Our previous post was about the first day of our recent short break in Somerset – and our trip across the Bristol Channel on board the PS Waverley, and then on to the Brecon Mountain Railway. Originally, we’d intended to travel straight home the following day, but we changed our plans when we got back from Clevedon and decided to stop off at Wookey Hole caves on the way back north.
We’re both rather fascinated by caves and caverns. When we first came up with a list of all the places we wanted to visit this year, Rob made sure that ‘caves or something underground’ was high up the list. So when we decided to slightly prolong our trip to Somerset this September, a visit to one of the cave systems seemed like an obvious choice. We chose Wookey Hole over Cheddar simply because Hannah visited Cheddar several times as a kid, but neither of us had ever been to Wookey Hole.
So… what did we make of Wookey Hole? It was certainly a rather unusual experience. Let’s take it step-by-step: we’ll look at the good, the bad, and the baffling.
For most people—though not, perhaps, all people—it’s pretty obvious that the main attraction at Wookey Hole is the series of limestone show caves on the southern escarpment of the Mendip Hills. ‘Hole’ is used here in its Anglo-Saxon sense, meaning ‘cave’. The ‘Wookey’ part of the name (and, confusingly there are two villages in Somerset that bear this name—Wookey Hole and Wookey—which are just a couple of miles apart) either comes from the Old English word wocig (meaning ‘animal trap’) or from the Celtic/Welsh word ogof (meaning ‘cave’). If the latter etymology is correct, then ‘Wookey Hole’ really means ‘Cave Cave’, and Wookey Hole Caves means ‘Cave Cave Caves’ (so good they named it thrice).
So, what about those caves then? They’re actually a series of limestone caverns, formed when natural acid in the groundwater dissolves the bedrock, forming openings and fissures that have expanded over epochs to create caves—this type of cavern is called a ‘solutional cave’, and is often characterized by the presence of calcium carbonate formations, such as stalagmites, stalactites, helictites and flowstones (created when water slowly precipitates through the limestone).
There are at least 25 chambers in the Wookey Hole cave system, though only three are open as ‘show caves’. So far, over 13,000 feet (4,000 metres) of the system have been explored, but the full extent is still unknown. For rock fans, there are a number of unique or unusual geological features in the system. The first part of the cave, for instance, is formed from Triassic Dolomitic Conglomerate—a cemented fossil limestone scree—which reveals evidence of the erosion of the Mendips in the Triassic period and the infill of the valley as a result. Passages in the twentieth cavern may well be the result of a Vauclusian spring (a spring that originates within a cave system, forcing water upwards at high pressure). In addition to this, the River Axe—which rises in Wookey Hole caves and is formed by water that has entered the cave system—flows through two of the chambers, then through the valley and westwards, until it reaches the sea at Weston Bay.
For biological and geological reasons, Wookey Hole caves are now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). However, they’re also of interest for the fascinating evidence of human habitation and use that has been discovered within them. It appears that the caves were inhabited by humans in the Palaeolithic period, as tools and fossilized animal remains have been discovered. Stone Age and Iron Age artefacts have also been found, as well as evidence of occupation during the Roman period. Evidence of a Romano-British graveyard (c. 2nd-4th century AD) has been discovered in the system’s fourth chamber, as well as possible domestic occupation from the same period.
But it seems that, from the late Middle Ages onwards, the cave’s primary use has been as a show cave. William of Worcester visited Wookey Hole in 1470, by which time it was becoming known as a ‘place to see’. From late antiquity until the twentieth century, the fourth chamber was the furthest accessible point in the cave system, but the path to this chamber appears to have been relatively easy to traverse. By the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century, the caves became a place for the well-to-do to hold parties and dances (wine bottles were discovered during the excavation of the Romano-British burial site). There is a local legend claiming that Alexander Pope visited the caves (which were also known as ‘Okey Hole’) in the eighteenth century, and that he shot down a number of stalactites to decorate the grotto at his villa in Twickenham. This story is probably spurious, as there is no evidence that Pope ever visited Wookey Hole, and the ‘fine and very uncommon petrifaction from Okey Hole’ noted at Twickenham was actually a stalagmite (not a stalactite), one of a number cut off by a local person and presented to various collectors around the country. (Apparently, the stump of Pope’s stalagmite has been identified, though the current whereabouts of the ‘petrifaction’ itself are unknown.)
In the twentieth century, the caves were owned and managed by Gerald Hodgkinson. Up until the Victorian period, the main business concern on the land was the paper mill (and more on that shortly). However, the continued and increasing interest in the cave system encouraged Hodgkinson to consider the potential for transforming the area into more of a dedicated tourist attraction. He opened the caves to the public for the first time in 1927, though this decision was not uncontroversial. In 1930, John Cowper Powys wrote the novel A Glastonbury Romance, in which the myths and legends (including grail legends) of Glastonbury and the surrounding area come into conflict with the capitalist ambitions of local industrialist (and mine owner) Philip Crow. Hodgkinson claimed that the character of Philip Crow was based on him, and he successfully sued Powys for libel in 1934. Nevertheless, the caves remained a popular tourist destination, and remained in the ownership and management of Hodgkinson (and, after his death in 1960, his heirs), until they were finally sold to Madame Tussauds in 1973.
As well as having (probably) one of the longest histories of tourism of any show cave in Britain, Wookey Hole caves also boasts an interesting history of cave diving. In the 1930s, the first cave dives were undertaken by Jack Sheppard and Graham Balcombe. Since then, a huge amount of diving and exploration has been undertaken, with over 25 chambers discovered and charted by divers. This is not without its dangers, of course, and the divers Gordon Marriott (d. 1949) and Keith Potter (d. 1981) both tragically died while diving in Wookey Hole. But work continues, and the discovery of just how far the cave system extends is testament to the boldness and devotion of successive generations of divers.
We’ve already briefly mentioned the paper mill, so it’s only right that we say a little more about the non-cave-related history on the site as well.
There’s a record of a corn mill on the River Axe listed in the Domesday Book
The River Axe was navigable from the Middle Ages until the early twentieth century. It was also used to power watermills, and there is a record of a corn mill on the Axe listed in the Domesday Book. By the early seventeenth century, there was a paper mill on the river (the earliest deed of sale is dated 1610, but the mill must have existed prior to that). Production and development seem to have continued apace until 1855, when a disastrous fire led to the freehold being sold off to W.S. Hodgkinson, whose family played such a pivotal role in the development of the site (and the surrounding area). It was the paper mill, rather than the caves, that brought the Hodgkinson family to Wookey Hole, and the paper-making business continued to grow until it hit its peak in 1891. Throughout its history, the Wookey Hole paper mill only ever made handmade paper—the Hodgkinson family never installed new technology to enable them to switch to machine-made paper. As a result, their paper became something of a niche product in the twentieth century, and business began to decline.
In the early 50s, the family sold the mill to the Inveresk Paper Company, who continued to produce handmade paper until 1972. When Madame Tussauds bought the caves in 1973, they also bought the paper mill, bringing the two sites back together as part of a combined tourist offer. Although commercial production ceased, paper was made on a smaller scale as part of an exhibition.
So to summarize ‘the good’: Wookey Hole caves are a spectacular natural attraction, and the caverns that are open as show caves are very impressive. (And the approach to the caves, with the wall of the Mendip escarpment towering over you, is stunning.) There’s also a small museum dedicated to cave diving at the site, and there’s a fascinating film about the history of diving at Wookey Hole that plays on a loop as a part of the exhibition. This is without doubt the most informative part of the attraction—but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
There is also a small exhibition dedicated to the paper mill on site, with a single vat and some equipment on display. However, this is very limited, as the majority of the historic equipment was sold by the current owner in 2008. Apparently, paper-making demonstrations are sometimes given for visitors, but we didn’t see any evidence of this during our visit. But it’s still nice to see some vestige of the site’s former use, as well as the inclusion of an anonymous eighteenth-century verse about paper-making (and capitalism) in the display.
Rags make Paper—Paper makes Money—Money makes Banks—Banks make Loans—Loans make Beggars—Beggars make Rags.
Finally, there’s the cheese. Due to the caves’ consistent temperature of 11℃, Wookey Hole has the perfect conditions for maturing cheddar. We got a quick look at the ‘cheese cave’ on our tour, and then could try a sample in the gift shop. Cave-aged cheese is really very tasty!
Ah… the bad… well, the first thing to be aware of is that almost none of the information above was actually gleaned from our visit to Wookey Hole, but rather from reading up about the site before and after we went. Despite the fact that the place is literally called ‘Cave Cave Caves’, the show caves are now only a small (and somewhat undervalued) part of the tourist offer. And there’s very little information given as to the geological, biological or historical significance of the cave system itself.
In 1912, Herbert Balch discovered a thousand-year-old skeleton of a woman in the caves
The tour of the open chambers lasts around 20-25 minutes, and is dominated by the story of the ‘Witch of Wookey Hole’. This is an old tale, which seems to have sprung up over a century ago when visitors to the cave decided that a vaguely human-shaped stalagmite in the first chamber deserved a bit of folk history. There are various versions of the legend (usually involving a monk from Glastonbury chasing a witch into the caves and petrifying her with holy water), and the story has been around for quite some time. In 1912, a thousand-year-old skeleton of a woman was discovered by archaeologist Herbert Balch (and now housed at the Wells and Mendip Museum), and this came to be associated with the story of the witch. When the Romano-British burial site was excavated in the fourth chamber, suggestions were made that the bodies were victims sacrificed to the witch.
While there may or may not be some historical basis for the folk legend, what is clear is that it has become garbled into a mish-mash of vague ideas about the ‘spooky’ past, and the way it is now presented as part of the cave tour is borderline gibberish. Human sacrifice, curses, avenging monks—even King Arthur—are all thrown into the mix, while creepy music and colourful lights attempt to draw visitors’ attention to a lumpy petrifaction that—if you squint a little bit—sort of resembles a seated woman. Add to this that the venue now employs a woman to wander around in a cloak and a black pointed hat, posing for photographs with children, and the actual history is diluted beyond recognition.
We assume that the long-standing legend of the witch is the reason for the venue’s current branding. As you can see from the picture at the start of this post, there’s a distinctly ‘Harry Potter’ feel to the marketing. The gift shop is full of generic witches’ hats and wizards’ wands, that seem at odds with the intriguing history of the site.
But the ‘mish-mash’ doesn’t end there. When you exit the caves, you arrive in one of the site’s other ‘attractions’ (their website currently boasts that there are twenty of these included in the ticket price, though the definition of what counts as an attraction varies wildly). The next thing we encountered was the dinosaur park—a small patch of land outside the old paper mill building, crammed full of fibreglass dinosaurs. While there were some information boards about each of the species presented, there was no attempt made to suggest any actual link to the site. Not all the species represented have been discovered in Britain—let alone in Somerset—and the whole thing was further undermined by the inclusion of a giant fibreglass model of a gorilla, which purported to be the ‘Mighty King Kong’.
Nestled amongst the dinosaurs and King Kong are fibreglass models of other prehistoric animals. In some respects, this ‘attraction’ made a little more sense than the dinosaur park. There’s a replicated hyena den, for instance, which is in-keeping with archaeological discoveries on the site. Cave hyena (Crocuta crocuta spelaean) fossils have been discovered in the caves, and the model accurately depicts the ‘hyena cave’ being used by Stone Age humans—which is borne out by the evidence of excavations.
However, these models might gesture towards accuracy, but they aren’t for the pedantic. During our tour of the caves, the word ‘Neanderthal’ was used to describe the prehistoric hunters who occupied the hyena cave. Worse still, we were presented with a model of dire wolf (Canis dirus), as though this species had also roamed the prehistoric landscape. While cave wolf (Canis lupus spelaeus) fossils have been discovered in Somerset, this is the only megafaunal wolf that inhabited Europe; dire wolf lived south of the Wisconsin glaciation, in the Americas.
Having dire wolf, King Kong and the Wicked Witch of the West happily cohabiting with cave hyenas and Stone Age hunters might not be the worst sin in the world, but it’s symptomatic of a general disregard for historic (or geographic) accuracy. There really is very little attempt to offer anything educational to inform a visit to the spectacular caves.
The Victorian paper mill buildings have been converted into indoor attractions and a 4D cinema
And this is also true for the paper mill. The Victorian buildings have now been converted into the site’s indoor attractions, including the cave diving museum (which, admittedly, is very interesting) and the paper-making display. However, these gestures towards history are hardly signposted, and a visitor would be forgiven for missing them entirely. What is more boldly advertised is the ‘Witch’s Laboratory’ 4D cinema experience, where visitors are told they will encounter the witch and her companion in the middle of an experiment that has ‘gone horribly wrong’, before being led into the cinema to watch a 20-minute film accompanied by physical effects. Never mind that this attraction seems to have merged the legend of the ‘Witch of Wookey Hole’ with a Hammer Horror-esque Frankenstein plot, the cinema itself only shows films about dinosaurs!
This hodge-podge of generic ‘child-friendly’ concepts—witches, dinosaurs, spooky laboratories—is compounded by the incongruous inclusion of pirates in other parts of the venue. One of the site’s cafés is now designated as ‘Captain Jack’s Restaurant’, and is adorned with fibreglass statues of nearly-Disney pirate characters. To the rear of this eatery is the Pirate Island Adventure Golf, complete with a large wooden ship flying a tattered skull and crossbones. The construction of the crazy golf course was the subject of some controversy, as the current owner of Wookey Hole demolished the site’s Victorian bowling green to make room for the pirate ship in 2009, without obtaining prior planning permission. The bowling green was one of the amenities built for mill workers and villagers when the Hodgkinson family owned the paper mill.
There’s one final strand of the attractions on offer at Wookey Hole. We’ve classed this strand as ‘baffling’, because that’s how we felt about it during our visit. Reading up about the recent history of the site has offered some explanation as to why these attractions have ended up housed on the site of a Victorian paper mill and show caves, but we wanted to give a flavour of how confused we felt at the time.
In addition to the pirates, witches and dinosaurs, Wookey Hole also boasts a circus school (complete with theatre), a clown museum, a mirror maze, and a room full of Edwardian penny arcade machines.
The mirror maze and penny arcade have something of a faded charm about them. They conjure up a slight air of times gone by, and a vague nostalgia for old-time seaside entertainment. (However, it should be pointed out that Wookey Hole is over thirty miles away from the sea—making the end-of-the-pier entertainments almost as incongruous as the pirates.)
The penny arcade machines are mostly a collection of oddities—there’s a series of ‘execution’ machines, for instance, in which your penny would have bought you the rather gruesome pleasure of watching the workings of the electric chair, the gallows or the guillotine. Most of the machines no longer work properly, so although visitors have the chance to exchange modern coins for old pennies, the display promises more than it offers.
We didn’t visit the theatre, as there wasn’t a performance on while we were there, but we did visit (or rather stumble into) the clown museum. Unsignposted and unexplained, this little corner of Wookey Hole is the stuff of a coulrophobic’s nightmares. Glass cases are crammed with memorabilia, programmes, costumes and props belonging to professional clowns; a clown car hangs from the ceiling by a set of chains; there is a full suit of clothes in a large glass frame. In one cabinet sits row upon row of eggshells (some cracked or broken), each painted with the face of a professional clown. Against one wall is a set of life-sized mannequins depicting famous clowns (including Coco the Clown, Lou Jacobs and Charlie Carioli).
Like so much of the material on show at Wookey Hole, there was no information given as to the background of this collection, but it turns out that it’s not quite as baffling as it seems. The penny arcade/mirror maze display and the clown museum have different provenances, but they both become a little bit clearer when you know who owned Wookey Hole after Gerald Hodgkinson’s heirs sold the site.
Tussauds acquired Edward Ward’s collection of antique fairground art in 1973
While under the operation of Madame Tussauds (later the Tussauds Group), the venue acquired a collection of antique fairground art, rides and machines. Much of this collection had been amassed by Edward Ward, 7th Viscount Bangor in the 1960s and 70s, and it was sold to Tussauds in 1973. The new owners decided (presumably for want of a better location) to house the collection at Wookey Hole, which they had purchased in the same year. From then until the 1990s, the Fairground Museum was a part of the tourist offer at Wookey Hole, displayed in a mocked-up old-time ‘pier’. In 1997, Tussauds sold the valuable collection of antique fairground art at auction, but the (less valuable) penny arcade and mirror maze remained housed at Wookey Hole. (NB: We don’t know for sure that the penny arcade was part of Edward Ward’s collection, or whether Tussauds purchased it at a different sale, but it formed part of the same display at Wookey Hole for around twenty years.)
The circus school and clowns came later. In 2004, Wookey Hole was bought by circus-owner Gerry Cottle, who was looking for a permanent home for his circus. Cottle started the circus school, which trains children and young people in various performance skills. Obviously, a theatre was also constructed for the school’s performances (which are, on occasion, accompanied by an appearance by the Witch of Wookey Hole).
The clown museum was brought into Wookey Hole in 2007. It is, in fact, the museum of Clowns International (originally the Circus Clowns Club), an organization formed in 1946. The club originally met at St James’s Church in Islington, the burial place of Joseph Grimaldi, to commemorate and celebrate the ‘father of clowning’ and to hold an annual memorial service. When St James’s was deconsecrated in 1959, the club moved to Holy Trinity Church in Dalston, and it began to acquire a collection of clown-related memorabilia and art. This became known as the Clowns’ Gallery, incorporating both artefacts and archives relating to the profession. Eventually though, the museum outgrew the space in Dalston, and so the main part of the collection was moved to Wookey Hole in 2007 (offered a home by the Vice President of Clowns International, Gerry Cottle).
The Circus Clowns Club realized that painted eggs could be used as a record of members’ unique make-up designs
And those eggs? Far from being just a slightly creepy curiosity, these eggs are actually the utterly unique (and really interesting) way in which professional clowns protect their intellectual property. In the late 1940s, circus enthusiast Stan Bult began painting clown faces (copying the unique face paint of individual performers) onto hollowed out eggshells. Although this was originally intended to be just a hobby, the Circus Clowns Club (of which Bult was a founding member) soon realized that the eggs could be used as a record of its members’ make-up designs.
Bult’s collection was stored at his home until his death in 1966, after which it was moved to a London restaurant. Sadly, some of Bult’s eggs were broken or damaged over the years, but the remaining ones (24 of which survive) were moved to Wookey Hole in 2007.
The Egg Register (as it is known) was revived in earnest in 1979, when Clowns International formalized the practice as a means of copyrighting performers’ designs. An ‘egg artist’ is now employed, who paints a (pottery) egg for each registered performer and incorporates swatches of fabric, tufts of hair, and other unique elements of an individual’s costume. These pottery eggs are also housed at Wookey Hole, alongside the remainder of Bult’s collection.
So, to end then, the clown museum at Wookey Hole isn’t so baffling after all. But it is very frustrating. The collection represents an archive of a performance tradition that most people know almost nothing about. The artefacts that have been so carefully preserved are testament to a history—and a practice—that is shrouded in mystery, and yet still so very familiar. But there is no information about any of this in the museum or on the Wookey Hole website. While the clown museum is listed as an attraction, it is merely titled ‘Clown Town’, and the contents and history of the collection are left undescribed.
Now we know what we were looking at, we’ve revised our initial opinion of the clown museum at Wookey Hole. Aside from the caves, it is probably the most interesting ‘attraction’ on offer. But, like the caves, it feels rather undersold—and, also like the caves, it is woefully overshadowed by the ramshackle collection of fibreglass pirates, incongruous dinosaurs, and a woman in a pointed hat paid to scare children.