Northwest of Wells, the Mendip Hills are chiefly famous for Wookey Hole – the most impressive of many caves in this narrow limestone chain – and for Cheddar Gorge, where a walk through the narrow cleft makes a starting point for more adventurous trips across the Mendips. Both can be reached on regular buses from Wells.
Six miles west of Wookey on the A371, the nondescript village of Cheddar has given its name to Britain’s best-known cheese – most of it now mass-produced far from here – and is also renowned for the Cheddar Gorge, lying beyond the neighbourhood of Tweentown about a mile to the north.
Cutting a jagged gash across the Mendip Hills, the limestone gorge is an amazing geological phenomenon, though its natural beauty is rather compromised by the minor road running through it and by the Lower Gorge’s mile of shops and parking areas. Few trippers venture further than the first few curves of the gorge, which holds its most dramatic scenery, though each turn of the two-mile length presents new, sometimes startling vistas.
At its narrowest the road squeezes between cliffs towering almost 500ft above. Those in a state of honed fitness can climb the 274 steps of Jacob’s Ladder to a cliff-top viewpoint looking towards Glastonbury Tor, with occasional glimpses of Exmoor and the sea (daily: 10am–5.30pm; winter 10.30am–4.30pm; £4.80, free to Cheddar Caves ticket-holders). Alternatively, you can reach the same spot more easily via the narrow lane winding up behind the cliffs.
There’s a circular three-mile cliff-top Gorge Walk, and you can branch off along marked paths to such secluded spots as Black Rock, just two miles from Cheddar, or Black Down, at 1067ft the Mendips’ highest point.
Beneath the towering Cheddar Gorge, the Cheddar Caves were scooped out by underground rivers in the wake of the Ice Age, and subsequently occupied by primitive communities. Today the caves are floodlit to pick out the subtle tones of the rock, and the array of rock formations that resemble organ pipes, waterfalls and giant birds. Tickets include a trip through the Gorge on an open-top bus.
It’s folklore rather than geology that takes precedence at Wookey Hole, a stunning cave complex of deep pools and intricate rock formations hollowed out by the River Axe. Highlight of the hour-long tour is the alleged petrified remains of the Witch of Wookey, a “blear-eyed hag” who was said to turn her evil eye on crops, young lovers and local farmers. To finish off, there’s a functioning Victorian paper mill, rooms containing speleological exhibits, and a collection of Edwardian fairground pieces.
Top image: Cheddar Gorge, Mendip Hills, England © Marchaugh/Shutterstock