Cheddar Caves

A journey to Cheddar Caves (Gough’s Cave and Cox’s Cave) and a climb up Cheddar Gorge.

This morning found us back in Cheddar for  a proper look at the caves, now called Gough’s Cave  after Richard Gough, the man who found, excavated and opened them to the public.

The cave system stretches for over two miles but only a small section of this is open to the public. During the excavation in the 1800s, a number of human skeletons were found along with human brain cases which appear to have been prepared as drinking cups.  DNA taken from a skeleton dated to 7150 BC has been matched to a retired history teacher living locally.  Now that really is something to impress people with at dinner parties.

The caves were pleasant enough, but once you have seen one limestone cave you have seen them all.  They are a constant temperature of 11C which, I am told, is the perfect temperature to mature cheese.  Just inside the entrance was a store of cheeses from the factory across the road.  The air had a musty unpleasant smell close to the cheese.  I don’t know if that was the cheeses or simply because it was the lowest section of the caves.  The guide said there was often an unpleasant smell when they opened the doors in the morning.

We stood and looked up at the wire cages, high up on a rocky shelf, containing hundreds of wheels of cheese.

“You ate some of that cheese yesterday, do you want some more?” I asked Madam.

She gave a small shudder of pleasure and said “I certainly do!”

As we walked further into the cave we climbed higher into the limestone cliffs and the air became fresher.  There were small pockets of plants growing near to the electric lights.  Hearts tongue ferns, mosses and lichens were in patches wherever there was water and light.  The guide told us that spores and seeds were carried in by a colony of a hundred or so resident horseshoe bats.

“This is way more entertaining!” said Madam as the snarling wolf lunged forward. 

“This is brilliant!” she continued as the brown bear tore through the rocks into our tiny cave.  We were trapped by a rock wall at the back and a cascading waterfall to the side.  Luckily the Mesolithic hunters in front had some pointed sticks, so we were saved.  You can do a lot with a pointed stick in the right hands.

We were in ‘Dreamhunters – The Adventures of Early Man’ in Cox’s Cave, just down the road from Gough’s Cave.  According to their promotional  leaflet: 

‘This multimedia experience allows guests to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors.  Discover the ingenuity that saw our forebears master tools, weapons and fire to overcome fierce predators and a changing climate.’

And very well done it was.  The caves were small, we were shuffling sideways through narrow passages, crouching under low overhangs and dipping fingers into pools of freezing water.  I was so entranced by the whole experience that I completely forgot to take any pictures so you will just have to go and see it for yourself.

The exit from Cox’s Cave led us to the foot of Jacobs Ladder, a steep set of 274 stone steps that take you directly to the top of the gorge.  About halfway up I reached the startling conclusion that I was no longer thirty years old.  I stopped, panting and struggling to recover my breath.  I took the last section slowly on wobbly legs, listening to creaking knees and complaining muscles.

After the steps was a further long climb along a steep and slippery rocky path.  Black and white goats were sitting alongside the path unconcerned by the steady stream of passing walkers. The full trail is three miles but that was more than either of us wanted, so we reached an open point above the gorge and stopped to admire the views.

The view stretched over green fields with compact tidy farms towards the Mendip Hills.  Nestled in the valley below was the city of Wells, the cathedral clearly visible.  On the far horizon was Glastonbury Tor standing high above the other hills.

“Worth the climb?”  I asked Madam, but she was already heading back down the trail to the cheese shop so I never received a reply.

Pictures from the trip can be found here

Cheddar Cheese

“It doesn’t taste anything like American cheese!” exclaimed Madam.

We were heading to Wells in Somerset for a couple of days and stopped off at Cheddar on the way and, after a brief look at the end of the gorge, had gone in to the only cheese shop to actually make Cheddar cheese in Cheddar. 

They had a wide range of samples and we worked our way around them from mild to mature.  The first cheese sample was the mild, matured for only a few months.  Madam savoured it slowly and said “Mmmm… nice.”

The second was more mature with a stronger taste.  Madam’s breath quickened and said “This is NOTHING like American cheese.”

When the cave aged Cheddar touched her tongue her breath became heavy and she let out a long soft moan.  Several women standing behind looked on with interest.  I wasn’t sure if I needed to guide her from the shop for fear of embarrassment or just buy her a wedge of extra-mature and leave her alone in a room.  

After much sampling, we settled on a cave aged mature Cheddar and an oak smoked Cheddar.  I’m not big on hard cheeses, preferring a soft French cheese, but even I could see how much better this was that the average supermarket offering.  I should hope so for the prices they were charging.

“I’ve eaten Cheddar cheese in Cheddar!” said Madam excitedly as we headed back towards the car.

“I’ve eaten American cheese in America” I thought.  It was bright orange and tasted of nothing much at all.  It was weirdly soft and sticky all at the same time.  

But I didn’t want to spoil the moment, so I kept the thought to myself.

“I’ve never seen a television that small” I said as I opened the door.

We had booked a self-catering “cottage” for three nights which was on a caravan park.  It was more chalet than cottage.

I opened a cupboard and the knob came off in my hand.  The ceiling was Artex.  Madam turned on a table lamp.  “Let their be light.” she said.

There was darkness.  

I pulled on a knob to open the wardrobe.  But you know what happened.  I put the two spare knobs on a shelf.

It had a tiny lounge with a two person sofa,  a TV just a little larger than my iPad, a two person dining room, a slide in sideways kitchen, a tiny bathroom and a bedroom just big enough for a bed and a wardrobe. 

“It’s better than a hotel room” said Madam.

Which was true, once you got used to moving sideways.   It was clean and comfortable with everything we needed for a few nights.   

We drove into Wells for dinner but we ended up passing the cathedral on the way from the car park.  We popped in and had a quick look round. The guided tours had finished for the day, so we planned on coming back later this week.  We had a really enjoyable tour in Salisbury cathedral and I hoped this would be as good.  It was almost deserted, for a cathedral, so I wandered round happily taking a few photographs unobstructed by other visitors.  I’m sure you have seen them on Instagram by now.

It was getting late and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast so we walked down the High Street looking for somewhere to eat.  Wells is billed as the UK’s smallest city.  It is certainly compact, you could walk across the centre in 20 minutes and still have time to pop into the bank, chat to a friend and change your library books.  

Unfortunately, its compact size hasn’t kept the chain stores at bay. All down the High Street was a succession of the likes of W H Smith, New Look, Costa, Nero’s, Vision Express, Carphone Warehouse, Waterstones and Greggs.  I’ve nothing against any of these – I can often be found frequenting them myself but it’s sad when you see family owned businesses, who have probably served the town for years and live locally, closing down to be replaced with yet another identikit store.  Maybe if we supported the independents more they might survive longer.

We went into Costa for a coffee.

We struggled to find a restaurant serving food at 5pm.   They were either lunch cafes that closed at 4pm or pubs serving food from 6pm onwards.  Eventually we wandered down a side  street and found an family run Italian restaurant by the name of Da Luciano which was both happy to rustle up a couple of pizzas and excellent. Worth a visit if you find yourself in the area.  Madam wanted some weird combination not on the menu involving artichokes, swede, onion, basil, dandelion, elderberry, porridge, grapes and marmalade.  The staff were happy to oblige and Madam said it was the best pizza she had had for years. 

I may have got a couple of the ingredients wrong.  I was hungry and forgot to make notes.  

Pictures from the trip can be found here