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Thirty kilometres southwest of Bristol is Cheddar Gorge, one of the most popular landscapes of Somerset. This spectacular gorge is the largest in the country. The surrounding cliffs tower up to 140 metres high. The interior is equally as impressive, with numerous caverns and caves in the faces of the cliffs. Prehistoric remains of the earliest inhabitants of Great Britain have been found here.
The gorge and system of caves have been formed over the past 1.2 million years by glacier meltwater from various ice ages. The Yeo River that gouged out the gorge continues to flow here, only now it flows underground. It has created limestone caverns; the two largest - Gough's Cave and Cox's Cave - are open to the public. A complete 9,000-year-old skeleton of an early cave dweller, known as Cheddar Man, was found in Gough’s Cave.
The cliffs and slopes of Cheddar Gorge form a mosaic of habitats, overgrown with slender bedstraw, meadow rue and a rare type of carnation called Cheddar Pink. It is as charming and lovely above as it is dark and mysterious below. Large colonies of bats live in the caves and caverns amongst the gnawed bones of cannibalistic cave dwellers.
It is the type of landscape that makes the imagination automatically run wild. It’s been said that this is what happened to J.R.R. Tolkien, who spent his honeymoon here in 1916. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy may have been filmed in New Zealand but the writer found his inspiration in Somerset. The description of Helm’s Deep in ‘The Two Towers’ in particular is strikingly similar to Cheddar Gorge. Today, an underground adventure tour called The Crystal Quest and inspired by Tolkien’s world of imagination takes visitors through Cox’s Cave. The rest of the cave, filled with reflecting lakes and limestone sculptures, is illuminated in a fairy-tale like manner, with mysterious singing emanating from hidden speakers.
Cheddar Man, whose 9,000-year-old skeleton was found in Gough’s Cave, was not the first inhabitant of the cave. Other remains have been found that are 12,000 years old. Yet he appeals most to the imagination as his skeleton is the oldest complete skeleton ever to be found in Great Britain. The link to this first ‘complete Brit’ not only has an emotional component but when his DNA was compared to the schoolchildren of Cheddar in the late 90s, it turned out that he is a distant forefather of two of them. The hole in his skull and signs of cannibalism found in the cave make one fear the worst as to his demise.