Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers. And we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way
Peter Halloween’s the time when witches, hobgoblins and demons come out to play. And where better to be spooked than Wookey Hole in the scenic Mendip Hills in the west of England? Wookey is an underground cave complex supposedly haunted by a 1,000-year-old witch. She was blamed for every death and misfortune that befell the community back in the days of Alfred the Great. She finally came to grief when a young monk from nearby Glastonbury – yes, home of the present-day music festival – turned her to stone with a well-aimed bucket of holy water.
Felice Current owner of the caves is the circus promoter, Gerry Cottle. He bought some of the sparkle of the Big Top to the caves and Wookey Hole today is a major tourist attraction. We headed to Somerset early on All Hallows Eve for a private tour of the caves and a chat with the witch before they opened up to 1,800 visitors. I actually expected something a bit tacky, but I was in for quite a surprise.
Witch The night is not for sleeping, dearie. The night is for receiving sustenance of another kind.
Peter Our guide, David, used to teach history at Manchester University before he became a caveman, so he’s well versed on the historical timeline since the cave provided shelter for early man. So David, here we are at the entrance to the caves. I see some interesting low ceilings and there’s a witches’ cauldron over there and indeed a witch.
David Yes, indeed, this is the 1927 entrance and that’s when Wookey Hole first opened to the public. We do have some Halloween artefacts around today because this is a busy week for Wookey Hole, simply because it’s quite famous for its witch.
Peter You change witches every now and again, I gather?
David We do change, which is every now and then. Although the witch spirit that tends to be haunting this cave is one and only and about 1,000 years old.
Peter Right, let’s walk on in.
David We’re now heading to the Goat Herder, our first chamber.
Felice We have to watch where we’re going. There are lots of steps, aren’t there?
David There are indeed.
Peter It’s quite eerie because we are doing this and by torchlight only because we are coming in before the public and now we’re going up some steps…
Felice …which are a bit wet in places.
David We might be lucky to see a few bats. Who lit that candle? Very strange…I didn’t.
Felice So are your visitors mainly families?
David Mainly families and often couples and sometimes people who are very interested in the geology of the caves. We’re now in the Goat Herder – this is where the bones of a middle-aged lady, along with the bones of two goats, were found. This gave rise to the myth of the Wookey Hole legend.
Peter So how old are the caves?
David The caves are many millions of years old, though known to man for about at least 20,000 years. Where we’re standing at the moment, Stone Age artefacts were found, so Paleolithic man made use of these caves for shelter some 20,000 years ago.
Felice David, what would they have eaten while they were living here?
David They would have eaten all of the wildlife around here: deer, wild boar, anything they could cut.
David Wild mammoths were in this area, and we found the teeth of cave hyenas and cave bears.
Peter So you’re very nice and dry in here, and well ventilated.
David It certainly is. We’re very fortunate on that because these caves are a natural one-way system and very well ventilated indeed. I’ll lead the way. It is very dark down here. This is called Hell’s Ladder. It was thought by the ancients to lead directly to hell from which there was no return.
Peter Let’s hope they’re wrong.
David I hope so.
Felice It’s quite steep, too.
David It is steep and we have to be extremely careful.
Peter Yes, I’m holding on as we go down these steps. It’s very steep – going past a pretty unpleasant looking sort of skeletal figure. It’s quite eerie down here.
David That’s where the bats live, up there. Two sorts of bats inhabit this cave: the larger and greater horseshoe bat.
Peter Will we see some of those?
David Maybe. They tend to hear us come in and hide away – secretive little creatures. Then we’re coming down to some steps now,
Peter Quite a low roof here, and then the cave widens out magnificently into the great cathedral-like chamber.
Felice And I wasn’t expecting this to be so big.
David Beautiful caverns. Do be careful here, especially on these steps.
Felice Do you recommend that people bring torches with them?
David It’s very well lit when the lights come on.
Peter Look at that. So there’s a lake.
David This is the river, it flows from left to right, as we’re looking at it, this massive cavern is called the Witch’s Kitchen and the lights miraculously have come on.
Peter And the little boat…can you go in the boat down there?
David The boat is there for the Wild Wookey attraction, which is a three-hour adventure caving tour. Actually, it recently won the gold medal in the Visit England Competition for Adventure Holidays. This involves abseiling, climbing, zip wire, all sorts of stuff.
Felice Some of it inside the cave?
David Much of it inside the cave. They abseil down that rope, in fact. Some of the largest stalagmites you’ll see…on the left is the Giant, it’s about 100,000 years old…to St Michael’s Mount in the middle…and the Beehive. Some really quite beautiful formations in this cave, formed over hundreds of thousands of years.
Peter It’s beautiful.
Felice So how long has this been an attraction?
David It’s been an attraction in the modern sense of the word since 1927. The initial exploration work was done by Herbert Balch, a famous local geologist. We’re just venturing forward now into the Great Hall, which is a second major chamber. This is the first major chamber – it’s called the Witch’s Kitchen. Legend has it that the witch was turned to stone by a visiting priest, at the behest of the local villagers.
Peter And when was this meant to happen?
David About 1,000 years ago. And that’s the witch stone where the witch got turned to stone by Father Bernard.
Peter So Halloween must be your biggest weekend of the year then, in some ways?
David The biggest weekend of the year is usually the August bank holiday. But certainly, Halloween is a very important week for us. We just need to watch our heads now as we are going into a second major chamber. It goes down to about a metre and a half here. Very carefully…stay nice and close together and right this is the workspace right down here. Really go down and stay down.
Peter Wow. Then another cathedral-like chamber, the Great Hall.
David Yes, about 70 foot high, all formed by water coming in from above and the undercutting action of the River Axe from below. And see the effect of this slightly acidic rain’s had on the limestone over the years.
Peter Does the water come in from outside?
David Yes, it does. It gathers on the Mendips and runs down fissures in the rock, eroding the rock over millions of years. That substance up the walls is where the first cave guides came here in the 1920s. They didn’t have the benefit of electricity, so threw oil and paraffin up the walls to set fire to it to illuminate the way. I don’t think it would pass health and safety today. Once again, take a bit of care, and see that water is coming down a bit now. We tend to get a 24-hour time lag.
Peter Twenty-two metres high, that’s enormous.
David Yes. And it’s in this chamber really, where you can see the rather stark effects that the slightly acidic rain has had on the limestone over the course of some hundred million years.
Peter So the age-old question: stalactites go up and stalagmites come down, or is it the other way round?
David The other way round, I’m afraid. Mites up, tites down.
Felice I was always told stalactites have to hold on tight.
David You’ve got it.
Peter I never got it right, as you can see.
David You’ve got a 50/50 chance.
Peter Down here we’ve got a sort of mist as well. Is that a natural mist?
David Well, we do enhance it a bit at this time of year – my friend Chris and his smoke machine. But often in the afternoon, a natural and quite beautiful mist does lie upon the water here.
Felice So which doctor was it?
Felice So they brought the TARDIS in here?
David They did indeed. Now do be careful here, folks.
Felice This is very low.
David This is quite low here. And we will now go under the Witch’s Chimney.
Peter I’m sort of bent double coming out of here.
David OK, out you come now. If you look up there, you can see an example of lampenflora. It’s a German word literally means ‘lamp plants’ and there’s hart’s tongue ferns and they grow here under electric lights. The spores drift in and they have just enough nutrients from the rocks to grow and live.
Peter Extraordinary. You wouldn’t think anything will grow this far underground.
David Nature always finds a way, as they said, in Jurassic Park – hopefully not that kind of wild life. Come under here, folks, and let’s go into the Witch’s Parlour. Stay down for a bit here; don’t come up too early, that’s the key.
This is the Witch’s Parlour. It’s a dome-shaped chamber formed in an interesting way by the scouring action of ancient whirlpools. It’s what gave this chamber its beautiful dome shaped appearance, is also what gives the caves beautiful acoustics, which is why we do filming here music and weddings.
Peter That sounds wonderful. Certainly it sounds great in here.
Felice So do the bride and groom usually dress up as witches and wizards?
David We often have Gothic type weddings here. Haven’t had a bride dressed as a witch yet, but they tend to be quite unusual affairs and it all seems to go down quite well.
Peter Well, if you start married life down here, you can only go up really.
David Well, absolutely, the only way is up. So this was the extent of the first three major chambers and this was where the tour would have ended in 1975. In 1975, we excavated some tunnels through to chambers, which were found initially by cave divers. So from this point onwards, the cave divers were the discoverers, the pioneers.
Peter Am I right in thinking that cave diving was in its infancy here?
David The first ever cave dive was actually performed here on the 14th of July 1935, by Graham Balcombe and a local girl called Penelope Powell. Ever since then, Wookey Hole has been the home of British cave diving. They tend to have their anniversaries here, their dinners here, and I don’t know if you remember the time football team that was caught in those caves out in Thailand? Two of the divers came from here that went to rescue them.
Felice And what does cave diving involve? Can you tell us a bit about it?
David Yes. I mean, the first cave dive in was basically where they walked under the water with lead boots and very, very primitive equipment. Since then, technology and equipment has improved many, many fold, obviously. And these days they’ve got the very top equipment, the very top gas and air mixtures. And the biggest dive they do is to the furthest chamber Chamber 25, four and a half hours there, four and a half hours back – with stop-offs along the way.
Felice And they presumably have to be extremely experienced divers to do this?
David Yes, it’s a very dangerous pastime and training takes many years, I believe. We’re now going up into our first manmade tunnel, which leads to where we keep our mature cheddar cheese.
Peter Of course, and not forget that we’re in the heart of Cheddar Cheese country here, about 12 miles from the village of Cheddar itself. So these adventure courses in normal times are very popular, but you can’t run them in the moment, presumably?
David We do run them. One in the morning, one in the afternoon.
Peter And what they involve? Tell me about it.
David Crawling through small holes, climbing, abseiling, and you exit the caves on a zip wire.
Felice Can children do it as well?
David I’m afraid not. The age limit is 14 because the activities are quite strenuous.
Peter We seem to have triggered a few extra-terrestrial noises, which is a bit scary and very Halloween. This is really quite eerie.
Felice It is. It’s quite cold in here too. I’m glad I’m wearing a jacket.
David Yes, it’s 11 degrees in here. Indeed, it’s 11 degrees every day. That’s one of the reasons we store our cheese down here. It’s a constant temperature, perfect for maturing cheddar. It’s also very humid, which stops the cheese drying and losing weight.
Felice I’ve always seen cheeses that said ‘cave aged’ and I always wondered if they really were aged inside a cave. And now I know.
David Each cheese weighs about 38 kilograms, matured here for between six months and one year.
Peter So is this local cheese from…I mean, it’s cheddar but does it come from Cheddar itself?
David No, it doesn’t. It comes from a local farm nearby, about 20 miles away. But it’s matured here. And only cheese which is matured in this cave, can be called Wookey Hole Cave Aged Cheddar. A beautiful formation there.
Peter It’s an amazing. So we’re crossing a bridge over the river, high up too, I don’t know how high, but I’m guessing it’s sort of 20 metres down.
David Yes. About that.
Felice And you don’t want to drop your mobile phone down there.
David Well, I certainly wouldn’t be going down after it. This was as far as those first cave divers got from Chamber Three. They laid a line to here subsequently in the 40s and 50s, the cave divers got further and further into the system.
Peter Is it fully explored now?
David Well, actually, two months ago they did come in – the cave divers – to see if they could get beyond Chamber 25. They didn’t succeed. They were blocked by a boulder. They’ll be coming back in a couple of months to see if they can go further. Basically, the exploration continues here all the time. And recently another tunnel was found further on in the system. Careful here guys.
Peter How many chambers are there for the public?
David 25 in total. We’re now about 150 foot underground.
Peter How many people a day do you have?
David Today we’re expecting about 1,800. This is our last bit of blue rock. Stay down you go round the corner. This is the Great Cathedral Cavern. It’s our highest chamber, 40 metres high.
David The bright red you can see is iron oxide coming out of the rock in a form that they call flowstone. The tunnel you see before you is the tunnel that leads down into our newest chamber. Unfortunately, it’s the one thing we can’t go down under the current circumstances, because it’s a dead end down there. So therefore, it’s two-way and isn’t allowed under the current circumstances. We’re taking the opportunity to extensively redevelop it.
This is actually where the diving takes place from these days. It’s the forward base from the diving. They dive under there about a kilometre up to the farthest extent of the cave, which is Chamber 25.
Peter You don’t want to suffer from claustrophobia.
David Absolutely not. I don’t think I could do it myself.
Peter I certainly couldn’t.
David I see them when they come up and they’re shivering at freezing and soaking wet. And I say: ‘Did you have a good time?’ and they say ‘Yes.’
Peter Yes, I’ve been caving only once; never again.
Felice How can people find out if they want to do that sort of thing?
David They can go on our website and we will direct them to the proper training, which they will need in order to complete these dives.
Felice And what’s your website called?
David It’s WookeyHole.com
Peter Ah, now we come to shop. Well, I wouldn’t call it exactly a shop, but selling Wookey Hole wine, cave aged wine: red, white and rose.
David And Wookey Hole cider as well. This is Somerset after all.
Felice So where can people buy this wine? In a normal shop?
David They can buy it in our gift shop and I think there are a couple of shops in Wells that sell it.
Peter This is a local vineyard?
David I believe it is.
Peter Certainly doesn’t do wonders for the labels; the damp atmosphere.
David Definitely don’t know. Now this is the exit tunnel at the end of the tour.
Peter I tell you what, I’m glad I changed my shoes. As we were leaving home, Felice said, ‘When you got those sort of moccasins on, you’re going somewhere damp. You’ve got some boots,’ which is a very sensible move.
David Good idea. I’ve actually met people around these caves wearing stilettos.
Felice And the bride? She must be wearing them.
David Yes, we provide them with a box at the hotel, whereby they can put their posh shoes in and just wear some flats through the caves.
Felice In the 1920s when this opened, there must have been quite a lot of accidents. It must have been very dangerous then. I bet they weren’t railings and things like that?
David Well, we’ve definitely improved safety over the years. It tended to be sort of quite hardy adventurers that came in the 1920s and early 30s, rather than the normal tourist families we see today. So a different set of customers, but it was certainly a much more rugged experience. Yes.
Felice So how long does a tour normally take people to go through?
David About the same amount of time that we’ve taken. Some people prefer to take their time, others they go through quite quickly, so these days it’s just up to the customer.
So now we exit the caves on the other side of the valley from that which we came in before. So us we can see the River Axe exiting the caves. That flows all the way across Somerset to Weston-super-Mare.
Peter So we’re on the banks of the River Axe, out of the caves. Felice, what did you think of it?
Felice I thought they were great. I’m really surprised, I was expecting one small cave with lots of tacky sort of manmade things in it. In fact, they’re huge. They’re beautiful and really interesting. I wasn’t bored for a minute and I can imagine children will be fascinated. They’re quite steep, so young children would feel excited by it. And no, it’s really good. It’s better than any of the French caves I’ve been to.
Peter Well, I was going to say, you and I have been to several caves in the Dordogne and places, and they were nowhere near as spectacular as this. Largely because Gerry Cottle bought it, he’s put quite a bit of a bit of the Big Top into it. And there’s some serious lighting and sound effects, and that does make a huge difference.
Felice Yes, the lighting is lovely.
Peter So we’re going to operate a swing bridge across the stream here, a tributary of the Axe.
David I’ll go first, if you like.
Peter Safely over the bridge. And now up some pretty steep steps. There’s a lot of climbing involved here. And when we get to the top, the first visitors of the day should be just about arriving at the entrance to the caves. And we’ve got a rendezvous outside her grotto with the infamous Witch of Wookey Hole. Despite the fact it’s now pouring with rain, she seems to have a good cackle on her.
Witch Home sweet home.
Peter So this is your grotto, is it?
Witch Well, you know, it’s Halloween and they kicked me out of the caves, haven’t they? The cave is my home. But what with all this business, you know, you have to stay the length of a coffin away from people and all that, and making me be here, huh? Still, I think you’d rather agree, I’ve made it home?
Peter When I was last here, which is quite a long time ago, it was another witch. Your mother?
Witch There’s a coven here, my friend, but we like to keep that to ourselves.
Peter How long have you been the official witch here?
Witch Witches are secret, witches are mystery. There is nothing measured in time or linear space about being a witch.
Felice So where do you sleep at night?
Witch The night is not for sleeping, dearie. During the night is for receiving sustenance of another kind.
Felice Where do you sleep in the day?
Witch In the daytime you might find me curled up by my cauldron fire, but I’ll always have one eye open, so watch it.
Peter So you’ve been here about 1,000 years, roughly.
Witch Oh, there you go again with your chronologic. I couldn’t possibly tell you. All I can say is my beauty treatments are looking rather well, don’t you think?
Hello, look at those nice blond plaits. I’ve got a spell that I could use. You know these aren’t twins, are they? Oh, what a shame, because you see, when I put twins in my cauldron bright, I won’t need to sleep tonight. There’ll be magic flowing. Oh my goodness, the early bird catches the worm…well that’s what I had for breakfast, I don’t know about you. Good bye.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast providers – where we’d love you to give us a rating. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Stay safe and we’ll see you next week.
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