The Cheddar Gorge Caves

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 . . .

Cox's Mill, Cheddar 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.

Model of Richard Gough (from the entrance to Cox's Cave)
Model of Richard Gough (from the entrance to Cox’s Cave)

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 . . .

Wall illustration in Cox's Cave - 5+ R

. . . 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:

Artist's impression of the Cheddar Gorge 9,000 BP.
Artist’s impression of the Cheddar Gorge 9,000 BP.

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:

Evidence of cannibalism found in Gough's cave
Evidence of cannibalism found in Gough’s cave

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)

16 thoughts on “The Cheddar Gorge Caves

    1. Yes, it was a bit gruesome to discover that, Peggy. But I can see how the practice evolved, with such a shortage of food during and after the Ice Age. Still, not a nice thought.
      I’ll try to visit you blog in the next couple of days, Peggy. I’ve been busy writing for a few weeks, so my blog has been neglected. Thank you for visiting me! 🙂

    1. Hi, Simon. I’m sure you’d really like this gorge. There’s lots to do and see, and plenty for an imagination like yours to get hooked into. It was my first visit too, after wanting to see the place for eons. It’s well worth a visit. 🙂

  1. Very homesick now ha ha. I used to go caving every weekend nearby on the Mendips. Thanks for the post. Lots there I had no idea about. I like your attention to detail Millie. Safe journeys and have a brilliant week 🙂

    1. Thanks, Andy. But I don’t believe you’re homesick for one moment. You’re loving life in China far too much for that. Hope all is well and your writing is coming along. I’ve been ‘bogged down’ tryng to write two different books this last few weeks, but I’ve finished my flash fic book now. Thank goodness. Have a great week, too, 🙂

  2. Very nice!
    This is the first time I’ve seen “BP” on a date and had to look it up. I guess 1950 is as good a year as any to use as a reference!
    I do like to gorge myself on cheddar 🙂

    1. I don’t think BP is used a great deal as most people still tend to use BC and AD. I first came across BP some years ago when I was doing geology, but I’ve seen it in a couple of other museums recently.
      I wish I didn’t like to gorge on Cheddar! I still prefer it to any other cheese – even Lancashire or Yorkshire (Wensleydale)!
      Thanks Ali. I’ll be getting around blogs in the next day or two, hopefully. I’m very behind with everything at the moment. 🙂

  3. I have read your post twice, Millie, didn’t want to miss anything. Archeology is one of my favorites. It is so depressing that the Media is feeding people with all sort of rubbish instead of promoting scientific and historical knowledge. There is so much to learn, and a learning mind is always more beautiful and positive than an idle one.

    1. Beautifully expressed, Inese. There’s always so much to learn in life. I spent my career with secondary children trying to instil into them the love of learning that I feel myself. I love posts like yours and Aquileana’s because I learn so much from them. All our holidays are just learning experiences, too. It’s lovely to know you share the same love of learning and constant quest for knowledge. Life would be so dull without it.
      (Our eldest daughter, Nicola, is an archaeologist, although she does all sorts of things nowadays in her work at Lincoln Uni.) 🙂

  4. I’m so torn — on the one hand, I have this purist streak from my childhood memories of touring caves, where I want the caves to be just caves, no fancy multimedia stuff. But at the same time, I tend to enjoy anything to increase learning about how people lived in earlier times, or about science, so I’d guess I’d like the videos too. Interesting bit about the Cheddar Man. I just looked up more information to see how old he was, and they estimate him being from 7150 BC, wow!

  5. When I first went into Cox’s Cave, I really didn’t like it. We’d already been into Gough’s Cave, which was excellent. This one seemed so garish and ‘touristy’ – but I suppose that’s what it’s intended to be. All the constantly changing colours and wall scenes seemed strange, and were very difficult to photograph. But the tour through the different chambers did give an overview into how these people lived and the exhibits in the entrance area were good. I suppose it was a good contrast to Gough’s Cave and gave people a good ‘show’. But, like you, Joy, I’ve been in many, wonderful natural caves – and prefer them that way. 😃

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