What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
- William H Davies 1871 - 1940
Cheddar Gorge is surely one of the most awesome geological features in England - no description can ever do it justice, you need to be there to absorb the magnificence and aura of the place. Its naturally rugged high sides and flat cliff tops make it deservedly a Site of Special Scientific Interest in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; it is a haven for many rare species of plants and animals and also for the more abundant species - the tourist.
Cheddar Gorge lies in the heart of the Mendip Hills in the English county of Somerset. It is part of a landscape of rolling hills, limestone outcrops, caves, and long-forgotten lead mines. 300 million years ago, Carboniferous limestone was laid down over an existing layer of Red Sandstone as plants and sea creatures died and sank in the warm seas of the Carboniferous Period. In the Jurassic period another layer of limestone was deposited on top of this and huge earth movements heaved and buckled the layers to form the Mendips. The softer rock of the hill tops was gradually eroded resulting in the gentle plateaux which contrast greatly with the Gorge itself. That such deep layers could ever be formed by the deaths of tiny plants and animals is almost beyond belief, but the evidence is there in front of your eyes in the hundreds of meters of sedimentary rock.
Although the earliest signs of man's inhabitation of the caves date back 40,000 years, just over 200 years ago the Gorge was practically unknown. The track through the Gorge was treacherous and most people avoided it, made even more fearful by tales of ghosts and hauntings. During the Victorian era a sudden interest in exploration and nature brought scientists to the area, facilitated by the building of a coach road, and the remote character of the Gorge was to change for ever.
Nowadays, if you are driving in the area, you will find yourself travelling through fairly typical English countryside - narrow winding roads, gently undulating patchworks of fields with stone walls and hedgerows, small towns, villages and farms. If you don't know the area, the easiest way approach the Gorge is from the west. You will pass through the small town of Cheddar and no doubt be shocked by the hideous concrete structures that have been built around the entrances to the caves. But, as the road leaves the town and winds around yet another bend, you are instantly dwarfed by the high rock faces that take your breath away and suddenly you're an insignificant dot in an ancient landscape, a tiny blip in the history of the world.
The rocks that form the sides of the Gorge hide a network of underground tunnels and caves eroded by the melt-waters of Ice Ages and by millions of years of rain. Visitors to the caves are able to go into the touristy Gough's Cave, Cox's Cave and the Crystal Quest - on production of a wallet full of cash! These are worth a visit if huge caves and pillars of stalactites and stalagmites take your fancy, but if it's the great outdoors that inspires you, most of that is free of charge, with the exception of Jacob's Ladder - a gruelling 274 steps that take you up to the top of the Gorge to admire the views the easy way!