You may know it better as Wookey Hole, a village on the edge of the Mendip Hills, famous for its caves. Long ago it was known for its otherworldly nature. Today it’s one of Somerset’s main tourist attractions.
There is little evidence of early human occupation in the caves but the last five hundred years have seen exploration, mining and recreational ‘pursuits’ impact directly, structurally and culturally. This has permanently damaged the delicate infrastructure previously untouched for millennia.
Come, lets see whats happening there today.
Here’s the main entrance.
“Roll up, Roll up…Come and see the fabulous attractions down at Wookey Hole!
We have a life size King Kong, you can play a little golf on Pirate Island….Visit Dinosaur valley and our animatronic dinosaurs… grrrr…! Oh yes, and the caves, lovely! All lit up, pink, blue, green, lilac, such a sight, the largest show caves in Britain!
‘Cave men’ lived there, you know, hunting bears with stones and rocks.
And there’s the old witch – cursed by a monk from Glastonbury Abbey and turned her to stone! Yes, really! You be careful, we have our own witch now, pointy hat an all…she may just jump out at you… cast a spell…heh heh!
Yes we really have it all at Wookey Hole…you can even get married right here under these spectacular lights…what’s that? nah missus, there is nothing living here now, just a few bats….
Roll up, Roll up!”
Now you have a choice you know… you can go in through the entrance or wait a while. You never know who you may meet…
The horseshoe bat stirs.
Her kin lived in these caves long before the circus came to town, long before the first people arrived. When they arrived they were tentative, cautious. They were grateful for the shelter and protection of the caves. They were safe from the outside world but inside the caves could be perilous. The people were perpetually fearful of the unknown
If we concentrate very hard we may catch a glimpse, maybe hear an echo of this past, before the lights, the music, before we became something else….
Close your eyes and concentrate…..
Follow the bat as she glides through the mist. Time and smell and taste seem different here. See the caves, churned and wrenched from the landscape as the waters rise and rage, tearing rocks from earth.
Animals come to find shelter, somewhere to give birth, places to die. Hyaenas, great bears, lions and humans too. Here they settle in great caverns where a dark river flows out into a world of ice and blue skies. The animals left little behind except their bones. The people left their tools of flint and the bones of the animals.
The mists change.
Mammoths, the rhinoceroses, bison all fade but people keep coming bringing iron tools, livestock, more people, weapons.
The people begin to use the caves harshly, with less care.
Strange men come from far away, conquering the land and its people. They hack lead from the walls of the caves which bleed poison into the water, The river carries away the poisons which pollute the land. Many fish live in these cold river waters. Today the river is called the Axe which wind away from the caves to the Severn Sea.
People now build houses outside the caves. They are superstitious, fervently worshipping one God but still fearful of the old ones. Some call the place the ‘Okey Hole’, after the ancient word for caves.
A man approaches.
The man looks anxious, wrapped in a cloak and hat. His guides tell him to approach a large stone at the narrow entrance known as ‘the porter’. he must ask its permission to enter the ‘Hall of Wokey’. The guides busy themselves lighting torches of reed-sedge for light while the pale man solemnly asks the cold grey stone that he might go in.
They all enter, stepping carefully on the damp surface into a massive chamber, its stalactites glittering in the flickering torchlight. The man is led deeper into the cavern, sliding and slipping on the wet rock, cold piercing his cloak . The cold breath of the past is on his face. They pass through a chamber where the pale man is shown a petrified figure of a women with a distaff in her girdle, still as stone.
Their torches flicker in unseen breezes through more chambers. The stone is dry now and they pass more quickly until they come to a pool of clear, deep water under an arch in the rock the locals call the ‘holie-hole‘.
The man is cold, disorientated by the tunnels and passageways, the flickering lights of the torches and the strange echoes of water and rock, voices on the breezes which journey through this place. He turns. He wants to return to his own time. 1
He fades away and we find ourselves in the company of local folk sharing tales and fears about the caves around hearth and table. As protection against witches and demons they scratch marks and symbols into the walls of the caves. Marion marks, and Christograms, still there today, are scratched high up in the dark corners weaving protective magic to avert the spirits who spit and hiss at the bewildered, and sometimes terrified, visitors.
The scenes fades and the mists swirls again before receding.
See the coaches with the men and women in their white wigs and bright clothes!
‘What a lark!’, they cry. Our new visitors have come to party.
And what a noise they make. They trip and clatter through mouths of the caves, shrieking and slithering as servants light candles, setting up kitchens and dining rooms. They even have a ball room!
The women are shrieking !! They have found the woman with the distaff but she is now an old witch. Someone is telling a tale how she was turned to stone by a zealous monk.
It was the drip drip of time that has change her.
Bang! Good heavens! They are firing guns in the chambers to dislodge the stalactites. They want to take them home as souvenirs. 2 Bang!
The bat doesn’t like the noise.
The shots in the dark unnerve her and she flutters away.
War and strife keep people away but not for long. Men return with charts and notebooks, torches and pickaxes. They want to prize open the guts of the caves and discover their secrets.
And they do: see the flint tools used to scrap skin and meat from reindeer dragged through the snow and ice to feed a small, hungry tribe; broken pottery from the last meal of the family evicted to make way for a mine; the coins dropped by a Roman as he forces out the mother and her young children.
The people push harder in their need to discover all, digging, widening tunnels searching the old river. People plunge into the depths of those cold dark waters to explore further, deeper. See, there is someone in there now. Some never return. The river will take her price.
They are arguing now. Who ‘owns’ these caves ? Who should they belong to? Some want to protect them and some want to exploit them.
The images fade. The horseshoe bat returns to her roost. She waits.
Thousands of years pass. The people no longer live in the caves. But they still come to visit. They arrive by the busload, pay money and admire the show, recording the day on their phones, children screaming with delight at monsters and fairy lights. Then they go home.
The bat listens and sleeps and waits. These times will pass like the others. The next act is up to us.
So….roll up, roll up! Come in and see the caves!
1 William Worcestre. 1470. Worcestre visited to caves some time in the 15th century and recorded the tradtion of asking the ‘porter’s’ permission to enter. he makes no mention of a ‘witch’ writing of the stalagmite as a woman with a distaff. there was also a pool which was used as a holy well.
2 Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) allegedly had someone shoot down stalactites to adorn his own grotto in Twickenham. The stumps may still be seen in the Witches Cavern. The caves were a popular place for rich party goers to assembled bringing with them whole kitchens, musicians, chairs and all means of comfort for their pleasure.