Brian Chambers 1939 – 2019: 

Brian Chambers (Right) and Paul Bahn (Left)

Paul Bahn & Brian Chambers (right) celebrating 15 years since the discovery of Cave Art at Creswell Crags

Those of you who have been following the development of Creswell Crags over the years are likely to be familiar with the name Brian Chambers. Some have referred to him as ‘Mr Creswell Crags’. It is with sadness that we report his death and would like to take this opportunity to reflect upon his life, impact and dedication.

Brian worked for Creswell Heritage Trust for 25 years following a career in mining. He started with the Trust as a volunteer but his enthusiasm soon led to him securing a paid position. During this period he was a key part of the team which created the foundations of the organisation you know today.

Brian was instrumental in one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the UK. The excerpt below is taken from the book Britain’s Oldest Art by Paul Bahn and Paul Pettitt and refers to the discovery of the Cave Art at Creswell Crags.

We were about to leave for the Gower Peninsular, thinking that we had done all we could at Creswell Crags, when Brian Chambers, who was then Creswell Head Ranger, urged us to take a look in Church Hole, on the Nottinghamshire side of the valley. Although this cave was north facing and therefore, in our estimation, less likely to contain art, it had at least contained evidence of Late Upper Palaeolithic occupation. And so, just to please Brian – our second piece of luck – we decided to have a quick look at this unpromising site.

Paul Bahn & Paul Pettitt, Britain’s Oldest Art, English Heritage Publications, 2009, p.5

Since hearing of the sad news of Brian’s passing, Paul Bahn has reflected on this important moment in his professional life and has sent us the following tribute:

Not only was Brian one of the nicest people I have ever met, but he played a key role in the discovery of Creswell’s cave art in April 2003. Were it not for Brian we would have found almost nothing! As I explain to all the groups I take to the sites, we had looked first in Robin Hood Cave and Pin Hole, and found nothing.

Brian then took us into Mother Grundy’s Parlour, where we found a small engraving. We were about to leave, as we were due to be in Wales the next day. It was Brian who urged us to look in Church Hole, at the other side of the valley, because it had been occupied in the Creswellian period. We said “Alright, Brian, just to please you, we’ll take a look at Church Hole”, and immediately found the art. The tragedy was that he had gone on his lunch break, and so missed the moment of discovery! But it was wonderful to see his enormous delight when we showed him our finds. And his passionate interest and support continued throughout our subsequent work. He visited as often as he could, saying “I can’t turn my back on you lads for a second!” and “If you carry on like this, I shall refuse to die!”.  I wish that he had. He will be profoundly missed, not only by family and friends, but by anyone with an interest in Creswell Crags. 

Paul Bahn, Archaeologist (Member of team which discovered Britain’s only Cave Art)

His reputation grew as he has become the great font of knowledge about the history of the site and organisation. His relationship with the caves was key to this and many archaeologists benefited from his expertise. John Scott started his management career at Creswell Crags at a remarkably young age and consequently had a unique perspective on Brian as a mentor.

Brian knew the caves like the back of his hand, one of my first jobs was to help get the site ready for the archaeologists to start the dig in pin hole cave, I was clearing stones from the floor so they could have a flat surface to work on and put the matting down. as I’m only about 12 at the time I’m throwing large stones out of the cave from the top of the slope and one time I forgot to let go and Brian caught me mid-air as  I threw myself off the slope towards the gabions.

We would inspect the whole cave network at least every six months including the small caves up on the north face, many times volunteers and staff would join us and there would often be many people taking the chance to get into these caves. One time Brian led the way in to the back of C7 which is a narrow tube. I was next and Brian got to the back and sat down everyone followed on. As soon as Brian sat down you could hear a buzzing sound and Brian jumps up saying we need to leave we need to leave, he’d sat on a wasp nest ! We’ve never left a cave so quickly.

He is often overlooked for his knowledge of the crags, he was completely self-taught and yet held in great respect by leading archaeologists and researchers. You’ll know how much Paul Pettite and Paul Bahn respected his opinion but his relationship with Roger Jacobi was so strong and they worked for years on some leading research for national and international museums.  He was instrumental in the discovery of the rock art that day in April 2003.

John Scott, Former Visitor Operations & Projects Manager, Creswell Crags

Visitors fortunate enough to meet Brian during his period at the Crags, or since then, benefited from hearing his stories. One of his most significant legacies is our ‘comparative collection’ which he was instrumental in helping to assemble. This collection mostly consists of contemporary animal bones and these are still used today during educational visits and as an aid to assist us in identifying prehistoric finds.  Former Director of Creswell Crags, Ian Wall remembers his knowledge and anecdotes warmly and has contributed the following to this tribute:

Both Jackie and I were extremely saddened by the news of Brian’s death. Every now and then you have the privilege of working alongside someone who has the innate ability to ignite a passion for a subject in other people. For both of us, Brian was the person to go to – he had such an insight and in depth knowledge about the Crags – his tours and events with the collection were legendary. Above all though, we will both cherish how Brian was just great fun to be, normally with an amusing anecdote up his sleeve, and hugely generous with his time.

Ian Wall, Former Director at Creswell Crags

Stories of Brian’s warmth are echoed in all recollections.  John Lord, professional flint-knapper was a regular demonstrator during this period:

I will always remember the warm welcome that Brian gave Val & I every time that we came to Creswell during his time there. Brian gave us work at Creswell on a very regular basis and had that not been the case back in those days, then I think that our little business might not have survived. I treasure the memory of Brian making the effort to come and see Val & I working at the Crags after his retirement and when he wasn’t at all well; that meant so much to us and brought back the memories of the good old days.

John Lord, Flint-Knapper

His legacy continues and the current Trustees recognise his dedication and achievements:

So sorry to hear of the passing of Brian a stalwart supporter of Creswell Crags and what it meant to Brian the heritage, history, ecology and all that this wonderful site contained, Brian was passionate, hardworking and a credit to informing, not just the locality but International interest in just what we have in Creswell Crags. With his dedication we should all be thankful to Brian, I certainly am and will miss him and the knowledge he possessed on the background and findings that he was involved with at Creswell Crags.

Cllr Duncan McGregor, Vice Chair Creswell Heritage Trust

We hope to be able to announce how we will commemorate Brian’s contribution at a later date but for now we are asking for you all to reflect upon the difference a single person can make to an organisation and the lives of others. We are all indebted to Brian for his dedication and commitment to Creswell Crags and we are sorry that it has taken his passing to celebrate him and reflect upon his legacy.

Paul Baker, Executive Director, Creswell Crags