The Cheddar Gorge: Gough’s Cave and a little bit of Cheese

Model of Gough in Cox's Cave

This is my second post about the Cheddar Gorge caves and the discovery and opening up of two of the larger ones, which are still open to the public today. The first post looked mostly at Cox’s Cave, and this one will focus on Gough’s Cave, the bigger of the two. For anyone who hasn’t read my posts about the Cheddar Gorge, it’s located in the county of Somerset, UK. Here’s a link to the maps on my last post.

Richard Gough had been employed in a few different jobs in his time, including working in his family’s wholesale tea business – and failing miserably. Later, he became a sea captain, sailing back and forth to the West Indies before eventually retiring to live in the Cheddar Gorge in the mid 1860s.

By that time, Cox’s Cave – then called ‘The Great Stalactite Cave’ – was doing very nicely, financially, for George Cox. His nephew, Richard Gough, had fallen on hard times and decided to look for a cave to open up for himself and make some much-needed cash from paying visitors. The small cave he eventually purchased brought him a few visitors, but it was no match for Cox’s Cave . . . until Gough blasted away the 17 feet of consolidated rock (40-5o tons) of the rear stalactite wall. This opened up a huge new cavern, which had such excellent acoustics that musical events were later held in it. One popular event was hand-bell ringing and later on, even concerts.

In 1888, still more caverns were opened and Gough really went to town. He had fountains installed and even imported stalactites from a cave near to Weston-Super-Mare to supplement existing displays. What a con! ‘The Great New Stalactite Cave’, as Gough called it, attracted hundreds of visitors, and rivalry between Gough and his Uncle George soared. Each tried to outdo the other by opening new attractions. For example, when Cox opened a new Pleasure Gardens,  Gough opened a Tea Rooms.

And so it went on until 1892, when the Goughs discovered yet another huge cave behind a closed-up cave entrance a few yards along the Gorge. It took until 1898 – another six years – before all the chambers were opened up in the finest showcase in England.

Here are just a few of the photos we took inside Gough’s Cave. We didn’t manage to see the cave carving, unfortunately. For some reason, it just didn’t show up well that day. I won’t talk about the different caverns because it would take too long, but you can probably pick out the frozen waterfall and sections of the underground river.

Richard Gough is remembered not only as an enterprising man, but as an eccentric showman. Everywhere he went he was accompanied by his menagerie – including a monkey, a talking jackdaw and a donkey. He is even said to have taken his monkey to church with him on a Sunday. When he died in 1902, his sons took over the business and it was they, in 1903, who discovered the most famous of the Cheddar Gorge finds: Cheddar Man, Britain’s oldest, complete skeleton.

Gough's Cave 6

Cheddar Man was originally believed to date to 9,000 years ago. Recently, the bones have been re-radiocarbon dated, giving a new date of 14,700 years ago. This matches archaeological evidence better than previous radiocarbon tests and suggests that the Cheddar Gorge was one of the earliest places in Britain to be colonised after the Ice Age.

These early occupants were hunter-gatherers, who may have followed horse migrations across Doggerland (the area of land, now lying beneath the southern North Sea, which connected Britain to mainland Europe during and after the last Ice Age). As explained in yesterday’s post, these people also practised cannibalism.

It is also thought that the odd behaviour of Cheddar Man – possibly due to brain damage from a blow to the head – caused him to be buried in a pit at the edge of the cave (the ‘twilight zone’) to prevent his spirit passing to the land of the ancestors. The real skeleton, which was found complete but in a heap, has been reconstructed and is housed in the Natural History Museum in London.
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Lastly, a little bit about cheese – Cheddar cheese, to be precise.

Cheddar Cheese stored in Gough's Cave

Cheddar Cheese stored in Gough’s Cave

The land around the village of Cheddar has been the centre of England’s dairy industry since the 15th century. The earliest reference to Cheddar Cheese dates from 1170. In the days when transport was poor and refrigeration didn’t exist, the problem of surplus milk was solved by turning it into cheese. It was very soon found that if the excess moisture was pressed out of the curd, the cheese lasted much longer. This method of cheese making was perfected in the Cheddar area.

The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, a little further along the gorge, continues to make cheese in the same way it has been made for centuries i.e, made and ‘cheddared’ by hand and matured in cloth for up to 18 months to produce the rind and allow the texture and flavour to develop. Cheddar Cheese is still matured in Gough’s Cave – as my above photo shows – just as it was 100 years ago, making it the only cave-matured cheese in the world. Visitors can buy Cheddar cheese in the Company shop in the Gorge.

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About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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21 Responses to The Cheddar Gorge: Gough’s Cave and a little bit of Cheese

  1. Here in southwest Missouri there are many caves winding their way through the karst composition common from here entirely across the state eastward to the Mississippi. There are many wondrous sights to be seen in them bur I must say that your Cheddar valleys caverns rival many of ours ! Thanks for the peek !

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks, William. There are amazing caves in karst/limestone scenery all around the world, and I can imagine how wonderful the ones in Missouri are. I wish I knew enough about your lovely caves to write about them, but I’ll have to leave that to people who do – unless I’m lucky enough to visit, one day. (Big dreams here!) This was my first visit to the Cheddar Gorge, after many years of wanting to go there, so I was quite impressed with it All big cave systems are pretty awesome. 🙂

  2. Joy Pixley says:

    Hooray, more about the Cheddar Man! It’s always a little disheartening to me to learn about how people added to or even destroyed natural or historic sites in order to draw in more tourists, but at least it seems like they’re being honest about what was fabricated. I always wonder how often we are fooled by those changes to the past without realizing it, or how much future generations will be confused by our own era’s changes.

    I’m surprised that this is the only cave-aged cheese being made. It sounds like exactly the kind of shtick that some enterprising businessperson would use to sell their “traditionally made” cheese for exorbitant prices — as I’m sure the gift shop at this cave is doing!

  3. milliethom says:

    Yes, I was flabbergasted to find out about such a con. I just hope all the ‘false’ bits have been taken out of the cave today! I suppose it all boils down to what people will do to make money. Still, the caves are awe-inspiring, and the insight they give us to the lives of some of the earliest inhabitants of the area is second-to-none. I know you have some fabulous caves in the US, so you’ll have to try to visit some. (Easier said than done, I know. It’s taken years for us to eventually get down to Cheddar.)
    I agree, it does seen unrealistic that Cheddar Cheese should be the only cheese to be matured that way. Without looking into it further, I can’t say how true that claim is, but I agree that it sounds like promotional phooey. We didn’t even look at cheeses in the shop. We can get excellent Cheddar in Newark – cave matured or not!.
    Thanks, Joy. 🙂

  4. draliman says:

    Lovely photos, it looks like a great place to visit. Hopefully all the stalactites and stalagmites in there are the “originals” now.
    And the Cheddar Man – a man made entirely of cheese! Awesome!

  5. Very interesting post – looks like a place I would love to visit!

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, the Cheddar Gorge is well worth a visit. We’ve been intending to go there for years but only got round to it in May. There’s plenty to see and lots of little cafes and tea rooms, too. Thank you, Karolina.

  6. One of my favourite cheese 🙂
    p.s. very interesting story and a cave!

  7. Beth says:

    Very interesting, Millie! It gives a whole new appreciation of Cheddar cheese and what fun to “see” the sights in England! My sister in D.C. and her Girl Scout troop are headed to London in two weeks and they’re very excited.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Beth. What a great trip for your sister and her Girl Scouts. I hope they have a wonderful time -there’s a lot to see in London. There are still sites there that we haven’t got round to visiting.

  8. inesephoto says:

    Your Cheddar Gorge posts are so interesting! We will never know how people learned the art of cheesemaking, but it has been around for a long time. Even I can make cottage cheese and mozzarella 🙂 Praise to the first cheese maker 🙂

  9. Linda says:

    What an interesting piece of history to get to know! Finding a full skeleton from that long ago..wow…I love your tidbits of time past! We have an interesting cave with ‘history’ not too far from us (Penn’s Cave – http://pennscave.com/) – went there when we were young – I remember it as being pretty cool! 🙂

  10. Antonia says:

    What a fascinating post Millie! I always learn so much from you and I love reading all about the places you visit. I hope you are having a nice summer!

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks, Antonia. The trouble is, we visit so many places and I still have lots of posts to write up from last year’s holidays and outings. I really ought to stay home for a while and catch up with myself. 🙂

  11. Your posts are always so informative and love the pictures

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