KIRKDALE Cave is one of North Yorkshire’s most intriguing assets and although it is very close to Kirkdale Minster near Kirkbymoorside, neither of these ancient showpieces is within the boundaries of the North York Moors National Park.

I find that quite surprising but there must be a reason for these two remarkable omissions.

Access to the cave is through its narrow slit-like entrance in a cliff that overlooks Hodge Beck near the Minster but entry and exploration are not recommended because the interior is cramped, dirty and dangerous. By all means look at the cave’s mouth from a respectful distance but then be content to contemplate the fact that it is an amazing relic of our past.

Consider, for example, the last of our Ice Ages. These were viciously cold periods interspersed with spells of tropical warmth, but each one produced glaciers that sculpted our dales and hills. The most recent began about 70,000 years ago and lasted for about 60,000 years and it is known that at the beginning of that final Ice Age, the North York Moors were home to some surprising animals. The temperature before the ice arrived was sub-tropical and the vegetation more in keeping with a jungle than with our present moorland.

The Kirkdale Cave takes us back to the start of that final Ice Age – and that was about 70,000 years ago. Its treasures were discovered by accident in March 1821 when a workman was quarrying in Kirkdale, obtaining materials for a road building scheme. He uncovered the mouth of a cave several feet above ground level and when he peered inside he found it full of old bones. They meant nothing to him and so he threw them out, with many going into Hodge Beck.

By chance they were noticed by a John Gibson who was on holiday in Helmsley and he appreciated their enormous significance. He alerted John Harrison, a local doctor who in turn informed some local antiquaries and a leading palaeontologist called Dr W Buckland. They lost no time in examining the bones that had survived (many had been utilised as part of the road-building materials) and it was quickly evident they belonged to a period some 70,000 years before Christ was born.

Many had been heavily gnawed which suggested the work of hyenas and this indicated the cave had once been a hyena’s den, probably on the shore of the former Lake Pickering, and that those animals had dragged the remains of their prey into the cave. The lack of a complete skeleton of a hyena was further evidence because hyenas gnawed the bones of their prey but also ate their own dead. In all, Dr Buckland managed to rescue and examine about 300 specimens and his findings were astonishing because the bones had come from animals no longer found in Britain. They included the lion, tiger, hippopotamus, bison, giant deer, straight-tusked elephant and slender-nosed rhinoceros.

That was not the entire list, however, because further expert analysis showed that bones had come from both a cold period and a warm period of ancient history. Among the animals known to have been inside that cave, either as prey of the hyenas or even as residents in less difficult times, were the wolf, fox, brown bear, cave bear, stoat, lion, spotted hyena, mouse, water vole, Abbot’s vole, short-tailed field vole, brown hare, rabbit, slender-nosed rhinoceros, woolly rhinoceros, horse, pig, hippopotamus, reindeer, red deer, giant deer, European bison, wild ox, straight-tusked elephant and mammoth.

When the cave was found in 1821, its entrance was about five feet high by 11 feet wide, but in recent years it has become little more than a narrow slit whose internal passages have become blocked through falls of rock. There is a local theory that a network of underground caves exists in this limestone area but it has never been proved although Hodge Beck does vanish underground from time to time. There are stories of farm vehicles sinking into subterranean passages in this area and an enduring tale about a goose that made its way from the Kirkdale Cave all the way to Kirkbymoorside by travelling the whole two miles underground. It is said it lost all its feathers on the way.

It is not known whether humans ever set foot in this cave or even lived there, perhaps the first being that workman in 1821. His discoveries were distributed among several museums, some of those bones may still be hidden beneath our roads.