Paviland Cave on the Gower peninsula of south Wales was the site for one of the oldest ceremonial burials in Western Europe, the misnamed Red Lady of Paviland. Tides make this cave rather difficult to access, and on a recent visit I couldn’t find many online details about accessing the cave by foot. I found two ways to reach the cave, one a short but rather dangerous scramble.
Paviland cave, more properly known as ‘Goat’s Hole’, is set about 10 metres above high tide level on a small promontory that rises from the sea at an angle of about about 30°. From the base of the promontory, it is a trivial scramble up to the cave, but above the cave is a sheer cliff, perhaps 50m high. In other words, you must access the cave round the base: the cave cannot be reached from above (apart from by abseiling). Access from the west is blocked by an impassible slope of about 60° that would be foolish to cross without ropes (see photo below). Access to the base of the promontory is thus easiest from the narrow cove that slopes into the sea on the east side of the cave.
From this eastern edge, you have two options. The normal method, and by far the easiest, is only feasible at (very) low tide. Make your way down over the jagged rocks to the shore (it’s arduous, but we managed with an athletic 4 year old in tow). Then it is possible to cross a small inlet to the base of the promontory (difficult for children, unless they are carried: instead we left them playing on the shore with an adult). I just managed to cross the inlet keeping my feet dry, occasionally hauling myself onto the facing wall to avoid big waves. Others in my party chose instead to wade across. We attempted it at low tide on 29th July 2015 at 11.20, between spring and neap tides, and the inlet was about thigh deep (see picture below). It should be easier at a low spring tide.
Contrary to what you may read online, there is a way to access the cave at high tide. It is, however, extremely exposed, and I would only recommend it to those with both nerve and climbing experience. I would rate it perhaps a Grade III scramble. It requires traversing a short rock slope of perhaps 70° in angle, situated above a sheep sided gully of perhaps 10 metres in depth. There are good footholds for most of the traverse, but large footholds are lacking over a 2 metre stretch. However, the rock grips very well, and technically it is more straightforward than it looks. Nevertheless, if you slip at this point, you will certainly be seriously injured or worse (at low tide) or drop into a vicious-looking sea channel (at high tide), presumably to be smashed into the surrounding jagged rocks. I would not have countenanced taking the 3 other adults in my party to the cave via this route. Do not attempt it unless you are a competent climber: I am not responsible for your safety!
Both low and high tide routes start from the same access point. Where the public footpath from Pilton Green meets the coast path, a narrow footpath leads down the limestone gully on the west side of a dry stone wall. About half way down, just before the gully steepens, there is a stile over the wall.
- To get down to the cove (low tide route), cross the stile and work your way down the gully, then over the jagged eroded and ankle-turning shore rocks, and cross the small inlet onto the base of the promontory.
- Alternatively, to access the high-tide scramble, take the path from the west of the stile that traverses in a curve over steep ground. This path leads to a wide and high ledge, from where the start of the traverse can be found.
Here’s a rough picture
The view from east side, looking northwestwards, gives the general idea (I haven’t marked the location of the geocache…)
I won’t say much about the cave or the history of excavations itself, since this information is available elsewhere online. What I will say is that I’m really pleased to have got there. Not only is the cave extremely evocative, but I happen to have 3 separate links to the ‘Red Lady’. Firstly, I used to work at the Museum of Natural History, Oxford, where the skeleton now resides. Secondly, when filming a Bang Goes the Theory web piece about radiocarbon dating, I managed to chat for a while to Tom Higham, whose spectacular single molecule radiocarbon techniques managed to redate the skeleton to 33,000 years ago (his impressive accelerator machine is shown at the end of my web film). And thirdly, I recorded an audio clip from Alice Roberts about the Paviland discovery for the Museum of Natural History (our party listened to a rough cut version before our little trip to the cave).