A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, UK, intending to follow it up quickly with a second post about the Gorge caves. Unfortunately, I’ve been busy writing and have hardly been on my blog at all.
So here, eventually, is the post about the famous caves and what they tell us. First, a couple of maps to show where the county of Somerset is located within the UK. Cheddar is an actual town on the edge of the Mendip Hills, close to the gorge named after it.
The earliest evidence for people beginning to live in the Cheddar area is from about 14,700 years ago, when ice caps covered large parts of the British Isles. The earliest evidence for human occupation of the Gorge itself comes from Soldier’s Hole, a small cave in the south cliff, 150 feet above the Gorge floor. There are many caves in the Cheddar Gorge, although most are small. Several, like Soldier’s Hole, are high up along the gorge walls, formed at a time when the river that created the gorge had not cut down to the depth it is today. The caves at that height are dry, like this one called Shepherd’s Hole:
The lower caves, near to the water table, have a combination of dry and wet passages.
Soldier’s Hole revealed substantial evidence of human occupation and way of life. Flint spears found in the cave are interesting because there is no flint in the Mendips. This tells us that the weapons originated from far away and were carried here by the people as they moved over different territories following migratory herds. Other tools have been found, too, including those for building and some used for the butchering and preparation of hides used for clothing, bedding and various leather items.
Only two of the caves are open to the public and both are large. They are Gough’s Cave and the smaller Cox’s Cave. Cox’s was the first one to become a ‘show cave’, so I’ll look at that one first.
As the story goes, it was George Cox who discovered the cave which was originally known as the ‘Great Stalactite Cave’. In 1837, Cox, who owned Cox’s grist mill in the Gorge . . .
. . . wanted the road widened to make space for the erection of a wagon house. He sent men to dig out some limestone and, by chance, they found the entrance to the cave. Being an astute businessman, Cox recognised the tourist potential and very soon opened it up to the public.
It was Cox’s nephew, Richard Gough, who discovered the second complex of caves. A former sea captain, Gough retired to the Cheddar Gorge in the mid 1860s.
Impressed by how well his uncle was doing from showing visitors round his cave, Gough set out to find a cave for himself and soon became the owner of a small cave, now known as Gough’s Old Cave. He continued to blast away 5 metres/17 feet of rock from the back of the cave, eventually breaking through to a huge cavern with such amazing acoustics it became known as the Concert Chamber after musical events that were later staged there. Still further chambers were opened in 1888. Gough called his cave ‘The New Great Stalactite Cave’, so stoking up rivalry with George Cox.
Richard Gough died in 1902 and it was his sons who made perhaps the greatest discovery of all. While excavating a pit at the mouth of Gough’s Cave in 1903, they discovered the skeleton now known as Cheddar Man. Although all the bones were there, the skeleton was in a jumble and has since been reconstructed. A replica is on display at the Cheddar Museum of Prehistory and one in the entrance to Gough’s Cave. The ‘real thing’ is in the London’s Natural History Museum.
Earlier this year, Cox’s Cave was turned into Dreamhunters, decribed in the booklet as ‘a multimedia walk-through experience with theatrical lighting and video projection’. It’s very colourful, to say the least, with images of cavemen/hunter-gatherers moving across the rock walls . . .
. . . and one of them was used to lead visitors along the route through the different caves. Unfortunately, we couldn’t manage a decent photo of him as we were too busy trying to keep up with him and not get left behind!
Cox’s Cave also has more usual displays, including the model of Richard Gough, above. There are also images of ancient man and their tools, and how they made fire:
There are cave drawings
And an artist’s impression of what the Gorge may have looked like:
There is also a display about a very chilling discovery. It seems that the first people to colonise Britain after the Ice Age survived by practising cannibalism. Human bones have been found in the Gough’s Cave (the display is in Cox’s) with markings of the tools used to scrape off the flesh etched into them. You may need to click on this to see any details:
I’ll finish on that pleasant thought, as this post is threatening to be ridiculously long. I had intended to write about both caves – but Gough’s Cave will have to waist until later.
Cheddar Gorge Souvenir Guide Book
‘Cheddar Gorge and Caves’by Linda Carter (on sale at the Gorge)