Shaped over millions of years, the natural beauty of Britain’s largest gorge is clear – but there are secrets of human history lurking here too, under the surface
When the 12th-century historian Henry of Huntingdon wrote in his chronicle Historia Anglorum of the “four wonders which may be seen in England”, he included the caves of Cheddar Gorge, right after Stonehenge. “There is an underground cavern which many people have often entered, but although they have travelled a long way over dry land and over rivers, they have never been able to come out at the other end,” he declared.
It is easy to see why he chose Cheddar, and why the gorge and caves deep in Somerset still regularly feature in polls of Britain’s greatest natural wonder. The views from the top are breathtaking and the caves, which have been used by humans for 40,000 years, have revealed important discoveries about prehistoric peoples.
The town of Cheddar, famous for its cheese, lies on the edge of the Mendip Hills, a rugged limestone landscape stretching for 23 miles. The gorge there, the largest in Britain, formed over millions of years by ice ages and falling sea levels, which raised the Mendips. As the Cheddar Yeo river froze and thawed, meltwater carved through the valley and disappeared underground.
During the 19th century, tourists were often led by candlelight around the caves – some of which were even lived in by families too poor to afford a home. In 1837, mill owner George Cox had located a stalactite cavern by accident while quarrying for limestone. He opened Cox’s Cave to the public and it became such a success that others were inspired to investigate. In the 1890s, a local named Richard Gough dug into the cave that now bears his