Wookey Hole caves in Somerset are one of Britain’s foremost natural attractions. Carved over thousands of years by the River Axe, they are a set of most spectacular catacombs. A selection of the twenty five known caverns has been opened to the public and around the site has grown several additional attractions including a large mirror maze and a working paper mill. Although not as exciting as Alton Towers, or as famous as Stonehenge, the caves are well worth a look around and in my opinion are one of the country’s most fascinating examples of natural architecture.
The History of the Caves
Early History of the Caves (c. 400,000,000 BC – c. 400AD)
c. 400,000,000 BC: An ocean covers much of England. The waters deposited the shells of tiny sea creatures, and over millennia, these are compressed into calcium carbonate, limestone. As time passes, a great limestone ridge forms and, as rainwaters force their way through the cracks in the rock, great underground pools are formed. These pools feed streams beneath the earth, these streams come together to form rivers. One such river flows under what would come to be known as the Mendip Hills. It is later named the River Axe, and it is it that formed the first caves of Wookey. Over millions of years, water drips from the roofs of the dank caverns, depositing the minerals that now form the cave's gigantic stalactites and stalagmites.
c. 50,000 BC: Evidence of stone age settlements has been found that dates back to this period. Although they certainly knew about the caves, there is no evidence to show that they settled in them until much later. What is known, however, is that hyenas inhabited the caves and that rhinoceroses, lions and mammoths were hunted in the area surrounding them. An interesting theory is that the hyenas were not quite the scavengers they are today and would drive their prey over the high cliffs. It is possible that the people inhabiting the area at this time may have also hunted in this way.
c. 35,000-25,000 BC: It was around this time that humans first set up residence in the caves, perhaps attracted by the fact that the temperature remained at a constant 11° Celcius (51.8° Fahrenheit).
c. 600 BC-50 AD: As time moves on, the Celts invade England from mainland Europe. They take over many of the indigenous peoplee's dwellings including the caves of Wookey Hole. Perhaps fearing to wander too far from the comforting daylight, they do not stray further than the fourth chamber, which is used for burial. The Celts were the first to introduce lighting into the cave, using animal fat lamps and ward off the darkness.
c. 50-400 AD: After expanding right across southern Europe, the Roman Empire set its sights on the isle of Britain. After a few false starts, the Roman army finally vanquished the Celts and set up residence on this Sceptred Isle. With them, they brought technology and advanced building methods. There is evidence to show that the Romans explored the caverns of Wookey Hole and mined the hills in which they were set for lead. Naturally, the Celts who used to live in the caves had not given permission for any of this, and in order to keep them subdued, a detachment of troops was stationed there. Sometime between 189 and 220 AD, Greek diarist Clement of Alexandria gives a description of the caves, including the fact that he heard sounds like the "clashing of numerous cymbals," this is now known to be the sound of the air pressure violently changing within the caves.
The Witch of Wookey (c. 800 AD)
As with most of England, there is not much information about Wookey Hole after the Romans left. However, there is one tale that is believed to date from these dark ages of history. The tale of the Witch of Wookey.
One version of the story tells of the "black witch who lived in the cave at the head of the Stream of Sorrow on the confines of Hell" who was slain by that most famous Monarch, Arthur, King of the Britons. However, it is likely that that story was made up in the eighteenth century in an effort to attract tourists. The real legend is much older and runs as follows:
In the village of Wookey lived a beautiful young woman, her name is not known. What is known, however, is that she was devoted to her lover. This man, it turned out, was not as devoted to her, and late one night, when he failed to return from the local alehouse, she went out looking for him. To her horror she discovered him in a somewhat compromising position with one of the local wenches. Tearful and wailing, she fled from the scene, and ran out of the village towards the caves which the local preachers claimed lead to the caverns of Hell.
Once inside the caves, her sorrow turned quickly to anger, and, crying out, she called on the devil to curse the man who had betrayed her. That night, as she lay, shivering in the dark subterranean chambers, a diabolic vision appeared to her. The vision claimed that it was a demon from hell and that Lucifer himself had heard her calling and was offering her the chance to gain the power to curse her wayward lover. The price, of course, was her soul. Still in a rage about what had taken place, the woman accepted and was given the power of black magic. The next day the man woke up to discover that he was afflicted with a pox.
Though the New Witch took great pleasure in the man's suffering, it did not sate her appetite for revenge and upon spotting a couple venturing towards her cave, she cursed their relationship to fail. Sure enough, a few short days later the man and woman were arguing and only hours after that, the man stormed off to take holy orders, forsaking the love of women forever. Angered by this provocation of good works, (for the man became a good minister, much given to charitable works) the Witch vowed never to dabble in the relationships of others again.
The years passed and the Witch became increasingly bitter. She took her feelings out on the townspeople, causing their crops to fail, their milk to turn sour, and even causing them to suffer terrible plagues of disease. In desperation they called for Father Bernard, the man whom the witch had caused to become a monk. Acknowledging their need, his superior, The Abbot of Glastonbury, obliged and appointed him to exorcise the Witch.
Father Bernard approached the entrance to the caves flanked by villagers, but as they drew closer, one by one they halted in their approach, too frightened to continue. Indeed, the priest himself must have felt some fear, but, believing his God to be with him, he continued into the dark caverns. Treading softly he entered the first chamber. There, hunched over a pool of water was the Witch. She addressed him, "Rash beyond all reason, why comest thou to look on me?"
Summoning his courage, Bernard spoke, "It is Holy Mother Church that bids thee. Repent Oh misguided spirit, and leave thy wickedness ere judgment overtake thee. Thou troiblest heaven with they sorceries and thy mischiefs are abhorred of all mankind. Repent and put way the powers of evil for they spells shall not avail thee against the wrath that is to come," as he finished speaking he realised the Witch was muttering something into the pool, when she fell silent he tried again, "I say once more, repent; for thy wizardry can harm me not."
Rising and turning, the witch raised her head. Her eyes still hidden by her cowl, she made a quick sign with her hands and began advancing towards the priest joined at her side by a goat and a snarling dog. The monk, realising he was now in danger, raised his hand and began speaking in Latin. His tone was unhurried, but strong, and the Witch was momentarily taken aback, she stopped, standing in a shallow pool of water at the edge of the river. Father Bernard raised his hand up and opened his palm to the sky and the Witch suddenly gasped as if in pain, the priest had blessed the water she was standing in! Shrieking, she tried to escape, but found some invisible force was holding her in place. The priest slowly lowered his hand and her shrieking stopped, her features froze, and slowly, she began to turn to stone, a look of utter hatred upon her face. The transformation complete, Father Bernard regarded the stone figure, rising from the river, with sadness and pity, then, picking up his lamp, calmly left the cavern.
The History of the Caves (1703-2004AD)
For the next nine hundred and fifty years, the caves go unrecorded by history. Meanwhile, the village of Wookey Hole grew into a bustling community. The Doomsday book records it as having a flour mill, powered by a waterwheel in the river axe, and in 1610 a paper-mill is recorded on the site. But, aside from minor innovations and growth in population, little changed in Wookey Hole for nearly a millennium.
1703: The first guided tour of the caves was conducted, although it wouldn't become common practice for forty five years.
1748 The legend of the Witch of Wookey is transcribed into print for the first time. Intrigued by the legend, some more wealthy people, who could afford to travel to the village would pay to be taken into the cave system to view the stone carcass. For the next two hundred years locals would guide wealthy visitors around the first four chambers.
1857: A canal is dug in order to help the transportation of raw materials to and from the mill. A dam that fed the river-water into the canal was built, and one effect of this was to flood caves four and five, rendering them impassable.
1912: The archaeologist H.E. Balch discovered evidence of the witch's existence when he found the bones of an old woman, a dog, and a goat buried in cave one along with a polished alabaster ball. Judging by the breaks in her bones she had apparently been killed in an act of violence, possibly, he theorised, the work of a vigilante mob. So much for Father Bernard.
1935: Professional divers, Jack Sheppard, Graham Balcombe and Penelope Powell, venture past cave three. This is an arduous and dangerous task. It was decided that Sheppard should stay behind in cave three and man the air pump (there were no compressed air cylinders in those days, the divers were wearing old-style diving suits trailing a telephone cable and a tube to carry their air) and Balcombe and Powel should venture through the tunnel carved by the River Axe. Balcombe went first, dragging with him the telephone cable and air-pipe. As he clambered through the small tunnel, there were several moments when the pump failed and he was forced just to slowly breath the air in his helmet and suit. Eventually, however, he emerged shortly followed by Powell, into the as yet unseen chamber seven. Although the adventure was considered a success, it was deemed that cave-diving would require divers to be free of all surface connections.
1947: Using new equipment developed in World War Two, chamber nine was reached. This high vaulted chamber, it was decided, would be made into a forward base for cave divers, and permanent telephone line and electric lighting was laid to facilitate this.
1949: Ex-Royal Marine Gordon Marriott dies of asphyxiation after running out of oxygen whilst attempting to reach cave eleven.
1955: Bob Davies, joined by John Buxton and Oliver Wells and using the French-developed aqualung, attempt to reach cave eleven. Davies had fins and was swimming whilst Buxton and Wells simply used the tried and tested technique of "bottom walking" somewhere around cave ten, visibility was down to a few feet, and Davies detached from the group. Reasoning he had decided to return to chamber nine, Buxton and Wells pushed on to reach chamber eleven. Returning an hour later, they realise that Davies must still be in the tunnels, with what was when they last saw him, less than one hour's worth of air.
What had happened was that Davies had gotten lost in the low visibility, and, attempting to find his way on his own had been running out of air. Realising he only had twelve minutes left, he attempted to surface and miraculously found himself in the previously unknown, chamber thirteen. Davies new that there was almost no chance a rescue operation would be mounted and so, after several hours of deliberating, set his compass to what he hoped was the right direction, and dived. With only minutes to spare before his air ran out, he discovered the old 1947 pipe and, pulling on it hard enough to snap it, made it back to cave nine with only seconds of air remaining. In cave nine, he found enough supplies to enable him to return to cave three, and, at three a.m. that morning, walked out of Wookey Hole caves. Later he said of his experience: "the Devil is a gentleman."
1960: John Buxton makes it to chamber fifteen.
1966: Dave Savage reaches chamber eighteen
1970: John Parker becomes the first person to set foot in chamber twenty, the largest cavern in the complex.
1971: The massive submarine chamber twenty one is conquered and divers make it to chamber twenty two.
1975: The Doctor Who story "Revenge of the Cybermen" is filmed in the caves.
1976: Colin Edmunds, Geoff Yeadon, Oliver Statham and Martyn Farr reach chamber twenty five, the last known chamber in the series. Below it lies a diagonal tunnel, hundreds of metres long.
1982: Martyn Farr makes it to a depth of 60 metres, whereupon the tunnel becomes less than thirty centimetres high.
1985: Rob Parker's head is forced into the gravel floor at a depth of 67 metres. This depth has yet to be beaten.
2004: Gerry Cottle, the owner of the Electric Circus, the Moscow State Circus and the Chinese State Circus, buys the caves and surrounding attractions for £6.5 million.
The Caves Today
Disclaimer, actually, I haven't visited the caves for a couple of years, I would have done so purely as research, but, some things, have been spending my money for me, not that I mind…
Once you've paid to get in, the caves are your first stop. After a short walk along a leafy road to get to the entrance, you come upon a large cliff-face with the cave entrance, a roughly six feet tall hole in the rock, at its base. Once there, you will meet your tour-guide, typically a male of female in their early to mid twenties wearing a name-tag. Mine, if I remember rightly, was a man named Paul. The guides will take you on a walk through the caves whilst recounting their history. The tour is suitable for all audiences, although this does mean the talks are somewhat simplistic, and it lasts around forty minutes.
Chamber One, Goatsherd Chamber
This is a very small chamber at the beginning of your tour, it has a low ceiling and little of note in it, however, it is in here that your tour guide will hand out hard-hats to those who are tall enough to knock their heads on the low ceilings, and to small children, who will cry if they don't get one. They will also assure everyone that the caves are perfectly safe and that there is electric lighting throughout.
Chamber Two, The Witch's Kitchen
This is the first true cavern. Your tour guide will lead you down a short flight of ancient stairs, into a huge chamber with a high vaulted ceiling filled with stalactites. Here your guide will attempt to mildly scare the smaller children by telling the tale of the Witch of Wookey, (our guide claimed she will come back to life and turn anyone who wears trainers into frogs, but I doubt this is part of the original legend). The guide will point out the stalagmite that is supposed to be the Witch, but it really does look nothing at all like a person (not as far as I could see anyway), more a large fist coming out of the ground. So as not to be faced with the awkward situation of small children claiming "it doesn't look anything like a witch" the guide will be equipped with a torch that projects a green silhouette of a generic cartoon witch onto the cave's walls.
Chamber Three, The Witch's Parlour
This is the last of the so-called "dry chambers" and is probably my favourite. It is an unusual room with a low, slightly arcing ceiling that was, your guide will tell you, "carved by the swirl of the river axe over millions of years." Indeed the river does flow though the chamber and looks fearsomely deep, but more important is the roof, that, according to out guide at least, shouldn't really be able to support itself. It is so unsafe in fact, that a person is employed to check it once a year to make sure it is still stable, (your guide will probably tell you "he's due tomorrow").
Chamber Nine, The Cathedral Cave
After being led through an artificial, dynamite-blasted tunnel, you will emerge into the magnificent Cathedral Cave, and it certainly does live up to its name. This is a huge chamber with massive stalactites and stalagmites everywhere and walls so high you can see the layers of sediment and difference mineral deposits from different periods in history. Once fascinating attribute of this cave are the walls; for, as your guide will point out, if you look carefully, there are dozens of small shellfish fossilised into them. On most days there will be a short, mildly entertaining, light and sound show in this cave to show off it's impressive, awe-inspiring structure.
The Paper Mill
After exiting the caves, and following your guide past the old Hyena dens by the side of the Canal, you will be taken into the old Victorian-style paper-mill in which old rags are processed to make paper of the finest quality. For those who are interested in such things, this is a fascinating tour of one of the first factories in the country. You are shown each stage of paper-making, from how the rags were collected, to the pulping process, to the moulding and water-marking, to the final drying and printing. Children may also try their hand at some of the stages. The paper is, of course, available for purchase in the gift shop.
There is a rhyme on the wall of the mill which in a way summed up the Victorian business practices:
Rags make paper,
Paper makes money,
Money makes banks,
Banks make loans,
Loans make beggars
Beggars make rags.
The Mirror Maze
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the visit is the mirror maze. The maze consists of mirrors set at exactly 60° angles along the walls of various passageways, creating the effect of a huge vaulted crypt, such as one you might find in a cathedral. Due to the angle of the mirrors, it is almost impossible to tell whether you are about to walk into a wall or a passage until you bump into yourself. It's hard to convey how much fun this attraction is, but trust me, you can spend a long time in there (although not always voluntarily).
The Penny Arcade
One of the endearing attributes of this final attraction is the use of pre-decimalisation currency. When I was last there, you could exchange 20p for an old penny and use them to play on a wide selection of old machines. They range from the traditional one-armed bandit, to the more unusual crude animation devices, to the bizarre puppet-shows depicting British, French, Chinese and American methods of execution. There is also of course the obligatory coin presser, which, for about a pound, will warp and twist a (new) penny into an oval with the Wookey Hole Caves logo imprinted upon it.
Overall, Wookey Hole is worth a visit, perhaps for half a day on the way to somewhere, or coming back from a holiday in the south. The caves are magnificent, the paper mill is fascinating and the other attractions are good fun. It's not a day out that will blow you away, but an interesting and mildly entertaining place to visit.
Submitted as an entry for Everything Quests: Places to visit in Ireland and the UK