Witch guide to fam­ily fun

ADRIAN CAFFERY gets spooked on a trip to the Wookey Hole caves in Som­er­set

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THE ec­cen­tric old woman who lived alone in a cave aroused the sus­pi­cion of vil­lagers. They sus­pected witch­craft.

They started blam­ing her for ev­ery­thing from ill health and fail­ing crops to wi-fi out­ages and Brexit. Hear­ing their pleas for help, the Ab­bot of Glas­ton­bury Abbey sent Fa­ther Bernard into the witch’s lair, armed only with a Bi­ble, a can­dle and a chal­ice.

Af­ter a skir­mish in the cave’s en­trance, he bravely fol­lowed the witch down a path the vil­lagers called Hell’s Lad­der, from whence no-one had ever re­turned.

The witch blew out Bernard’s can­dle then taunted him, but the

monk lis­tened care­fully to the sound of the river that flowed through the caves.

He blindly made his way to the wa­ter’s edge and filled his chal­ice with wa­ter, which he blessed to make holy, then sprin­kled it through­out the cham­ber.

There was a sud­den almighty scream, fol­lowed by si­lence. Bernard man­aged to re­light his can­dle and saw the witch had been turned to stone...

This is the tale of the Witch of Wookey Hole, and vis­i­tors to the Som­er­set at­trac­tion can still see the sor­cer­ess staring out across the River Axe.

Some naysay­ers will tell you the story is make-be­lieve, that the stony witch is re­ally a big sta­lag­mite with a crooked ‘nose’ and, yes, it does sound a lit­tle fan­ci­ful. But the dis­cov­ery in the caves of a woman’s skele­ton along­side an al­abaster ball – now on dis­play at a mu­seum in Wells – lends the tale some cre­dence.

Well, apart from the wi-fi and Brexit, that is.

There are many high­lights on a 45-minute guided tour of the Wookey Hole caves.

The Witch’s Par­lour, one of the five cham­bers you visit on the tour, was carved out by a swirling whirlpool and is the UK’s largest nat­u­ral un­der­ground dome.

Sci-fi shows Blake’s 7 and Doc­tor Who have been filmed here and it’s a some­what un­usual venue for a wed­ding cer­e­mony, able to hold 100 guests.

In the 70ft high Great Hall are the re­mains of bro­ken sta­lac­tites, shot down in the 1800s by the poet Alexan­der Pope. They can be seen to­day in his grotto in Lon­don.

An­other im­pres­sive cham­ber, called The Great Cathe­dral, is 100ft high, its green wa­ter is 70ft deep and its vast walls are red with iron ox­ide.

The fi­nal cham­ber, fea­tur­ing rocks bal­anced on a ra­zor edge, was only opened to the pub­lic in 2015 af­ter a 70m long tun­nel was blasted out with dy­na­mite.

If you fol­low your nose you’ll come across a long room full of Ched­dar cheese cylin­ders, all wrapped in cloth and cov­ered in lard to keep them air-tight. The caves are per­fect for ma­tur­ing cheese be­cause the tem­per­a­ture is a con­stant 11 de­grees through­out the year and there is high hu­mid­ity.

But the Wookey Witch wasn’t the first per­son to live in the caves.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered that Palae­olithic Man (40,000 BC) would have hunted bear and rhino in the val­ley and brought their prey back to the caves to eat.

Its re­cent his­tory is also in­ter­est­ing. In 1935, Wookey Hole was home to Bri­tain’s first div­ing at­tempt with breath­ing equip­ment, and in 2004 divers reached a depth of 249ft, set­ting a Bri­tish record.

Mu­se­ums de­voted to both the his­tory of the caves and the div­ing ex­pe­di­tions are housed in a 19th cen­tury pa­per mill, which used the power of the River Axe. The mill stages daily demon­stra­tions on how pa­per was once made by hand there and it is home to a range of other fam­ily-friendly at­trac­tions.

You can visit the witch’s liv­ing room where a spell has turned ev­ery­thing up­side down. From here, through a book­case, you enter a 4D Cin­ema show­ing a short Ice Age film.

There’s also a theatre where a cir­cus troupe per­forms jug­gling, wire walk­ing and magic ev­ery week­end and daily dur­ing Som­er­set school hol­i­days.

Well, not quite ev­ery week­end

be­cause on the one we vis­ited, the cir­cus had pitched up at the Glas­ton­bury Fes­ti­val down the road.

Best of all is the Vic­to­rian ‘sea­side pier’ filled with vin­tage fruit ma­chines, for­tune telling ma­chines, penny falls and games which all op­er­ate on old English pen­nies.

Con­tin­u­ing the Vic­to­rian theme, there’s a wind­ing mir­ror maze. No mat­ter how many times they did it, I never tired of watch­ing my kids walk into the glass pan­els.

Also at Wookey Hole, Di­nosaur Val­ley fea­tures sculp­tures of 20 dif­fer­ent species – some of which move and roar – plus the chance to go on a dino dig. Quite ran­domly, among the di­nosaurs is a gi­ant King Kong, giv­ing the impression you’re in a scene from 1960s cult movie King Kong vs Godzilla.

As if all that wasn’t enough there’s also a fairy gar­den, a soft play area and a pi­rate-themed adventure golf course which all got a big thumbs up from my kids.

While it’s just about pos­si­ble for a fam­ily to ex­pe­ri­ence all of Wookey’s at­trac­tions in a day, you can take the pres­sure off by stay­ing overnight.

The 58-bed­room Wookey Hole Ho­tel is a fairly un­re­mark­able build­ing ex­cept, that is, for the enor­mous witch’s hat which forms part of its roof!

There’s a mix of fam­ily, dou­ble, twin and ad­join­ing bed­rooms as well as Juli­ette, su­pe­rior and lux­ury rooms, plus the Witch’s Hat VIP suite. We stayed in a clean and com­fort­able fam­ily room and we were all im­pressed with the tow­els shaped into swans, hearts and wa­ter lil­lies.

The com­pli­men­tary wi-fi and free DVD li­brary helps keep kids en­ter­tained in the evening.

Din­ner and break­fast at the ho­tel’s res­tau­rant were de­li­cious and the wait­ing team ex­cep­tion­ally friendly, as staff were through­out Wookey.

While we were only there one night, Wookey Hole Ho­tel is also a great base for a longer break. It’s close to Wells, Glas­ton­bury and – if you haven’t had your fill of caves – Ched­dar.

In fact, ev­ery witch way there’s some­thing of in­ter­est.

The TheWookey Wookey Hole caves, left and above The witch sta­lag­mite

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