Exploring Prehistoric Caves

Spent a few hours on Bank Holiday Monday (or just ‘Monday’ to the world beyond the UK) travelling around the Mendip Hills in Somerset, which is rich in items of interest for anyone with a taste for prehistory or the Roman occupation, or the myths and legends of Britain. The landscape around the hills is wild and evocative and pretty unspoiled, as long as you ignore any business with Camelot, Arthur or Avalon in the name (otherwise known as the Glastonbury Tourist Fleecing Industry).

Cheddar Gorge is filled with plenty of spectacular caves that have turned up some great finds. Gough Cave delivered us Britain’s oldest complete skeleton in 1903 – mitochondrial DNA tests show his descendents still live in the area 9,000 years later. And nearby Soldier’s Hole contained some of the oldest Neolithic tools, dating back about 40,000 years and possibly Neanderthal.

I would normally advise you pass by Wookey Hole, not far from the cathedral city of Wells, which is essentially a pretty grotesque tourist attraction aimed unapologetically at the lowest, almost subterranean, end of the taste spectrum, complete with plastic dinosaurs and King Kong, a ludicrously inflated entry fee (£15 for adults, a tenner for kids) and the tired, desperate air of a travelling Carny. But the caves deserve to be seen, and the guides will give you a fantastic amount of interesting information if you catch them after the tour (thank you, James).

The legend says the Wookey Hole caves were the home of a witch, of the old-fashioned ‘evil’ kind, who terrorised the locals until a Glastonbury monk made sure she got her come-uppance in good old wrath of God, consigned to hell kind. Not sure how much of this is Carny huckstering – a great deal, I imagine. More interesting is the fact that the caves were sacred to the Celts, who used them as burial chambers. It’s also a powerful symbolic magical and spiritual site as the location of one of the biggest springs in the region the birthing point for the underground River Axe. There’s a suggestion that the Celts used the system of caves for numerous ritual acts.

Get past all the showmanship and there’s still a lot of power there.