OS grid reference: ST 5320 4796. The Somerset village of Wookey Hole, 1 mile west of Lower Milton, at the southern side of the Mendip Hills has become famous for its deep caves which have, over the past two-hundred years, yielded up many archaeological finds from prehistoric times, but the caves here at Wookey have been a tourist attraction from as far back as the 15th century. It is here that the River Axe emerges from beneath the caves and then flows southwards towards Haybridge. An interesting Wookey Hole Caves Museum is located at the site.
Twenty-five underground chambers have been discovered by archaeologists and cave explorers, the most famous having names such as: ‘the kitchen’, ‘the Parlour’, ‘the Oast Office’ and the Great Cave itself, which has the eerie, calcified figure of a woman called ‘Witch of Wookey’, and in the entrance an image of a man called ‘the Porter’ – (Dunning, 1980). Adjoining the caves is a rock shelter called ‘Hyena Den’ and it is here that most of the finds from prehistoric times have been excavated, many artefacts in fact dating back ‘many’ thousands of years to the Palaeolithic Age. And above ‘Hyena Den’ there is yet another famous cave known as ‘the Badger Hole’, whose inhabitants were indeed “badgers”!
The caves of Wookey Hole are located just to the north of the village beyond a number of mills and workings from the industrial age, along a footpath up to the southern escarpment of the Mendip Hills and the ravine where the caves are to be found. The town of Shepton Mallet lies some 3 miles to the south-east and the city of Wells is just under 3 miles in the same direction.
The first phase of archaeological excavations was carried out in 1859-74 by William Boyd Dawkins and, later continued by Herbert E. Balch between 1904-14; the work continued between the years 1938-54, then again 1946-9, and then 1954-57 and, more recently in 1972.
The limestone caves at Wookey Hole were occupied roughly between 250 BC and 450 AD, before that there would perhaps have been habitation by wild animals along with ‘some’ human company, but more likely the animal bones that have been found were simply thrown into the caverns, or placed inside as a form of ‘offering’, or brought inside by other wild animals. Hyena Den was very likely the home of local hermits, and others, up until more recent times – at least the Middle Ages. Archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries have excavated the “bones of lion, mammoth, bear, woolly rhinoceros, wild horse, dear, fox and hare, nearly all chewed by hyenas who occasionally had to share their home with Palaeolithic men, who left behind them some flint tools and broken marrow bones” (Dunning, 1980). From more recent times 250 BC-450 AD “pottery, weaving equipment, coins, part of a horse’s bridle, and evidence of the use of coal and of storage of grain show how the caves were home to generations; but evidence of human sacrifice suggests not only an origin for the Witch Legend but also points to the abrupt end of the Great Cave as a dwelling in the 4th century”, according to Robert Dunning, ‘Somerset & Avon’. But, says Dunning:-
“even all this evidence is small compared to the bones found in an adjoining rock shelter, called Hynena Den; bones of animals dating back to the Palaeolithic age, perhaps 5,0000 B.C.”
The author Jacquetta Hawkes in her work ‘A Guide To The Prehistoric And Roman Monuments In England And Wales’, gives us a somewhat different but very informative view of Wookey Hole Caves. She says:-
“We are concerned with three caves in the ravine, all of them occupied by troglodytes though at very different periods. The first is the Hyaena Den, a small cave in the right-hand side of the ravine approached across a rustic bridge. The Hyena Den was first discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century and digging was begun there, almost in the year of the publication of the Origin of Species, under the direction of Sir William Boyd Dawkins, who was himself so much concerned in the struggle which led to recognition of the hitherto undreamt-of antiquity of man. It proved to contain vast masses of animal bones which had been lying there between twenty and a hundred thousand years. There in the heart of Somerset, Victorian gentlemen unearthed the remains of cave lion, cave and grizzly bears, mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, Irish elk, and many other species including great numbers of hyaenas. These last unpleasant beasts had been responsible for dragging in many of the other species, either as prey or carrion: but not all of them, for the ashes of camp fires, burnt bones and implements of flint and chert told of the use of the cave by Old Stone Age hunters. Whether the human families had actually to expel the hyaenas before they could claim the shelter of the cave who shall say, but the place must have been foul and fetid enough with the rank smell of the dogs and their putrifying mid-dens. On the other hand, any cave was welcome in glacial winters and at Wookey the water supply was excellent. Certainly hunting parties returned to the place from time to time over a great span of years, though all within the last phase of the Old Stone Age when the glaciers having ground their way southward for the last time, alternately melted back during a slightly warmer spell or advanced again with the intensifying cold—the minor oscillations which preceded the end of the Ice Age.
“Wookey Hole itself is a high, narrow entrance just above the spot at which the Axe glides out from under the precipice at the head of the ravine. It is far more spacious than the other caves, with three open chambers hung with stalactites through which the Axe flows and widens to a lake. It is now flood-lit and makes a pretty spectacle for those who like such places. More caves stretch deep into the rock below the water, and divers have already discovered seven of them—dangerous exploration which has had its fatalities.
“Here in Wookey there was no Stone Age occupation, but the chambers made a home for Celtic Britons of the Late Iron Age, poor cousins of the villagers of Glastonbury and Meare. It remained the home of their descendants long after the Roman conquest. There is a tradition that in the Middle Ages Wookey Hole was the lair of a troublesome witch, and her body, turned to stone by an exorcizing monk, now stands in the cave as a large stalagmite. It seems not altogether impossible that this represents the vague memory of a tragedy which in fact overtook its British occupants. Excavators found that the outer part of the cave had been used as a stable for goats—it contained their dung, and charred stump of a tethering-post, a pot probably used for milking and the bones of two goats.”
The author Robbert Dunning ‘Somerset & Avon’ goes on to tell us more about the recent industrial past of Wookey Hole and the surrounding area. He says:-
“The industrial buildings at Wookey Hole may be something of a surprise; and their contents even more so. At least since the early 17th century the emergent Axe has been harnessed to make paper, and the present buildings were put up by Hodgkinson family from the mid 19th century. High-quality hand-made paper was made here until 1972, and the whole property was sold in 1973 to Madame Tussaud’s. Since that time there have been notable changes: part of the mill houses Lady Bangor’s famous collection of fairground objects, themselves made between 1870 and 1939, including organs, gallopers from roundabouts, cars from scenic railways, and many other pieces of now almost vanished culture, resplendent in the colours and detail that could hardly be studied when the fairground was at work at night, and often at high speed.
“Another part of the mill has become the working store-room and studio for Madame Tussaud’s exhibition. Heads, bodies and limbs of those whose fame has faded, and costumes and crowns, ready to take their place again in Baker Street, are there arranged neatly on shelves, together with the plaster negative moulds of those of current fame.
“Paper is again made on the premises by hand, bringing industry back to this remarkable site which offers such a range of the evidence of man’s activity in so small a compass ………..the flint tools in the Hyena Den are at least a comfort to ordinary mortals.”
William Worcester, the highly acclaimed 15th century antiquarian, visited the Somerset caves and as usual had something to say about the place:-
“…….a certain narrow entry where to begin with is the image of a man called the Porter. One must ask leave from the Porter to enter the hall of Wookey, and the people carry with them ….. sheaves of reed sedge to light the hall. It is as big as Westminster Hall and stalactites hang from the vault which is wondrously arched over with stone……. the passage through which one enters the hall is about half a furlong in length ……. between the passage and the hall is a broad lake crossed by 500 stone steps …….. and if a man goes off the steps he falls into the water.”
Sources and websites used:-
Dunning, Robert., Somerset & Avon, John Bartholomew & Sons Limited, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1980.
Hawkes, Jacquetta., A Guide To The Prehistoric And Roman Monuments in England And Wales, (Published for Cardinal by Sphere Books Ltd., London, 1975.
Worcester, William., (ed. Harvey, J. H.) Itineraries (1969).