PLANS to create a £12million visitor and education centre at Torquay's Kents Cavern, to tell the story of prehistoric man in Britain, were unveiled on Monday.
Proprietor Nick Powe, whose family has owned the Wellswood caverns for around 100 years, is working on ambitious plans to create an attraction of national status reflecting the fact it is one of the most important Stone Age sites with a history of human occupation stretching back 500,000 years.
Mr Powe said they want to create a centre of the same kind of stature as the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, the Tate in St Ives or the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.
The caves are already Britain's oldest scheduled ancient monument and are one of the key sites for the resort's UNESCO Global Geopark status.
Mr Powe said they want to create an 'iconic' Centre For The Ice Age at the cavern, which as well as appealing to tourists will attract geology and archaeology enthusiasts, students and academics from across Britain and abroad.
The aim is to create a building which could also host touring exhibitions.
Mr Powe said: "It's something we have always wanted to do at the caves. For far too long the cavern has been seen as simply a visitor attraction. Yet we are protecting probably the country's most important open access prehistoric site. There are few sites with such an incredible record of human occupation going back 500,000 years, but currently we do everything here without any public funding. I don't know anywhere else in the world which has such a length of human occupation. It is a fantastic story which makes Kents Cavern unique in the world, and here people can come and look at and experience the caves. Also the stories behind the caves and their contribution to the development of earth sciences, the history of archaeology and the theory of evolution are themselves quite extraordinary. This should have been the site where the antiquity of man was determined."
Flint tools found in the caverns have provided some of the best example of prehistoric Stone Age tools in Europe.
The rich range of animal remains is evidence of the enormous climate changes the planet has undergone through several glacial periods.
Archaeological digs carried out this summer revealed more historic remains, including Britain's only virtually complete sagaie antler spear tip, which showed there could be more to be found, said Mr Powe.
The international importance of the caves has already been recognised by bodies such as English Heritage and Natural England.
Mr Powe said they will be working with such national bodies to develop the idea. Architects are working on initial designs for the building though Mr Powe says he doesn't envisage it being completed until around 2014. But over the next few years the cavern will start to raise awareness of the importance of the caves with universities and organisations.
"We want it to be much more than somewhere tourists think of going on wet days," he said. "It could be a real asset for the Bay and we are determined to make it happen."