By Ken Potter
On a visit to England’s West Country, it’s easy to miss the village of Cheddar, tucked away at the foot of the Mendip Hills, 18 miles southwest of Bristol. But this picturesque gem, hidden deep in rural Somerset, is a trove of touristic treasure and well worth the effort of swinging off the main highway.
Behind the village, cleaving into the Mendips, is the world-famous Cheddar Gorge — three miles of sheer limestone cliffs that soar 450 feet on either side of the snaking road. The Gorge was formed by meltwater floods over hundreds of thousands of years.
Over time, the surrounding countryside has played host to a variety of human inhabitants. Primitive man lived in the caves at the foot of the Gorge, Cheddar was a Roman center, and Saxon and Norman kings came to hunt. One of the cave-dwellers, the “Cheddar Man,” Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton, was excavated in Gough’s Cave in 1903.
These days, the caves’ complex provides a fascinating insight into the past. Visitors can purchase Explorer tickets which give access to the Gorge and the caves, the Cliff-Top Walk, and the Museum of Prehistory (audio guides and tour bus included). Another option is the Combo ticket which also includes the attractions at Longleat Safari & Adventure Park. By buying online, it’s possible to save up to 15% off the price of the tickets.
Visitors who enjoy stretching their limbs can prepare for a treat. Close to Cox’s Cave, the 274 steps up the side of the Gorge lead to the Lookout Tower. From the top there are magnificent views of the Gorge and of the Somerset Levels.
The Lookout Tower is the ideal starting point for the Cliff-Top Gorge Walk which follows along the crest, providing even more breathtaking vistas that include a bird’s eye view of the winding road far below. No dinosaurs these days, but in between clambering over stiles it’s possible to come across a flock of feral sheep, primitive goats, or a kestrel, buzzard, or peregrine falcon swooping on high. For those wishing to engage in more extreme pursuits, Cheddar offers a wide selection of outdoor activities such as rock-climbing and adventure caving. Qualified instruction is available.
For those less physically inclined, leading up to the beginning of the Gorge is a long line of pretty shops, tea rooms, and an art gallery. Sweets, ice cream, and crazy golf should keep the kids happy.
Cheddar is, of course, the origin of the eponymous cheese and the process of making it can be viewed at the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company. “See it made, try it, choose it, take it home, enjoy it,” as their advertising sign advises.
Should you wish to make a base in Cheddar for a short while, the interesting towns of Bath, Bristol, Wells, Weston-Super-Mare, and Glastonbury are all within easy reach by car.
One place not to be missed is Land’s End Farm in Mudgley. A bit difficult to find (ask a local!) but it’s worth the effort when the characterful owner, Roger Wilkins, bids you welcome with a sample half-pint of his CAMRA award-winning cider. The brew can be enjoyed while sitting on a rickety old bench in his ‘lounge bar’ surrounded by vats.
It would be a crime to travel through Somerset and not sample of their best, wouldn’t it?
Information and tickets: www.cheddargorge.co.uk
Useful accommodation website: www.cheddarvillage.org.uk/accommodation/serviced
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