Exploring Cheddar Gorge, Caves, and Cheese in Somerset, England
A Fascinating Area to Explore
The village of Cheddar is located in the county of Somerset in England. It's famous for its popular cheese, a spectacular gorge located nearby, and some fascinating caves. According to legend, Cheddar cheese originated when a milkmaid left a bucket of milk in a local cave to keep it cool and then temporarily forgot about it. When she remembered to collect the milk she found that bacteria had transformed it into a new substance—the first Cheddar cheese.
Cheddar is located in southwest England and is a popular tourist destination. Though I live in Canada now, I visited the Cheddar area when I lived in Britain. It's an impressive place to explore. Cheddar Gorge, which is situated slightly to the east of the village, is the largest gorge in Britain and contains many caves. The two biggest—Gough’s Cave and Cox’s Cave—are known as show caves and are open to the public.
Gough’s cave is famous as the original location of the Cheddar Man, an approximately 10,000-year-old male skeleton that was discovered in 1903. It's the oldest complete human skeleton found in Britain so far. The Cheddar Yeo river flows underneath Gough’s cave and forms Britain’s largest underground river system.
Cheddar cheese has traditionally been made in the Cheddar region, but today it’s also produced in many other places and countries. It's a hard cheese that is cream or pale yellow in colour and has a mild to sharp flavour, depending on its maturation time. The orange colour of many of the cheeses sold in food stores is artificial.
Mild Cheddar cheese is allowed to mature for about three months, medium cheese for about six months, and sharp cheese for nine to twelve months. The cheese with the strongest flavour matures for a longer period, which may extend to several years.
How Cheddar Cheese Is Made
Cheddar cheese is made from cow's milk. A bacterial culture is added to the liquid. The milk is then separated into solid curds and liquid whey, usually by the addition of rennet. The mixture is gently heated after the rennet has been added.
Once the pieces of curd have fully formed and joined together, a special process called cheddaring is performed. Slabs of fresh curd are piled on top of each other. The pressure created by the pile pushes additional whey out of the slabs. The pile of curd slabs is periodically flipped (usually every fifteen minutes) and more whey is allowed to drain. This process allows a firm cheese to develop.
The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company is the only cheesemaker still operating in Cheddar. It offers daily tours and operates a store. According to the company, a "true" Cheddar cheese has to meet three requirements: it must be made from milk supplied by cows grazing on vegetation around Cheddar, it must be produced by hand, and it must be matured in cloth.
Some Interesting Facts About the Cheese
- At one time cheese had to be made within thirty miles of Wells Cathedral in order to be called "Cheddar" cheese. Wells is a city in Somerset.
- King Henry the Second bought 10,240 pounds of Cheddar in 1170.
- Queen Victoria was given a drum of Cheddar that weighed over 1,000 pounds. It was reportedly made from the milk of more than 700 cows.
- When Captain Scott went to the Antarctic in 1901, he took 3,500 pounds of Cheddar with him.
Cheddar Gorge is located in the Mendip Hills (or the Mendips), which are made of limestone. Their formation began over three hundred million years ago when sea corals and shelled creatures collected on the ocean floor. Over a very long period of time, the calcium in the animals' shells was converted into limestone. At some point the ocean floor was moved upwards, forming the Mendip hills.
The formation of the gorge began about a million years ago when intensely cold glacial periods alternated with warmer interglacial periods. During each warmer period, some of the snow and ice that had formed during the glacial period melted. The process produced powerful meltwater floods that carried rocks and debris and gradually carved a passageway through the limestone. Today the gorge is about four-hundred-and-fifty feet deep and about three miles long.
Cheddar Gorge is a nature reserve. It's a great place for walking, rock climbing, caving, nature study, and photography. An open-top double decker bus accompanied by a tour guide travels through the gorge. The guided tour is good for people who don't feel up to more vigorous activity or who would like to get an overview of what the gorge offers.
Caves form when water drips through limestone and dissolves it. Gough's cave is the larger of the two show caves in the Cheddar Gorge and has multiple chambers. It contains spectacular and colourful formations of stalactites and stalagmites as well as underground pools. The River Yeo once ran through Gough's cave, but now it flows underneath the cave.
The cave is carefully illuminated to produce an almost magical appearance, which I still remember from my visit. Free audio guides are available for visitors to carry around as they explore. The opening of the cave is surrounded by a visitor's complex, which includes a coffee shop.
Cox's cave is attractive, too. It's more tourist-oriented than Gough's cave, however. Like Gough's cave, Cox's cave is illuminated, but the trip through the cave is also accompanied by music.
Cox's cave connects to a chamber with a display called "The Crystal Quest". This is described as a "fantasy adventure" and contains models of Tolkienesque characters. J.R.R. Tolkien (John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 1892-1973) visited Cheddar Gorge during his honeymoon. He's known for his imaginative books, including The Hobbit. Tolkien is thought to have based some of the scenes in his books on his memories of the gorge.
As people walk through the display in Cox's Cave, they follow the story of a quest for a special crystal. I've never seen the Crystal Quest display, but it sounds like it might be fun for children. It's still worth visiting Cox's cave even if you don't like the commercialization in order to see its natural and beautiful features.
Jacob's Ladder and Cave Surroundings
Near Cox's cave is Jacob's Ladder, a series of 274 steps that lead up the side of a cliff to a viewpoint and lookout tower. (There are places for climbers to rest on the way up.) The viewpoint connects to a walking trail that travels over the cliff tops of the gorge.
Specialty shops are located in the area around the caves. The shops provide the opportunity to buy local Cheddar cheese as well as other items. Cheese is left in Gough's cave to mature because the cave provides a good humidity and temperature for cheese ripening.
A museum is located near the caves. Artifacts discovered in the gorge caves are displayed here, as well as a replica of the Cheddar Man. The real skeleton is in the Museum of Natural History in London.
Cheddar Man was about 5 feet 5 inches tall. He lived during the Mesolithic, the period of time between the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and the Neolithic (New Stone Age). The caves were occupied by humans as long ago as the Paleolithic period.
DNA of the man (the genetic material) has been discovered. This has enabled scientists to learn more about him. They say that he had dark skin and blue eyes, a combination that wasn't uncommon at the time when he was alive. The typically pale colour of Europeans appeared later. The man was lactose intolerant, another common feature of humans in the area at that time. Cheddar Man lived during the period when the UK was connected to Europe by land.
Analysis of human remains found around Gough's cave suggests that the cave inhabitants were cannibals, but the reason for the cannibalism is unknown. The cannibalism could have been part of a ritual or it could have arisen because food was very hard to find during cold periods.
Many rare plants and animals live in the Cheddar Gorge and caves. The largest colony of greater horseshoe bats in the United Kingdom inhabits Gough's cave. This bat is endangered in the UK. Lesser horseshoe bats also nest in the caves, and these too are endangered in the United Kingdom. Peregrine falcons, dormice, water voles, great crested newts, and cave spiders are other animals that live in the gorge. Soay sheep graze on the cliffs and goats have been introduced to control the overgrowth of certain plants.
Some plants grow around Cheddar but nowhere else in Britain. The Cheddar Pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus) is grown as a garden plant, but the only place it grows in the wild in the UK is in the Cheddar Gorge. It's also known as the firewitch or as Bath's Pink. Another plant whose only British habitat is the gorge is the Cheddar Bedstraw (Galium fleurotii). Three new species of whitebeam trees have been discovered in the gorge.
Location of Cheddar Village and the Gorge
A visit to Cheddar is very worthwhile for people travelling to Somerset or a nearby county. There's a bus service to Cheddar from Western-Super-Mare and from Bristol. A railway line used to pass through the village, but the line has now become part of a long distance footpath. The gorge is just a short walk away from Cheddar village. The area contains hotels and other forms of accommodation. Information about activities, accommodation, and transport can be found on the Cheddar village website. I hope I'm able to visit the area again. It's fascinating to explore.
References and Resources
- The Cheddar Village website has information about the village and the surrounding attractions.
- The Cheddar Gorge website is run by Longleat Enterprises. It has information about the gorge that may be helpful for tourists.
- The National Trust also has a website about the gorge. The goal of the organization is to preserve areas of natural beauty and cultural significance.
- The Countryman magazine has a report about the discovery of three new whitebeam species in Cheddar Gorge.
- The website of the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company has information about the history of the cheese.
- The Natural History Museum has a web page about Cheddar Man.
- Cheddar Man's physical appearance from the BBC
© 2012 Linda Crampton