off the A60 and the site is off the A60 north of Mansfield. The Mansfield bit was a little more complicated than that, but we arrived in good time.

I had prepared the change I would need for the car parking machine. Two pound coins. Once there, the machine ate one of them and refused to return it whilst refusing to recognise the second as a valid coin. When I went inside to ask the ladies at the reception desk in the very swanky new visitor centre, they told me not to worry, said there’d be no clamping today… and asked me if I spoke German.

What a strange, random question in the middle of North Notts. I admitted I did, and that I was actually a German teacher.

And they pointed in the direction of an elderly-looking lady with an awful lot of baggage, and told me she appeared unwell and they weren’t at all sure what to do with her.

I went over to talk to her. At first her speech was mostly English and peppered with the odd German word, but when I persisted with questions in German she switched to German. I didn’t understand all she said. I knew I recognised most of the words but the speed she spoke at and no repetition, I didn’t always have time to understand the meaning before she moved on.

The staff had been concerned because she didn’t appear to have a car, and Creswell Crags is remote, all the more so on a Sunday when the Robin Hood line doesn’t run and the local station is closed.

They were concerned most particularly with what the lady planned to do this evening. How was she going to get away from Creswell and where was she going to sleep? How could she possibly get away? Did she need someone to phone her a taxi?

I pointed out to here there were only two hours before the visitor centre closed and she had to start to make plans. She said she didn’t want to be bothered, she was always surrounded by people making a fuss, she would be fine so long as she could take her heart pills. Yesterday people had phoned the police about her and that was really not necessary, she would be fine. And was there anything she could do at Creswell for free?

So I found out, and told her (a temporary exhibition of a fossilized mammoth tusk on loan from the British Library, a walk around the lake.) And there’s a challenge to my German. I don’t have the words for hyena or mammoth at the front of my mind.

We found out for ourselves when the next cave tour was and went to have a posh cake while we waited. When we came back to buy our tickets and meet our guide, it turned out our cave party was to be us, our guide, and our new German friend.

It seemed during the tour that her understanding of the English guide was pretty good, helped no doubt by a German-language information sheet they had been able to find at the visitor desk.

And the tour was fascinating. Turns out this part of Notts was the most northerly part of Europe which didn’t completely freeze during the summers of the last ice age. Everywhere north of here was under up to a mile of ice and completely frozen. But balmy melted Creswell still had a summer in which vegetation grew, so herbivore animals migrated here, followed closely by hyenas and carnivores, and prehistoric man, who chased and killed the mammoths with flint axes, spears and by basically chasing the mammoths of the edge of a cliff until they splashed in the valley below.

They lived in the mouths of the caves, had fires on the outside, but not inside because the smoke would have been too much, and survived barely into their thirties because of the toll the nomadic lifestyle of chasing mammoths across Europe took on their bodies.

The tour took us into the shallow limestone caves, lit only by torches on our helmets, and the guide got a fascinating hour of information across out of essentially an empty cave and a few props. It was quite expensive, I think, but actually worth the money. And don’t mention the Giant Cave Spiders.

It would have been nice to see the cave with the prehistoric art in, the only discovered in England, and that only in 2003. But at this time of year that particular cave is out of bounds as it is filled with hibernating bats.

During this time, the German lady was mostly listening, occasionally asking questions that showed she wasn’t quite understanding everything but getting some times, and I would occasionally interject in German when I could and when it was necessary for safety, ie, don’t stand up until you get so far because the roof is low.

She was occasionally chuntering things in German I half understood, and asking some slightly odd questions. Do berries grow here? Are there witches and voodoo? Do you know the myth of Prometheus and the stealing of fire from the gods? When do you think that was? Was Prometheus here amongst the cave men? (…!)

As we walked back from the cave her chuntering became almost continuous and I started to piece together what had happened to her in the last few days. She had tried to stay at Edwinstowe youth hostel, but couldn’t as the place was booked out by a family all weekend. She’d caught a Stagecoach bus to Creswell and had tried to leave her bags in a pub whilst she wandered around the area on foot, but the pub had not let her. She’d wound up at the visitor centre after that. She was looking for a campsite (but had no tent) or a bunkhouse (as today was warmer than yesterday) but could not afford a hotel or B&B.

Once we got back to the visitor centre it was clear that the staff by now were very anxious about what to do with her. They were ten minutes from closing and she did not have a plan about what to do next. We tried to talk her through her options, and eventually I offered to give her a lift, either to Nottingham or Mansfield, which we had to drive through on the way home.

She was adamant she did not want to return to Nottingham. She had been there before and couldn’t find a bed. She’d visited the backpacker hostel but refused to say there as they didn’t have separate men and women dorms. We wondered whether we could get her to stay at the Gresham, a dismal hotel by the railway station, but one with rooms at a backpacker’s budget – at least I seemed to recall from signage outside. I tried to explain that if she wanted to make onward rail journeys, she would probably have to change in Nottingham anyway as most trains from Mansfield would go there.

But no, she didn’t want to go to Nottingham.

On the car journey away from Creswell she recommenced her talking in German. By now I was driving so my concentration was divided, and her speed and diction were not helpful. But I gleaned some facts of her life. She lived in Germany (but refused to be specific about where). She had been given notice to quit her house and had to find somewhere new from next January. She had come up with the idea of moving to the UK, because all the British people she had ever met in Germany were nice. She had been over here sort of backpacking (but not really with backpackable luggage, we could barely fit it in the car) for several months. She’d been in the Lake District, Norfolk and Lincolnshire and somehow wound up on the coalface in Nottinghamshire. She didn’t seem to have any firm plans for returning to Germany and had no idea where she would sleep. She did have a budget and was reluctant to go over it on any given day, hence refusing offers of hotels and B&Bs. It seems she had spent a lot of her budget for that day on a £6.50 cave tour. Her English was adequate but not great, and it transpired she’d learned it recently at night school as her own school days did not include languages.

Ultimately, we left her at Mansfield bus station, after her repeated insistence that she did not want to go back to Nottingham.

I’m not at all sure that what we did was in general a Good Thing. We did at least take from isolated, cold, woodland location and drop her in a town, but we didn’t really give her the help she needs. Then again she said she’d had previous contact with the police and that hadn’t made any lasting difference. Would help from the German embassy have been a good idea? Ultimately is she in charge of her life, even if she wants to wander alone, aimlessly, with no fixed plans for the evening, alarming she comes into contact with?

One of the questions from the staff at Creswell was, with the ellipsis very much in place, “Is she… alright?” And I don’t know. She didn’t know where she was (although we could fix that when she got out her map, and oriented her with respect to Buxton and Mansfield). She had no plans for the evening and no apparent understanding of the need to make them. She seemed lucid and able to speak, but then again she talked at me in German for about an hour without really wanting to make conversation, and simply refused to answer some of my questions, like where are you from? Do you have a ticket to return to German? Even what is your name…?

And I don’t suppose we will ever hear how this story ends, which is a little unsatisfactory. I hope she does end up all right.