Mysterious goings on in Royston
PUBLISHED: 12:01 16 January 2009 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013
If you like a mystery, then Royston won't disappoint! Sue Armstrong delves deeper
On the surface, Royston is a small market town, full of character and history. It lies just south of Cambridge, in the north-east corner of Hertfordshire. But one remarkable feature sets it apart from any other place in Britain, indeed in Europe, and that feature is the Royston Cave.
A visit to the Royston Cave provides a glimpse into the town's mysterious past. Hidden beneath Melbourn Street, with traffic passing overhead, the cave was discovered by accident in 1742 when work was being carried out in a building that housed the butter market. A millstone was found in the ground and when it was removed it exposed a vertical shaft, half filled with earth and debris. When this was cleared a bell shaped cave, 25ft high (7.7m) was revealed, hollowed out of the thick layer of chalk that underlies the town.
The cave is believed to date from the 13th century and is unique in Europe. The wall carvings, still clearly evident, add to its fascination. Some of the drawings are easily recognised as the Crucifixion, St Christopher, St Catherine and St Lawrence, some appear to be medieval and others defy positive identification.
James Robinson, Manager of the Cave, explains, 'There are a number of theories about the origins of the cave - that it was a secret meeting place of the Knights Templar, that it was a prison, a hermitage or a Freemasons' lodge dating back to the reign of James I. The most intriguing thing is that very little can be proven because there are no historical records about it anywhere prior to 1742 when it was discovered - no one knows its true origins. That mystery is part of the cave's beauty and charm.
'The atmosphere in the cave is still and quiet, very calming, and this is one of the few places where ley lines are said to cross - earth energy lines which themselves are also a mystery. A lady came along once and brought a pendulum with her, saying she wanted to find the point where the ley lines cross. When she reached one particular point the pendulum started moving, apparently on its own. Not entirely convinced, I took my own pendulum down there soon after and it moved! Several friends have tried this since, for some it has worked for others it hasn't.
'Last year there were over 2,000 visitors to the cave. People come from all over the country and worldwide, including academics, history societies, school groups, Freemasons and film crews. When The Da Vinci Code was first published, the theories about the cave's links to the Knights Templar brought a flurry of interest.
'I've been involved with the cave as a volunteer for over six years, helping out with the accounts, as a guide and now as cave manager. It's a unique job and I thoroughly enjoy it.'
Royston's narrow streets and passages brim with interesting shops and the town takes on a lively atmosphere when the market comes to town on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with an array of 50 stalls offering a variety of local produce, plants, clothes, bric-a-brac and much more.
At every turn historic buildings lie in wait to delight visitors and a good starting point is Kneesworth Street where many of the properties date back to the reign of King James I, 1603-1627. The two large chimneys projecting into the footpath mark the centre of the Old Palace, the King's hunting lodge.
The Royston and District Museum is just across the road, in Lower King Street. Here a fascinating collection of historical artefacts, paintings and photographs give visitors a true insight into the local area. The Royston Tapestry, an ongoing project, is kept at the museum and its intricately embroidered scenes illustrate notable events that have taken place in the town over the centuries.
After visiting the museum, take the opportunity to see the glacial Royston Stone. Weighing two tonnes it was pushed south during the Ice Age. It formed the base of the wayside cross set up here by Lady Roysia, soon after 1066. It can be found at the north end of the High Street, adjacent to the meeting point of the Roman roads, Icknield Way and Ermine Street.
A bite to eat and somewhere to stay
You'll be spoilt for choice for places to eat, whether it's fish and chips from the shop in Kneesworth Street, once part of the King's kitchen, a pizza at neighbouring Palazzo's, housed in the old servants' quarters, or a drink and a snack at one of the many attractive inns around the town.
For fine dining, the Banyers Hotel, in Melbourn Street, has recently been refurbished and its owners have set out to create something special for its visitors. Lunch or dinner can be enjoyed in the elegant Beldam Restaurant or in the Church View Bar. And if you're thinking of extending your visit, the hotel has 14 ensuite rooms available for a very comfortable overnight stay.
A little further afield
Just three miles away is the picturesque village of Reed with a population of around 300 people.
The village is best explored on foot and the houses are scattered along winding lanes with traces of a number of moats, some now little more than ponds, which in years gone by surrounded properties to provide security. You will come across the traditional red brick village school, the Reed First School, for children aged 3-9 years, and the village hall - a hub of community life.
Do take a look at the tiny village church, which stands apart in fields. Its sturdy 14th century door forms an impressive entrance and the nave dates back to Saxon times.
You may want to round off your visit my calling into the delightful 16th century gastro pub, The Cabinet,
noted for its excellent food.