Goats help to preserve the landscape
Cheddar Gorge and Caves: the natural wonder home to everyone
by cave manager Bob Smart
Formed under the sea 300 million years ago, Cheddar Gorge and Caves lends its names to many things - cheese, flowers and Britain's oldest complete skeleton.
Cheddar has always been a very important, and a very special place. Its geology, prehistory, history and wildlife all have fascinating tales to tell.
Even the Carboniferous limestone rock of the Gorge and its Caves has travelled the world. Formed under the sea on the Equator 300 million years ago from the remains of corals and sea creatures, it was moved to its present location by tremendous tectonic earth movements, then thrust up to form a range of mountains thousands of feet high.
Throughout the last Ice Age, Cheddar was the southernmost point the great polar ice sheets ever reached. During interglacials, meltwaters carved out Britain’s biggest gorge, while acidic water seeping through cracks in the rock dissolved complicated cave systems on several levels.
Surface and underground rivers formed a vast prehistoric plumbing system, with fantastic cave formations sculpted by nature and decorated by colourful trace elements of minerals.
The gorge was formed 300m years ago
Thus a dramatic and varied landscape was formed by the forces of nature, creating a mosaic of habitats where many interdependent animals, birds and plants could flourish. This in turn brought our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who had traversed Europe looking for just such spots as these.
First the Neanderthals, then Homo sapiens, occupied the many caves in the Gorge, bringing cannibal rites and an intriguing lifestyle which we seek to bring to life from the evidence left behind.
Cheddar Man, Britain’s oldest complete skeleton – because he wasn’t cannibalised – was buried in Gough’s Cave 9,000 years ago, and exhumed in 1903. DNA tests show that he has at least one descendant still living in Cheddar and our Cheddar Man Museum tells his story.
The Romans relied on the Mendips for supplies of lead, while the Saxon kings, who built a royal palace and minster church here, relied on Cheddar for hunting and for the world’s most popular cheese, which really was invented here.
Many lived in the Gorge's caves
As a royal manor and bustling market town Cheddar enjoyed prosperity in the middle ages, while lawless lead miners, under royal patronage, ran riot on the Mendips.
The locals might have been left to themselves but for the late 18th century Romantic movement, which led wealthy and cultured people to take an interest in wild and dramatic scenery.
Bristol merchants and the local gentry flocked to Cheddar, and local people rushed to earn money by catering to their enthusiasm. Some Cheddarians were still living in caves themselves, including the famous ‘old lady who lived in a cave’ who unwittingly secured Cheddar’s future as a tourist destination.
It’s a long story, crammed with colourful characters such as George Cox, the rich miller who discovered a cave by accident and turned tourist guide and hotel owner, Richard Gough, Cox’s hard-up and adventurous nephew, who turned one cave into a dream world of lights and fountains, then spent eight years discovering another and also Rowland Pavey, who preferred magic tricks to milling, who built his own cave when he couldn’t discover one, and liked to jump off the Gorge cliffs to prove that he could fly.
Horseshoe bats and Cheddar pink
But this earthly paradise was actually created by nature with nature in mind. We humans recognise this by awarding it the status of a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area for Conservation.
Thousands visit the Gorge each year
Many rare and endangered species and creatures rely on the Gorge and Caves and on each other for survival: Greater and Lesser Horseshoe bats, Peregrine falcons, dormice, water voles, otters, Great Crested newts, right down to flowers so rare they only live in Cheddar, the Cheddar pink and the Cheddar bedstraw.
But these precious life-forms don’t realise that these days they owe a debt to humanity, and that only intensive land management is keeping them alive in Cheddar Gorge, whereas they face extinction in many other places.
Rock face cleaning, scrub bashing and grazing by a herd of British Primitive goats are necessary to keep down the invasive greenery which left to itself would choke out the rare and interesting items.
This conservation work has also made it possible to provide and maintain hundreds of climbing routes in the Gorge, making it one of the country’s most important sport and climbing venues.
The Gorge is the place to pursue the elusive beauties of nature into a thousand hidden and inaccessible spaces.
Climbing, abseiling, caving and cave diving have all carried humans into places where it was once thought no-one could ever reach, be it swimming in the depths of Gough’s River Cave or highlining in mid air between the Pinnacles, 450 feet above the Gorge floor.
There’s so much to be learned, seen and done at Cheddar Caves & Gorge.
last updated: 20/10/2008 at 22:03