Somerset

Cheddar Travel Blog

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The gorge at dusk

I woke up late, with the sun high in the sky.  Well, I was assuming it was the sun.  There was a silver disk lurking apologetically behind high, thin cloud, offering about enough light to qualify as day.  The land and the sky and the housing estates of Swindon were universally grey, and it was all just about too depressing to cope with.

 

My man was still in Goa.  Goa, damn it.  Why am I in Swindon?

 

Good point.  Why am I in Swindon?  I mean, Goa is too far for a day trip.

rocks. They look cooler when you're there, as it turns out
 But vast tracts of the south west are within an hour and a half’s drive.  Man up.  Get in the car. 

 

I got up.  I got in the car.  I got about half an hour down the road and hit a contraflow, choked with people going to Bristol to celebrate the fact that they had more or less paid off Christmas by running up more debt.  And don’t think I’m being superior – it was a tempting option.  But one unlikely to compensate for absence of man, I thought, so I drove on, up into the hills and past Bristol Airport.

 

You can believe that passing the airport did absolutely nothing to improve my mood. 

 

Finally, I found myself in the Mendips.

cottages; cute when you can't see all the shops!
  I was without map or direction, considering that my phone had once again decided that it was on strike, but I knew dimly that the A38 eventually passed through Cheddar.  I didn’t much want to go to Cheddar as the website gives you the impression that admission to the gorge is £17 (of which more later) but I knew that there were other hills and nature reserves in the area so I knew I was on track.  There was a tiny crack in the grey, with small scraps of blue visible, and I was feeling a bit less sulky about life.  I’m sure you’re glad to hear that, because reading my thoughts on clouds and contraflows is probably getting tired by now.  

 

The hill I came to first is called Shute Shelve, which is a fantastic name for a hill.  There did not appear to be marked paths, either, which is nice – it was like being on a hill in southern Scotland, where you are more or less expected to just march up the side that seems least likely to kill you unless there is a specific sign telling you not to.  Actually, the twisted gorse bushes and the hawthorns dwarfed by the constant wind were reminiscent of the North too.

Axbridge
 There was a pleasant breeze, and I was surprised to find myself agreeing with the man who I spoke to who observed it was perfect weather for it – overcast but not actually cold is pretty good weather for hiking.  

 

Mysteries of the Hills number 1 – the Ridiculously Fit Old Man

 

It is one of the universal mysteries of hills that there is always a ridiculously fit man who appears to be well past retirement climbing the same hill as you.  In Scotland, he is wearing a tweed coat and walking two dogs of indeterminate breed.  His English counterpart has a red goretex jacket, high tech Nordic poles, and a woolly hat.  Both of them are blithely skipping up the hill whilst you are puffing and panting and trying to breath in what by now feels like solid ice crystals.

cave
 

 

Who is this man?  Why is he finding it all so easy?  I do not know.  But he is usually very friendly and sometimes knows where the path is. And if he has a female equivalent, I want to be that when I grow up.  

 

I puffed up the hill, and have taken some pictures of the view.  The round pool is Cheddar reservoir.  I listened to the wind whispering through the gorse bushes, making a noise like distant sea, for a while.  The sea was not always so distant, by the way – until the late middle ages Somerset flooded every winter and the Mendips stuck out into sea marsh like giant sunbathing seals.  Centuries of improved drainage and sea defences made the place first habitable and then pretty, but as far as the hills are concerned it’s all a bit new.

The gorge
 

 

Mysteries of the hills number 2: where are my tissues?

 

By the time I got to the top I had hill top nose – my nose had gone all runny and all the tissues I know I had in my pockets had vanished.  Where do the tissues go?  Is it connected with the Ridiculously Fit Old Man?

 

Another of the strange things about hills is how different they look going down than up.  On the way down I found lots of little hollows in the limestone, most of them with a few trees growing in them, and an iron park bench.  There must have been a time in British History when some public minded citizens started paying for park benches to be installed on hillsides across the country, possibly before the advent of satellite television.

a sheep
  It was mostly ruined, but I sat on it anyway.

 

Mysteries of the hills number 3: the park benches

 

Why are there mysterious park benches half way up hills and mountains across the UK?  Who installed them?  It conjures up images of gangs of roving park bench installers wearing flat caps carrying wrought iron benches up hills.  Someone had to carry them, for a start.  And they must weigh an awful lot.  And the next mystery is, is anyone ever going to maintain them?  They are cool and quirky and utterly uncommercial, so probably not, which is a tragedy.  We should treasure our mysterious mountain park benches – it’s going to be a real shame when they are all rusted away.

St John the Baptist, Axbridge
 For a start, where will the Ridiculously Fit Old Man eat his sandwiches?  

 

Next, I drove to Cheddar to see if you really did have to pay £17 for the gorge.  You don’t, but it is very commercialised, in a very British way.  There are dozens of little gift shops where you can buy little polished minerals that are almost certainly imported from China rather than dug out of the caves.  There are dozens of little tea shops, and I swear this is true, a kebab shop.  In a gorge.  Only in England! 

 

There is also a climbing activity company and some caves to be shown round, which is the sort of thing they do charge for.  I think the £17 covers some caves and a lookout tower, a museum of prehistoric Somerset, and a nature walk.

there is almost nowhere in the UK where you can't find a random, half ruined bench
 The climbing is extra.

 

I did none of these things, having timed my arrival with unerring accuracy for just after everything had closed.  This was quite deliberate (or if you are not going to buy that, then very lucky) as I had the place to myself and could actually enjoy the landscape itself, which was surprisingly impressive.  These photos don’t do it justice at all, because my phone does not cope at all well with twilight.  Some of the cave guides came out in their hard hats and went home, looking like miners knocking off for the night.  There was an old fashioned sort of sheep grazing about.  I would imagine this place is close to hell in summer, with the narrow gorge road choked with tourists trying to avoid hitting overexcited children.  Perhaps twilight in winter is the best time to come, unless you have your heart set on caving.  

 

After that I went home, via the last of the winter sales in Bristol.  Told you I wasn’t being superior
Sweetski says:
Terrific read! Love the 'Mysteries of the hills'. Hope more are to follow :)
Posted on: Feb 21, 2010
londonstudent says:
I so agree with you about the tissues! They should provide emergency Kleenex dispensers ...
Posted on: Feb 08, 2010
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The gorge at dusk
The gorge at dusk
rocks.  They look cooler when you…
rocks. They look cooler when you…
cottages; cute when you cant see …
cottages; cute when you can't see…
Axbridge
Axbridge
cave
cave
The gorge
The gorge
a sheep
a sheep
St John the Baptist, Axbridge
St John the Baptist, Axbridge
there is almost nowhere in the UK …
there is almost nowhere in the UK…
limestone hollows on SHude Shelve
limestone hollows on SHude Shelve
The sky
The sky
Cheddar from Shude Shelve
Cheddar from Shude Shelve
The sky again
The sky again
Cheddar Sights & Attractions review
The Mendips
The Mendips are a range of hills to the south west of Bristol, and most of the area is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. Most of t… read entire review
Cheddar
photo by: Riz7