Mendip Hills – Somerset
Up on the grassy heights of the Mendips, where ancient hill forts surmount the steep limestone escarpment, there are some of the best views in Somerset down to Glastonbury Tor and the Levels. This great, high plateau is scored through by vast gorges, pitted with underground caves and rich in Roman, Iron Age and prehistoric remains .
Formed over a million years ago during the last Ice Age from great torrents of glacier melt water, Cheddar Gorge is England’s largest canyon. In places it is 400 feet deep, and a staggering three miles long. A walk along its cliff-top ‘skyline’, among its weathered crags and pinnacles offers magnificent panoramas and the chance to spot peregrine falcons swooping below.
It’s not surprising that this extraordinary landscape inspired artists and writers: it is said that Gough’s Cave was the inspiration for Helm’s Deep in Tolkien’s The Two Towers. If you visit only one show cave in the Cheddar complex, make it this one. The spectacular cavern was scooped out when the melt waters of the Cheddar Yeo worked their way underground. Cheddar Man, Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, was also found here, as well as the country’s earliest evidence of cannibalism.
There are hundreds of miles of wild caves in the Mendips, but most are gated and only accessible to caving clubs. A few remain open to the casual explorer however. Monster Cavern is in the gorge itself or head north to Goatchuch Cave, once a Victorian show cave, now hidden among undergrowth in the woods of Burrington Combe. To the east, Ebbor Gorge, a scaled-down and wilder version of Cheddar, has rock shelters where human, reindeer and cave bear bones have been discovered.
According to some sources, the richness of the lead ore deposits in the Mendips was one of the reasons the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43. At Ubley Warren, there is abundant evidence of lead mining from Roman times, and even the remains of an amphitheatre. Ruins and strange shaped furrows abound and in Velvet Bottom the worked lead seams, known as ‘rakes’, are now home to bee orchids, slow-worms and lizards.
As the day draws to a close, leave the underground caves, mines and passageways of the Mendips behind and make for the hilltops. High up on the slopes around Ebbor and Priddy are some of the best vantage points in Somerset – perfect places to fly kites and watch the sun go down. There are magnificent views out across the Bristol Channel, Wales and Glastonbury Tor, wonderful places to enjoy a summer dusk and camp wild.