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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