Early Days of Wookey Hole

Wookey Hole and its caves have one of the longest continuously recorded histories in the British Isles. Wookey Hole is rightly famed for the manufacture of hand made paper and is a fine example of a complete industrialised village with its mill and housing for the employees all supplied by a benevolent employer - the Hodgkinson family. It is, however known world-wide for its Great Cave. Numerous writers throughout the ages have written of their experiences and fascination as they ventured into the chambers of the Great Cave. Their writings however come long after the cave's earliest inhabitants.

In times past there would have been no gorge leading to the dramatic start of the River Axe and the cave would not have been there as at present . Below where the mill stands now a stream would have broken through the hillside. Above this spring a small cliff a few feet in height would form, only to be further attacked by the elements. Bit by bit the small rock face retreated further upstream, the falling fragments being carried off downstream to the sea. In many thousands of years to come the same process could force the entrance back yet further, until eventually it would be entirely destroyed and a way through the hill be formed as is the case with Ebbor and Cheddar today.


During the course of destruction and formation of the cave and ravine, smaller tributary caves were formed like Hyaena Den and Badger Hole. As the river dropped to lower levels these upper water courses have been left high and dry like the present entrance to the Great Cave, Hyena Den and Badger Hole. These caves have been inhabited by animals and early man throughout the ages, their size and location making perfect shelters. In Pleistocene times (25-50,000 years ago) when early man arrived, he sought game and shelter. His pursuit led him up the River Axe to Hyaena Den.


The district abounded with all kinds of game. Early man found the great mammoth and at least two kinds of Rhinoceros, Irish Elk with its antlers spanning 15 feet, Bison, Red Deer, Reindeer, Wild Goat and Wild Boar. With Lions, Bears and Hyaenas hunting the weak or injured creatures, driving them over the neighbouring cliff, early man could secure a share of the bounty himself. Hyaena Den, discovered with the cutting of the canal, revealed many relics of this time.


And so to the occupation of the Great Cave. H.E. Balch devoted much of his life to investigating the caves of Mendip. His greatest achievements in Wookey Hole were the explorations of the Great Cave and Badger's Hole. During 1908 to 1912 and again during 1926-7 Balch was able to excavate the Great Cave. His monograph of unparalleled detail clearly illustrates the way man has lived during each period of human occupation..


The Great Cave of Wookey Hole entombed relics of occupation dating from the Early Iron Age through to the abandonment of Britain by the Romans. Most of these priceless treasures can now be seen in the Wells Museum. Spinning wheels and weaving combs, pins, brooches and ornaments, pieces of pottery, (many of them of great beauty) iron weapons, and tools, hollow stones in which corn was ground - all these speak of a far greater civilisation than one would expect to find in primitive people.


One of the first finds made during excavations were those of bones belonging to goats. About a hundred feet from the entrance the skeletons of a goat and kid lay together where the stump of a stake showed they had been tethered. The assumption was that they had starved to death. In an adjacent fissure a milking pot, a comb of six teeth, a bronze brooch and a ball of crystalline stalagmite were unearthed. The removal of a further stone revealed a deep pit around which were found human bones and a variety of weapons. All the chief bones of a human body were present which has helped support the ancient legend of the Witch. Here we have a solitary occupant of the cave from at least as long ago as the Roman times, believed to possess supernatural powers who was being overtaken by disease or violence and left to die on the floor of the cave beside the tethered goats. Is it any wonder the folk of the neighbourhood stayed away leaving the body of the goatherd to decay. When at last some individual gathered enough courage to enter, no trace of the body was found. With the stories of an embittered old hag living at the cave, only to disappear without trace, it is not surprising to find the next installment of the story being that of the Witch turning to stone, as in Harrington's poem of 1748.


"In ancient days, tradition showes

A base and wicked elfe arose

The Witch of Wokey hight.

Oft have I heard the fearful tale

From Sue and Roger of the vale

On some longer winter's night.


Deep in the dark and dismal cell,

Which seemed and was ycleped 'Hell'

This blear-eyed hag did hide;

Nine wiked elves, as legend sayne,

She chose, to form her guardian trayne,

And kennel near her side.


Here screeching owls oft made their nest,

Whilst wolves its craggy sides possest,

Night-howling through the rock;

No wholesome herb could here be found,

She blasted every plant around,

And blister'd every flock.


Her haggard face was foul to see;

Her mouth unmeet a mouth to bee;

Her eyne of deadly leer;

She nought devis'd but neighbour's ill;

She wreaked on all her wayward will,

And marr'd all goodly cheer.


All in her prime, have poets sung,

No gaudy youth, gallant and young,

E'er blessed her longing arms,

And hence arose her splight to vex,

And blast the youth of either sex,

By dint of hellish charms.


From Glaston came a lernede wight,

Full bent to mar her fell despight,

And well he did, I ween;

Sich mischief never had been known,

And since his mickle lerninge shown,

Sich mischief ne'er has been.


He chauntede out his goodlie booke

He crost the water, blest the brooke

Then -- Pater Noster done --

The ghastly hag he sprinkled o'er,

When lo! where stood a hag before,

Now stood a ghastly stone.


Full well 'tis known adown the dale,

Though passing strange indeed the tale

And doubtful may appear,

I'm bold to say there's never a one

That has not seen the Witch in Stone

With all her household gear.


But tho' this lerned clerke did well,

With grieved heart, alas! I tell

She left her curse behind:

That Wokey nymphs forsaken quite,

Tho' sense and beauty both unite,

Should find no leman kind.


For lo! even, as the fiend did say,

The sex have found it to this day,

That men are wonderous scant;

Here's beauty, wit, and sense combined,

With all that's good and virtuous join'd,

Yet harly one gallant.


Shall then sich maids unpitied moane?

They might as well, like her, be stone,

As thus forsken dwell.

Since Glaston now can boast no clerks;

Come down from Oxenford, ye sparks,

And oh revoke the spell.


Yet stay, nor thus despond, ye fair

Virtue's the god peculiar care;

I hear gracious voice:

Your sex shall soon be blest again,

We only wait to find sich men,

As best deserve you choice."



The Romans came in 43 A.D. and during the four hundred years of their occupation of this country carried out mining operations for lead in the Mendips. Charterhouse-on Mendip was their main mine in the area. There many coins and other relics have been discovered. In 1544 Leland the historian writes that a few years earlier, in a field near Wookey Hole, a heavy oblong tablet of lead was turned up in ploughing, bearing the inscription -



showing it to be the property of ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, holder of the Tribunician power for the ninth time, Imperator for the sixteenth time. From Britain’. It is believed to be a "pig" or ingot of lead from the mines worked by the Romans in A.D. 49. Though there is no record of the weight it could have been anything from 170 to 220 lbs.


The lowlands of Somerset for many years could only be used for summer grazing, hence the name originating from Saxon times and meaning Summer Settlement. Pastures and agricultural land on the hills around were thus perfect areas for all year occupation in the region. The cave folk improved cultivation by cutting terraces into the grounds around Wookey Hole. There they could grow their crops of grain, peas and beans. During Roman times the same terracing was used. In Holeground, excavations of 1954-57 showed there to be three farmsteads, each built on the same plot. The earliest, an oval hut of wattle and daub was built in the 1st century A.D.. The second building, again dating from around the first century, was more structural allowing the occupants to use the same site until probably the 3rd century. A final and more substantial dwelling was constructed in the 3rd or 4th century. The main building occupied a space of 36 feet by 24 feet and probably had a low stone wall above which was a wooden framework supporting a thatched or wooden roof. Like the previous two dwellings this building was floored with flagstone.


During the third century Romans were less inclined to use cremation as their form of burial. At the site of the three Romano-British farmsteads, seven children were found to be buried. Numerous adult skeletons of the same period were also found in the fourth chamber of the caves, at that time the furthest point one could reach within the caves.


Our earliest known literary reference to the Great Cavern is in the writings of TITUS FLAVIUS CLEMENS, otherwise known as Clement of Alexandria, towards the end of the second century. A man who was dissatisfied with Greek philosophy, he made long journeys to seek a purer truth. Christianity was what he found. As part of his writings he aimed to prove that God is everywhere by giving descriptions of mysterious phenomena. "Those who have composed histories say that in Britain is a certain cave at the side of a mountain, and at the entrance a gap; when, then, the wind blows into the cave and is drawn on into the bosom of the interior, a sound is heard as of the clashing of numerous cymbals."


Clement of Alexandria refers to what earlier writers had said but these records have not yet been traced. It is however known that this whole area had for some time been a regular trading ground. A silver coin of Marcia B.C.124 was found in the Great Cave.


In 577 A.D., the Saxon Ceawlin attacked the two British kings Conmael and Kyndylan, forcing them from the Mendips down to the Axe Valley. Its river and boggy surroundings were to become the new boundary line between the Saxon and British rulers. This remained so until A.D.658 when, with a further push under the rule of Cenwealh, the Saxons enveloped all the Somerset lowlands up to the River Parrett. Many of the Britons by now had retreated to the unconquered land of Wales and it is from here that legends of the cave of Wookey Hole have developed. The story of Kulhwch and Olwen make strong reference to the cave with demands of ‘the blood of the black witch, daughter of the white witch, who lived in the cave at the head waters of the Stream of Sorrow, on the confines of Hell’. Although Kulhwch was given this request in order to take the hand in marriage of Olwen, it was with the help of Arthur that the witch was slain. Even today we have links to this story; Hell’s Ladder on the approach to the first chamber and Arthur’s Point where Arthur surveyed the area where the witch lived. The ‘Stream of Sorrow’ was the River Axe and the border line for the dispossessed Britons.


In 1060 under Bishop Giso a charter was drawn confirming all the possessions of the church of Wells. Here it is seen Woky and Wokyhole are part of the estate. From this time on it continually appears in Cathedral documents until, under pressure of the Crown, it was sold as part of scheme to enrich the Duke of Somerset. On his demise Wookey Hole returned to the Church, with Bubwith’s Farm becoming an endowment to Bishop Bubwith’s Almshouses in Wells.


Wookey Hole and in particular the caves have long been a tourist attraction. Around 1470 William Worcestre described in detail the chambers of the cave, the ‘kitchen’, the ‘Parlour’ and ‘the figure of a woman clothed and spinning….’. From this date it would appear the caves were gathering popularity. Accounts of its picturesque setting and fascinating cavern were being written with increasing regularity.



D. Hudsmith

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