Wookey Hole Caves

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Wookey Hole Caves
A cliff with a cave at the bottom from which flows a water filled channel.
River Axe emerging from Wookey Hole Caves
LocationWookey Hole, Somerset, UK
Depth54m (178 ft)
List of
School Entrance, Normal Entrance
Pronunciation"Wuh - ki H-ole"
Cheddar Cheeses in Wookey Hole Caves
Subterranean Lake at Wookey Hole

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 through erosion of the limestone hills by the River Axe. 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.[1]

Nearby is the limestone Ebbor Gorge, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a more tranquil spot than the busy Wookey Hole, which is itself an SSSI for both biological and geological reasons.[2]

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 11 °C (52 °F), have been used by humans for around 50,000 years. The low temperature means that the caves can be used for maturing Cheddar cheese.[3]


The name Wookey is derived from the Celtic (Welsh) for 'cave', "Ogo" or "Ogof" which gave the early names for this cave of "Ochie" "Ochy". Hole is Anglo-Saxon for cave which is itself of Latin/Norman derivation. Therefore the name Wookey Hole Cave basically means cave cave cave.[4]

Wookey Hole was occupied by humans in the Iron Age, while nearby Hyena Cave was occupied by Stone Age hunters. Badger Hole and Rhinoceros Hole are two dry caves on the slopes above the Wookey ravine near the Wookey Hole resurgence and contain in situ cave sediments laid down during the Ice Age.[2]

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.[5]

Cave archaeology

Archaeological investigations were undertaken from 1859 to 1874 by William Boyd Dawkins, who moved to Somerset to study classics with the vicar of Wookey. On hearing of the discovery of bones by 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 Palaeolithic man in the Caves of the Mendip Hills.

Herbert E. Balch continued the work from 1904 to 1914,[6] 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.[7] The 1911 work found a 4 to 7 feet (1.2–2.1 m) of stratification, mostly dating from the Iron age and sealed into place by Romano-British artefacts. Finds included a silver coin of Marcia (124BC), pottery, weapons and tools, bronze ornaments, and Roman coins from Vespasian to Valentinian II.[8]

E. J. Mason from 1946 to 1949, and G. R. Morgan in 1972 continued the work.[9] Books by Dawkins and Balch are now prized items amongst those with an interest in cave archaeology.

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

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.[10]


The cave as far as the Third Chamber and side galleries has always been known. Prior to the construction of a dam at the resurgence to feed water to the paper mill downstream, two more chambers (the Fourth and Fifth) were accessible. Further upstream the way on lay underwater.

Diving was first tried by the Cave Diving Group under the leadership of Graham Balcombe in 1935. With equipment on loan from Siebe Gorman, he and Penelope ("Mossy") Powell penetrated 52 m (170 ft) into the cave, reaching "Chamber 7" using standard diving dress. The events marked the first successful cave dives in Britain.[11][12]

Diving at Wookey resumed in early June 1946 when Balcombe used his home-made respirator and waterproof suit to explore the region between Resurgence and First Chamber, as well as the underground course of the river between Chamber 3 and Chamber 1. During these dives, the Romano-British remains were found and archaeological work dominated the early dives in the cave. The large Ninth Chamber was first entered on 24 April 1948 by Balcombe and Don Coase. Using this as an advance dive base, the Tenth and then Eleventh Chambers were discovered. The way on, however, was too deep for divers breathing pure oxygen from a closed-circuit rebreather. The cave claimed its first life on 9 April 1949 when Gordon Marriott lost his life returning from Chamber 9. Another fatality was to occur in 1981 when Keith Potter was drowned on a routine dive further upstream.

Further progress required apparatus which could overcome the depth limitation of breathing pure oxygen. In 1955 using an aqualung and swimming with fins, Bob Davies reached the bottom of Chamber 11 at 15 m (49 ft) depth in clear water and discovered the 12th and 13th Chambers. Unfortunately, he got separated from his guideline and the other two divers in Chamber 11, ending up spending three hours trapped in Chamber 13 and had much trouble getting back to safety.[13] Opinion hardened against the use of the short-duration aqualung in favour of longer-duration closed-circuit equipment. Likewise, the traditional approach of walking along the bottom was preferred over swimming.

Employing semi-closed circuit nitrogen-oxygen rebreathers, between 1957 and 1960 John Buxton and Oliver Wells (grandson of science fiction writer H. G. Wells) went on to reach the elbow of the sump upstream from Chamber 9 at a depth of 22 m (72 ft).[12] This was at a point known as "The Slot", the way on being too deep for the gas mixture they were breathing.

A six-year hiatus ensued while open circuit air diving became established, along with free-swimming and the use of neoprene wetsuits. The new generation of cave diver was now more mobile above- and under-water and able to dive deeper. Using this approach, Dave Savage was able to reach air surface in the 18th Chamber (Chambers did not have to have air spaces to be so named; they were the limits of each exploration) in May 1966. A brief lull in exploration occurred while the mess of guidelines laid from Chamber 9 was sorted out until John Parker progressed first to the large, dry, inlet passage of Chamber 20 and thence followed the River Axe upstream to Chamber 22 where the way on appeared to be lost.

Meanwhile, climbing operations in Chamber 9 found an abandoned outlet passage which terminated very close to the surface, as well as a dry overland route downstream through the higher levels of Chambers 8 to 6 as far as Chamber 5. These discoveries were used to enable the show cave to be extended into Chamber 9 and the cave divers to start directly from here, bypassing the dive from Chamber 3 onwards.

Eventually, on 23 February 1976, Colin Edmunds found a way on in the static sump at the far end of Chamber 22. Controversially, he was beaten to the discovery of the magnificent active streamway of Chamber 24 by Geoff Yeadon and Oliver Statham a couple of days later. Edmunds returned with Martyn Farr on 27 February 1976 when the latter was able to dive from Chamber 24 into Chamber 25. To this day, Chamber 25 represents the furthest upstream air surface in Wookey Hole Cave. From here the River Axe rises up from a deep sump where progressive depth records for cave diving in the British Isles have been set: firstly by Farr (45 m or 148 ft) in 1977, then Rob Parker (68 m or 223 ft) in 1985, and finally by John Volanthen and Rick Stanton (76 m or 249 ft) in 2004.[14] The pair returned again in 2005 to explore the sump to a depth of 90 m (300 ft), setting a new British Isles depth record for cave diving.[15] This record was broken in 2008 by Polish explorer Artur Kozłowski on a dive in Pollatoomary in Ireland.[16]

During 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 in Chamber 22 by a different route from the majority of the River Axe, is upstream of Sump 25.[17]

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 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.[18][19]

It was partly down to the legend of the witch that prompted TV's Most Haunted team to visit Wookey Hole Caves and Mill to explore the location in depth, searching for evidence of paranormal activity. The show, which aired on 10 March 2009, was the last episode transmitted in series eleven of the show's run on the satellite and cable TV channel Living.

In 2009 a new 'witch' was chosen by Wookey Hole Ltd amid much media interest. Carole Bohanan in the role of Carla Calamity was selected ahead of over 3,000 other applicants.[20]


Paper mill

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.[21] The production of handmade paper ceased in February 2008 after owner Gerry Cottle concluded there was no longer a market for the product, and therefore sold most of the historic machinery. Visitors to the site are still able to watch a short video of the paper being made from cotton. Other attractions include the dinosaur yard, a small museum about the cave and cave diving, a theatre with circus shows, House of mirrors and Penny arcades. Bear Shop.

In 1956, Olive Hodgkinson, a cave guide whose husband's family owned the caves for over 500 years, was a contestant on What's My Line?

The cave and mill were joined, after purchase, by Madame Tussauds in 1973 and operated together as a tourist attraction. The present owner is the former circus proprietor Gerry Cottle who purchased the site for around £6million.[22]

Early Penny arcade machine at Wookey Hole

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. The cast and crew reportedly had several ghostly encounters in the cave.[23] 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 "Blake's 7" (1978) and "Robin of Sherwood" (1983). The caves were used again for Doctor Who The end of Time (2009) Scene includes the Doctor sharing thoughts and visions with the ood.

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 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.[24]

There are plans to open a new hotel as part of the complex in 2009.

In February 2009 Cottle turned the Victorian bowling green next to the caves into a crazy golf course without first obtaining planning permission.[25]


  1. ^ "Wookey Hole Paper Mill". Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  2. ^ a b "Wookey Hole" (PDF). SSSI citation. English Nature. Retrieved 20 November 2008.
  3. ^ "Inside the cave". Ford Farm. Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  4. ^ Witcombe, Richard (2009). Who was Aveline anyway?: Mendip's Cave Names Explained (2nd ed.). Priddy: Wessex Cave Club. p. 202. ISBN 978-0-9500433-6-4.
  5. ^ Gough, J.W. (1967). The mines of Mendip. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
  6. ^ "A Potted History of H. E. Balch 1869 -1958". Bristol Exploration Club. Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  7. ^ "Badger Hole cave, Wookey Hole". Somerset Historic Environment Record. Somerset County Council. Retrieved 21 September 2008.
  8. ^ "Wookey Hole Cave, Wookey Hole". Somerset Historic Environment Record. Somerset County Council. Retrieved 21 September 2008.
  9. ^ "Hyena Cave, Wookey Hole". Hominid bearing caves in the south west. Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  10. ^ "Prehistoric and Roman occupation, Hole Ground, Wookey Hole". Somerset Historic Environment Record. Somerset County Council. Retrieved 21 September 2008.
  11. ^ "UK Caves Database". Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  12. ^ a b Buxton, John S. "The Cave Diving Group". CDG. Retrieved 28 September 2008.
  13. ^ "CDG History 1950–1959". Cave Diving Group. Retrieved 12 July 2012.
  14. ^ "Divers head for new depth record". BBC. 30 September 2004. Retrieved 10 November 2008.
  15. ^ WOOKEY HOLE 75 years of cave diving & exploration. Wells: Cave Diving Group. 2010. ISBN 978-0-901031-07-5.
  16. ^ Gallagher, Emer (16 July 2008). "Explorer plunges to new depths in Mayo". Mayo News. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  17. ^ Chapman, T.A. "Water studies in Wookey Hole Cave, Somerset, UK". Cave and Karst Science. 26 (3): 107–113. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  18. ^ Leete-Hodge, Lornie (1985). Curiosities of Somerset. Bodmin: Bossiney Books. p. 25. ISBN 0-906456-98-3.
  19. ^ "The Wookey Hole Witch". This is Bristol. Retrieved 1 March 2008.
  20. ^ New Witch for Wookey Hole, Witchology.com, 29 July 2009, . Retrieved 16 Sept 2009.
  21. ^ "Wookey Hole Paper Mill". Images of England. Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  22. ^ "Wokey Hole Caves". UK activity report. UK Business Park. 16 October 2002. Retrieved 26 September 2008.
  23. ^ See Revenge of the Cybermen DVD.
  24. ^ "Elvis' teddy bear leaves building the hard way: Guard dog rips head off Presley's $75,000 toy in stuffed-animal rampage". Associated Press. 3 August 2006. Retrieved 28 August 2007.
  25. ^ "Pirate ship sails into Wookey Hole Caves crazy golf row". Bristol Evening Post. This is Bristol. 13 February 2009. Retrieved 20 October 2009.

Further reading

  • Balch, H E (1948). Mendip - Its Swallet Caves and Rock Shelters. Bristol: Wright.
  • Balch, H E (1913). "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 (1991). The Darkness Beckons. London: Diadem Books. ISBN 0-939748-32-0.
  • Hanwell, J.D, Price, D.M. & Witcombe, R.G. (eds.) WOOKEY HOLE 75 years of cave diving & exploration. Wells: Cave Diving Group. 2010. ISBN 978-0-901031-07-5.
  • 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.

External links

Coordinates: 51°13′41″N 2°40′17″W / 51.22806°N 2.67139°W / 51.22806; -2.67139