As children who have grown up in the West Country for many decades will tell you, Wookey Hole Caves are a major destination for locals and tourists alike in Somerset. Conveniently and picturesquely located in the village of Wookey Hole on the border of the Mendip hills near Wells, the Caves are a fantastic opportunity to descend into the bowels of the earth and witness some truly beautiful sights without the need for safety equipment. In fact, the walk through the Caves is rather like walking through a city of rock and stone at night, with an amazing display of water and light.
Formed over millennia by the erosion of the River Axe into the limestone strata of the Mendips, the Caves’ high point for many visitors is the Witch of Wookey, a hunched outcrop of rock which slightly resembles a human figure and is said to be the petrified remains of a sorceress turned into stone by a Glastonbury monk. Although the resemblance to any person, fictional or otherwise, is hard to see at times, the Witch lends a suitably spooky air to any visit and is – quite understandably – the subject of endless local myths. The heritage of the Caves is impressive, too: their part in social history has been assured for thousands of years by their consistently low temperature of 11 degrees Celsius (52 degrees Fahrenheit), which enables Cheddar cheese – the region’s most famous export – to be manufactured there. Even in Roman times, lead mining was carried out in the Caves.
The area around the Caves is also worth a visit, with the river Axe passing from the Caves to other caverns such as Swildon’s Hole and St Cuthbert’s Swallet. There’s also a paper mill – the oldest functioning example of its type, at over four centuries old – further down the river, and Ebbor Gorge, which has been designated a Site Of Special Scientific Interest due to the unusual nature of its rock formations. The Caves themselves are the central – but far from the only – attractions of the Wookey Hole complex, now owned by circus entrepreneur Gerry Cottle. The Cottle organisation has extended and equipped the site to add a valley full of large dinosaur models, a magic garden with elves, dragons and other fairy creatures and a children’s play zone themed along pirate-ship lines. Wells, the smallest settlement with official city status in England, is close by, making a visit to the area worth spreading over a whole day.
The history of the Caves makes a visit to them all the more poignant. In the great tradition of exploration, several explorers attempted to penetrate them and either perished or came close to losing their lives in doing so. Although the upper areas had been entered many times over the centuries, it was not until the 1930s that a serious expedition into them was mounted, thanks largely to developments in underwater breathing technology. Members of the Cave Diving Group of Great Britain made the initial forays, but the first milestone was reached by a pair of Post Office engineers, Balcombe and Sheppard, when they got as far as 52 metres down. The journey was noted as Britain’s first successful dive in this environment and was followed up by several expeditions in the 40s and 50s. These helped promote the evolution of scuba-diving equipment, being one of the few serious scientific applications that required this equipment. In this case archaeology was the field being served by the expeditions, as the Caves had been found to contain useful materials for research.
Owner Gerry Cottle has recently reinstated the manufacture of Cheddar cheese in the Caves, taking advantage of their high humidity and constantly low temperature to keep the products cool without drying out. The cold of the Caves is generally not understood until the visitor actually steps inside, which is why you are advised to bring a sweater or other other garment, even on the hottest summer day – but this must have been a great benefit to the area’s medieval residents in the long centuries before refrigeration. In fact, the icy temperature of the Caves lends to their mystical beauty, with the beautifully-lit caverns – and their highlighted natural features of stalagmites and stalactites – made something of an unearthly experience. Few underground attractions are as well maintained or as accessible, certainly in the UK – and with their location near to major motorways, the Caves are worth a day of anyone’s time.
Outside the Caves and back to normal temperatures, the Wookey Hole site is home to many other attractions. Some of these have been headline-grabbers in recent years, such as the £40,000 teddy bear called Mabel – which had previously belonged to none other than Elvis Presley before ending up on display at Wookey Hole. Unfortunately, Mabel met her maker when a guard dog – actually hired to protect the exhibits – attacked her. Another slightly surreal occurrence was the Rabbit Wedding, in which the world’s largest example of the rabbit breed went down the aisle with a similarly-proportioned female: the animals, normally resident in Worcester, were dressed in wedding garb for an exhibition.
In other recent events, Gerry Cottle has been involved in a local campaign in the media for the return of an ancient human skeleton, which was discovered in the Caves and kept in a local museum for many years. The bones are thought by some to be those of the actual Witch of Wookey Hole, turned to stone by a monk with holy water. Whether or not the bones – discovered in the early 20th century and confirmed as a woman’s remains of an appropriate age – will be approved for relocation is not yet known, but it seems right on the face of it that the Witch (if it is indeed she) should be restored to her former home. That said, what the existence of a separate skeleton reveals about the real nature of the stony outcrop said to be the actual Witch turned into rock is also open to conjecture, but it all adds to the Wookey Hole legend…
Address: Wookey Hole Caves, Wookey Hole, Wells, Somerset BA5 1BB
Tel: 01749 672243
Opening Times: Open 7 days a week
Summertime: (Apr-Oct): 10am (first tour) – 5pm (Last Cave Tour)
Wintertime: (Nov-Mar): 10am (first tour) – 4pm (Last Cave Tour)