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)

Cave of Darkness: Ghar Dalam


I only have a couple more posts on Malta to do now and this one, along with the one following it, are about two sites we visited on the Thursday of our week’s holiday in September. To travel out to these sites we used the ‘hop on-hop off’ buses that are so well used on both Malta and Gozo:


Ghar Dalam – which means ‘Cave of Darkness’ in Maltese – is a naturally water worn, limestone cave on the outskirts of Birżebbuġa in the south east of Malta. It is one of the island’s most important monuments and the only cave on Malta where the Pleistocene (Ice Age) can be seen in an uninterrupted sequence, dating back 180,000 years. The earliest evidence of human presence on Malta has also been found in the cave, with artefacts dating back 7,400 years to the Neolithic Period.

On leaving the building where the reception and museum are housed we headed down the steps and through a small garden of exotic and indigenous trees. From here there are excellent views across the Dalam Valley, in which the cave is located.

Then it was off to the cave . . .

The scientific importance of Ghar Dalam wasn’t realised until 1865 when a Genoese geologist, Arturu Issel, came to Malta in search of Palaeolithic Man and found the remains of various animals as well as many pottery sherds in the cave. Other scientists soon followed but, unfortunately, so did poachers raiding the bone deposits. These thefts were eventually stopped by the installation of a gate at the cave’s mouth, as can be seen in my first/header photo above.

On entering the cave, it becomes obvious why it was given the name, Cave of Darkness. Without the many lights, it would have been very dark within feet of moving away from the entrance – and it’s 144 metres (472 feet) long, although only the first 50m are open to the public for security reasons. This photo is looking into the cave from just behind the gate:


Like all limestone caves there are stalactites and stalagmites along its length, and there are labels at intervals to explain which types of remains were found at those spots and at what depth. Here are a few photos:

Ghar Dalam’s scientific importance revolves around the effects of the Ice Age on the Maltese Islands. During the time that ice sheets covered most of Central Europe and the northern hemisphere, Malta experienced a Rain, or Pluvial, Age instead. Torrential rains swept animals away and carved out valleys, including the Wied Galam. Falling sea levels created a land bridge, joining Malta to Sicily – across which many animals travelled to Malta, pushed south by the harsh conditions of glaciation to the north. These included elephant, hippopotamus, bear, wolf and fox.

Over the thousands of years these large animals underwent evolutionary change to ensure their survival: a small island could not possibly provide enough food for herds of large animals. The type of adaptation these species underwent on the island is called NANISM -i.e. they became smaller. Sometimes it is referred to as ‘dwarfing’ or ‘dwarfism’. 


There are also examples of gigantism – the opposite of dwarfism – on Malta. This generally occurs in species that breed continuously, so only the biggest and strongest will find enough food to survive. The giant dormouse grew to be the size of a modern guinea pig and the giant lizard reached a length of 70cm (27-28 inches). The giant Maltese tortoise grew to the size of today’s Galapagos Island tortoises.

Malta is not the only one of the Mediterranean islands to exhibit nanism and gigantism, as this (not very clear and in-need-of-editing) map shows:


In the Ghar Dalam Cave there are six distinct layers of deposits, each labelled according to the main species or characteristic material found in it. Animal remains have been found in layers 2, 4 and 6 – where 6 is the uppermost layer. Layer 2 is known as the hippopotamus layer, layer 4 is the deer layer. Layer 6 is the cultural/domestic layer, covering the last 7,000 years since humans arrived on Malta – as well as containing animal remains and pottery.


The Victorian-style museum was opened in the 1930s. Showcases contain bones of similar size and origin mounted on boards in rows, and teeth are held in jars or stacked in rows. Everything was designed to impress through sheer quantity – with little attention given to the exhibit’s scientific or educational value. The mounted skeletons all belong to present-day animals and are not from the cave. 

A second room was opened to the public in 2002 covering different aspects of the cave’s formation and animal and human finds, as well as information on the fossil fauna that were present on the Maltese Islands during the Ice Age.

Ghar Dalam Cave has served as shelter for humans and animals since prehistoric times. The remains of Early Man have been found as well as pottery. Middens (ancient rubbish pits) have revealed animal bones and the cave served as a cattle pen until the excavations of the mid-nineteenth century. During the Second World War (August and September of 1940), 200 people lived in the cave, leaving it when the Royal Air Force wanted to use it for the storage of aviation fuel.

All in all, the Ghar Dalam Cave well deserves to be listed as one of Malta’s most important sites.