Wooky Hole Caves

Wookey Hole Caves

Wookey Hole Caves is a show cave and tourist attraction in the village of Wookey Hole on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills near Wells in Somerset, England.

Wookey Hole cave was formed by the action of the River Axe on the limestone hills. Before emerging at Wookey Hole the water enters underground streams and passes through other caves such as Swildon's Hole and St Cuthbert's Swallet. After resurging, the waters of the River Axe are used in a handmade paper mill, the oldest extant in Britain, which began operations circa 1610, although a corn grinding mill operated there as early as 1086.

Nearby is the limestone Ebbor Gorge, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a more tranquil spot than the busy Wookey Hole.

The cave is noted for the Witch of Wookey Hole – a roughly human shaped rock outcrop, reputedly turned to stone by a monk from Glastonbury. It is also the site of the first cave dives in Britain.

The caves, at a constant temperature of , have been used by humans for around 50,000 years. The low temperature means that the caves can be used for maturing Cheddar cheese.

History

Wookey Hole was occupied by humans in the Iron Age, while nearby Hyena Cave was occupied by Stone Age hunters.

In 1544 products of Roman lead working in the area were discovered. The lead mines across the Mendips have produced contamination of the water emerging from the underground caverns at Wookey Hole. The lead in the water is believed to have affected the quality of the paper produced.

Cave archaeology

Archaeological investigations were undertaken by William Boyd Dawkins, from 1859 to 1874, he moved to Somerset to study classics with the vicar of Wookey. On hearing of the discovery of bones bu local workmen he led excavations in the area of the hyena den. His work led to the discovery of the first evidence for the use by Paleolithic man in the Caves of the Mendip Hills.

Herbert E. Balch continued the work from 1904 to 1914, where he led excavations of the entrance passage (1904-15), Witch's Kitchen (Chamber 1) and Hell's Ladder (1926-1927) and the Badger Hole (1938-1954), where Roman coins from the 3rd century were discovered along with Aurignacian flint implements. The 1911 work found a - of stratification, mostly dating from the Iron age and sealed into place by Romano-British artifacts. Finds included a silver coin of Marcia (124BC), pottery, weapons and tools, bronze ornaments, and Roman coins from Vespasian to Valentinian II.

E. J. Mason from 1946 to 1949, and G. R. Morgan in 1972 continued the work. Books by Dawkins and Balch are now prized items amongst those with an interest in cave archeology.

Later work led by Edgar Kingsley Tratman (1899-1978) OBE DSc MD FSA explored the human occupation of the Rhinocerous hole, and showed that the fourth chamber of the great cave was a Romano-British cemetery.

The cave was explored by cave divers from the Cave Diving Group of Great Britain starting in the 1930s. In 1935, two Post Office engineers, Graham Balcombe and John Arthur "Jack" Sheppard penetrated into the cave, reaching "Chamber 7" using standard diving dress. The event was the first successful cave dive in Britain.

Chamber 9 , which is also known as Cathedral Cave, was reached in 1948. In April 1949, Gordon Marriott was killed while exploring the cave. The divers discovered archaeological materials in the course of these explorations.

These early explorations used oxygen, good only for dives of up to . Experiments with early scuba gear (referred to as aqualungs at the time) were undertaken, nearly ending in tragedy. Bob Davies explored Chamber 13, in 1955 "on open circuit equipment with fins." Losing his dive line, Davies was trapped for 3 hours. Thereafter, as the nascent SCUBA technology improved, the cave divers focused their attention on closed-circuit rebreather systems.

John S. Buxton, Thompson, George, and Oliver Craig Wells (grandson of science fiction writer H. G. Wells) continued the exploration of Wookey Hole in the 1950s. In April 1957, Nitrox rebreather systems were used by Buxton and Wells in exploring beyond the point in the cave designated as "Wookey 13." According to the Cave Diving Group web site, on this trip, "Suit inflation [was] used with dry suits, a significant development." In 1960, again using the rebreather technology, Buxton, Thompson and George reached Wookey Chamber 15: one of the explorers (Buxton) penetrated a feature called "The Slot": reaching "ongoing passage at 70ft (22m) depth.

During excavations in 1954-7 at Hole Ground, just outside the entrance to the cave the foundations of a 1st century hut and iron age pottery were seen. These were covered by the foundations of Roman buildings, dating from the 1st to the late 4th century.

In 1960, a home made wetsuit was used. In January 1970 John Parker reached Chamber 20, and thereafter Chamber 22.

In the 1970s, extensive tunneling and construction work was carried out to enable members of the public to pass beyond chamber 4 into sections of the cave that had previously only been accessible to cave divers.

In 1996-1997 water samples were collected at various points throughout the caves and showed different chemical compositions. Results showed that the location of the "Unknown Junction", from where water flows to the Static Sump by a different route from the majority of the River Axe, is upstream of Sump 25.

On the 29th of Sept 2004 John Volanthen and Rick Stanton with their team reached a depth of over setting a new British cave diving record.

Witch of Wookey Hole

The Witch of Wookey Hole is a stalagmite in the first chamber of the caves and the central character in an old English legend. The story has several different versions with the same basic features:

A man from Glastonbury is betrothed to a girl from Wookey. A witch living in Wookey Hole Caves curses the romance so that it fails. The man, now a monk, seeks revenge on this witch who—having been jilted herself—frequently spoils budding relationships. The monk stalks the witch into the cave and she hides a in dark corner near one of the underground rivers. The monk blesses the water and splashes some of it at the dark parts of the cave. Catching the witch off guard, the monk splashes the water at the dark corner she is hiding in. The blessed water immediately petrifies the witch, and she remains in the cave to this day.

Tourism

The current paper mill building, whose water wheel is powered by a small canal from the river, dates from around 1860 and is a Grade II-listed building. The production of handmade paper ceased in Februaury 2008 after owners agreed there was no longer a market for the products, visitors to the site are still able to make paper from cotton. Other attractions included dinosaur yard, a museum about the cave and cave diving, a theatre with circus shows, House of mirrors and Penny arcades.

The cave and mill were joined, after purchase, by Madame Tussauds in 1973 and operated together as a tourist attraction. The present owner and manager is former circus proprietor Gerry Cottle who purchased the site for around £6million.

At least one ghost, that of a drowned potholer, is said to haunt the cave. There are also uncanny powers associated with the Witch, all adding to the attraction's popularity with visitors.

The cave was used for the filming of episodes of the BBC TV series Doctor Who: the serial Revenge of the Cybermen (1975) starring Tom Baker. This has since been referenced in the comedy of The League of Gentlemen. The cave was also used in the filming of the British series "Robin of Sherwood" (1983).

On 1 August 2006, CNN reported that Barney, a Doberman Pinscher employed as a security dog at Wookey Hole, had destroyed parts of a valuable collection of teddy bears, including one which had belonged to Elvis Presley, which was estimated to be worth $75,000. The insurance company insuring the exhibition of stuffed animals had insisted on having guard dog protection.

“He just went berserk,” said Daniel Medley, general manager of the Wookey Hole Caves near Wells, England, where hundreds of bears were chewed up Tuesday night by the six-year-old Doberman Pinscher named Barney. A security guard at the museum, Greg West, said he spent several minutes chasing Barney before wrestling the dog to the ground.

Popular Culture

  • In 1956, Olive Hodgkinson, a cave guide whose husband's family has owned the caves for over 500 years, was a contestant on What's My Line?
  • Some of the caves seen in the chamber in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (film) were filmed at the Wookey Hole Caves.
  • Witch's Cavern (Chamber 2) was used as the the set for Herne's cavern in the television series Robin of Sherwood.
  • An episode of Dr Who with Tom Baker confronting the Cybermen was filmed in Wookey Hole Caves in 1974 and 1975.

References

Further reading

  • Balch, H E Mendip - Its Swallet Caves and Rock Shelters. Bristol: Wright.
  • Balch, H E "Further excavations at the late-Celtic and Romano-British cave-dwelling at Wookey Hole, Somerset". Archaeologia 64 337–346.
  • Balch, H.E. (1928) Excavations at Wookey Hole and other Mendip caves 1926-7. Antiquaries Journal 8: 193-210.
  • Balch, H.E. & Troup, R.D.R. (1911) A late Celtic and Romano-British cave-dwelling at Wookey-Hole, near Wells, Somerset. Archaeologia 62: 565-592.
  • Bell, Alan (1928) Wookey Hole: The cave & its history. A description and history of the three great caverns, their ancient occupation and the legend of the witch of Wookey.
  • Branigan, K. & Dearne, M.J. (1990) The Romano-British finds from Wookey Hole: a re-appraisal. Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society 134: 57-80.
  • Branigan, K. & Dearne, M.J. (1991) A Gazetteer of Romano-British Cave Sites and their Finds. Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield.
  • Dawkins, W.B. (1862) On a hyaena den at Wookey Hole, near Wells. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 18: 115-126.
  • Dawkins, W.B. (1863) On a hyaena den at Wookey Hole, near Wells. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 19: 260-274.
  • Dawkins, W.B. (1874) Cave Hunting. London, MacMillan.
  • Farr, Martyn The Darkness Beckons.
  • Hawkes, C.F.C. (1950) Wookey Hole. Archaeological Journal 107: 92-93.
  • Hawkes, C.J., Rogers, J.M. & Tratman, E.K. (1978) Romano-British cemetery in the fourth chamber of Wookey Hole Cave, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Speleological Society 15: 23-52.
  • Jacobi, R.M. & Hawkes, C.J. (1993) Archaeological notes: work at the Hyaena Den, Wookey Hole. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Speleological Society 19: 369-371.
  • Mason, E.J. (1950) Note on recent exploration in Wookey Hole. Archaeological Journal 107: 93-94.
  • Mason, E.J. (1951) Report of human remains and materials recovered from the River Axe in the Great Cave of Wookey Hole during diving operations from October 1947 to Jan. 1949. Transactions of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society 96: 238-243.
  • McBurney, C.B.M. (1961) Two soundings in the Badger Hole near Wookey Hole in 1958 and their bearing on the Palaeolithic finds of the late H.E. Balch. Mendip Nature Research Committee Report 50/51: 19-27.
  • McComb, P. (1989) Upper Palaeolithic Artefacts from Britain and Belgium. An Inventory and Technological Description. British Archaeological Reports International Series 481.
  • Sanford, W.A. (1870) On the rodentia of the Somerset caves. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 26: 124-131.
  • Shaw, T.R. (1996) Why some caves become famous - Wookey Hole, England. Cave and Karst Science 23: 17-23.
  • Stack, M.V. & Coles, S.G. (1983) Concentrations of lead, cadmium, copper and zinc in teeth from a cave used for Romano-British burials: effect of lead contamination. . Proceedings of the University of Bristol Speleological Society 16: 193-200.
  • Tratman, E.K. et al. (1971) The Hyaena Den (Wookey Hole), Mendip Hills, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Speleological Society 12: 245-279.
  • Tratman, E.K. (1975) The cave archaeology and palaeontology of Mendip. In Smith, D.I. & Drew, D.P. (eds) Limestones and Caves of the Mendip Hills. David and Charles, Newton Abbott, pp. 352-403.

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