Witch guide to family fun
ADRIAN CAFFERY gets spooked on a trip to the Wookey Hole caves in Somerset
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