Last week we visited the caves at Cheddar in Somerset on the way back from a family gathering. Cheddar Gorge is the finest example of a limestone gorge in Britain. About one million years ago, melt water from glaciers formed during successive ice ages etched out Cheddar's landscape. During colder periods the permafrost rendered the rock impermeable and forced the summer melt water to flow above ground, eroding the surface, and cutting the Gorge we see today. As the climate warmed, the ice deeper down melted, and the limestone became permeable. The river flowed underground, dissolving the limestone below the ground to produce vast caverns.
The first cave complex at Cheddar was discovered in 1837 by George Cox who was digging out limestone near his water mill. Although smaller than caves found later, Cox`s cave has many wonderful examples of stalactites and stalagmites, some of which are highly coloured due to iron-oxide in the water that forms them. These beautiful caves are lit in a way that makes them seem magical, with beautiful mirror pools reflecting the rocks above them.
When we visited, Cox's cave led through to the Crystal Quest, a Tolkien inspired adventure. (Tolkien visited here on his honeymoon in 1916 and it is said used the Cheddar Caves as a basis for Helms Deep in Lord of the Rings.). The Crystal Quest is fun and spooky, with skeletons, trolls, and a battle between good and evil going on, with a couple of elements to it which made us adults jump - I understand that this exhibit is due to be replaced with a new one in 2016 which promises the use of cutting-edge technology and sounds fantastic from what one of the guides told us during our visit.
In 1892 the second and larger cave complex was found by Richard Cox Gough a retired sea captain and a nephew of George Cox. This cave complex is 90m deep and is 2.135km long, and contains a variety of large chambers and rock formations. It contains the Cheddar Yeo, the largest underground river system in Britain, and many of its chambers are only accessible by diving through water filled passages. Audio guides for both adults and children are provided for your use while you look around these spectacular caves, where hugely significant and often unique examples of prehistoric archaeology have been discovered; for example a very rare 13,000 yr old mammoth carving which is on view (although I have to admit I couldn't make out).
The greatest discovery in Gough`s cave was made in 1903 when a complete human skeleton was unearthed from a pit just inside the cave entrance. This skeleton, called Cheddar Man, was a hunter-gatherer who lived around 9,000 years ago, and is the oldest complete skeleton ever found in Britain. Even more amazingly, in 1997, a 42-year-old history teacher in Cheddar, was shown by DNA tests to be a direct descendant, through his mother's line, of Cheddar Man, and is now also the world's most distant confirmed relative (some 300 generations). Cheddar Man is on display in the Natural History Museum in London, with a replica on display in the cave. Since his discovery, many bone fragments of both humans and animals have been found further in the Gough Cave complex, which scientists have been able to date, telling us that man was living in these caves 14,700 years ago, at the end of the Ice Age. The most recent archaeological evidence from these bones suggests that they hunted wild horses and that they were cannibals.
It is believed (not surprisingly) that cheddar cheese was developed by the villagers of Cheddar. With a constant temperature and high humidity, caves in the Cheddar region provided ideal locations for maturing cheese. Cheddar cheese is still matured in Gough's Cave, just as it was 100 years ago, making it the only authentic cave-matured Cheddar cheese in the world.
We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon at the caves at Cheddar. The family ticket that we bought also gives access to the other attractions at the Gorge; The Museum of Prehistory, Lookout Tower, Cliff Top Gorge Walk and the Gorge Bus Tour. Although we didn't have time for these elements on this visit, tickets are valid for 10 years so we will definitely be back later in the year.
Please check out our Family Days Out board, for more ideas of places to visit in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and the surrounding Counties.