You should be standing on the Manifold Way, in front of Thor’s Cave. Above you, the cave entrance is visible from its commanding location around 80 metres above the valley floor. The cave is a natural cavern formed from the dissolution of the soluble limestone that makes up the White Peak. The cave is a popular attraction and was served by a station on the Leek Manifold Light Railway between 1904 and 1934. The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery’s Local History collection includes postcards of the cave from 1910 to 1920.
The name of the cave is somewhat of an enigma. Although it evokes links with the Norse god Thor or his Anglo-Saxon equivalent, Thunor, there is no evidence to support this etymology. Nevertheless, the cave was in use in Anglo-Saxon times with Early Medieval artefacts uncovered there. The origin of the name possibly lies in the word ‘tor’ from the Old Welsh word for a high rock or tower (ultimately from the Latin turris).
Other ideas link the cave to local folklore and tales of sprites and fairies. The ‘Fiddling Hobthurse of Thor’s Cave’ is said to be ‘more than a harmless sprite’ whose fiddling or screeching filled the cavern.
The site was excavated in 1864-65 and then again by GH Wilson between 1927 and 1935. Finds of a wide range of dates were uncovered from the Palaeolithic to the Anglo-Saxon period. This also included the burials of at least six individuals. During the Upper Palaeolithic (38,000-11,500 years ago), Britain was linked to mainland Europe by the area now known as Doggerland. Britain was populated intermittently due to periods of glaciation and warming and bands of hunter-gatherers usually left only ephemeral traces in the archaeological record. The main exceptions are the flint tools and polished stone axes such as those found at Thor’s Cave.
The evidence from the cave suggests that it was in use well into the Iron Age and Roman periods. This bone comb possibly dates to the Iron Age, though the ring-and-dot decoration is a style that endured from the Iron Age into the Anglo-Saxon and Post-Medieval periods. The end of the comb is missing and has been replaced by a wooden facsimile. The fork-like comb is similar to other examples found carved from the longbones of horses and other animals. It is probably a weaving comb used with a vertical loom. The comb would be used to move the weft (lengthwise) threads into place. Other evidence of cloth making from the caves has been uncovered in the form of spindle whorls, small weights used to assist in spinning yarn from fibres.
Other artefacts thought to be Iron Age include these pieces of worked antler. Some of the pieces have incised decoration and are probably components of a horse harness. Similar antler pieces from bridle fittings have been found both in Britain and elsewhere dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages.
In more recent times, the cave has provided inspiration for pop culture. It was used by The Verve as the location for their single ‘Blue’ in 1993 and serves as the cover art for their first album ‘A Storm in Heaven’. It was also used as a location in the Ken Russell 1988 film, ‘The Lair of the White Worm’, staring Hugh Grant. The cave serves as the fictional Stonerich Cavern, in which local legend the d’Ampton worm is said to have been slain.
You can read more about Thor’s Cave on the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery’s Collections Online here: