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.
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.


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)

The Cheddar Gorge

Along the Gorge ABefore I plunge into writing up some posts about Cornwall from our holiday last week, I thought I’d better finish off some of the ones I still have to do from our stay in Somerset a few weeks’ ago. (Too many holidays to keep up with at the moment!) This post is about one of the sites we’d been intending to visit for years – and I’m very glad we eventually made it there. Oddly enough, at the mention of the Cheddar Gorge, most people’s minds turn to cheese. And rightly so.

The Cheddar Gorge is the largest gorge in England and is located on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills near to the village of Cheddar in Somerset. (x marks the spot!)

Location of the county of Somerset. Source; Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion. Creative Commons
Location of the county of Somerset. Source; Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion. Creative Commons

The Gorge’s limestone cliffs rise to 450 feet and the scenery along it is quite beautiful, as well as dramatic. It is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It has been inhabited since the end of the last Ice Age and today, visitors come from all over the world simply to admire the scenery, climb the near-vertical cliffs or cycle along the steep gradients of the road that runs through it (the B1315). Cavers come to explore the many caves, the two largest of which are stalactite caverns and open to the general public.

This handsome, 9,000-year-old chap can be seen in Gough’s Cavern (he’s not a real skeleton, of course – just a replica. :)) His name is Cheddar Man, whose real skeleton was found in this cave in 1903. I’ll be writing about the two caves in my next post.

Gough's Cave 1 ++

Ownership of the Gorge is shared by two parties. The south side (where most of the visitor attractions, including the two caves and several tea rooms and cafés, are) is owned and administered by the Marquess of Bath’s Longleat Estate. The north side, where the striking rocks of the Gorge tower alongside the road, is owned by the National Trust.

Here’s a very simple description from of how the Gorge was formed:

The Gorge was formed about three million years ago when a small river cut through the soft limestone. Thaws of subsequent ice ages increased the flow at times to produce this spectacular natural attraction. You can still see the benign-looking river which now flows underground and appears at the foot of the Gorge.

On arrival at the site, we decided to do what many visitors do, and take an open-top bus ride trough the gorge.  So we headed for the car park to wait for the bus, which runs back and forth quite frequently.

Car park for catching Gorge tour bus +

Naturally, this guided tour isn’t free, but the cost does include entry to the two caves and the little museum as well. The bus turns around at a point a short distance past the touristy area, and allows us to see the stunning Gorge cliff s without the shops and other buildings. At that point, we got off the bus to walk back, visit the caves and generally enjoy the attractions on offer.

These are just a few of the photos we took from the bus. I bet you can’t miss the friendly lion:

Wildlife in the Gorge includes dormice, yellow-necked mice, slow worms, adders and rare blue butterflies. Many bats inhabit the caves and on the rocky slopes, goats can just be seen (if your eyesight is good!). The ones we spotted were too distant to see clearly:

Cheddar Gorge Goats 1

So here’s a close up picture from Wikipedia:

Cheddar Gorge goat 1

The goats have been  introduced as part of a programme to encourage the biodiversity of the area. A flock of feral sheep also graze the slopes. There are also many species if birds, including peregrine falcons, kestrels and buzzards and too many species of flora to mention, other than to say that many are chalk grassland-loving species.

We had lunch at one of the many ‘eateries’ . . .

Wishing Well Tea Room (View from road 3 +. . . and in the afternoon, we headed up Jacob’s Ladder. This is a series of 274 steps which takes visitors up to a stunning cliff-top walk:

Jacob'sLadder 2

The clifftop walk is three-miles long and there are excellent views of the Gorge as well as further afield from up there. There is also an observation tower (more steps for my knees to complain about) with 360 degree views. Here are a few of the photos we took from the clifftop. Not all are from the observation tower:

To finish off with, here are just some of the many things to see as you walk along the road:

And, really, really finally this time, a quick word about cheese. 🙂

The village of Cheddar is the home of the original Cheddar cheese. It has been produced here since at least the 15th century (earliest mention of Cheddar cheese in 1170) and left to mature in the caves, with their cool and constant temperatures. The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, unsurprisingly, is located further along the Gorge than we went, and cheeses can still be seen today, maturing inside Gough’s Cavern. Now, Cheddar cheese is made all over the world. And I’m not surprised at that because it’s very yummy!