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Cheddar Cheese, Gorge, and Caves and an Ancient Human

Linda Crampton grew up in the UK and loves to visit the country. She is very interested in its natural history, culture, and history.

A view of the gorge and the entrance to Gough's cave

A view of the gorge and the entrance to Gough's cave

A Fascinating Area to Explore

The village of Cheddar is located in the county of Somerset in England. It's famous for its popular cheese, a spectacular gorge located nearby, and some fascinating caves. According to legend, Cheddar cheese originated when a milkmaid left a bucket of milk in a local cave to keep it cool and then temporarily forgot about it. When she remembered to collect the milk, she found that bacteria had transformed it into a new substance—the first Cheddar cheese.

Cheddar is located in southwest England and is a popular tourist destination. Though I live in Canada now, I visited the Cheddar area when I lived in Britain. It's an impressive place to explore. Cheddar Gorge, which is situated slightly to the east of the village, is the largest gorge in Britain and contains many caves. The two biggest—Gough’s Cave and Cox’s Cave—contain areas known as show caves that are open to the public. The Cheddar Yeo river flows underneath Gough’s cave and forms Britain’s largest underground river system.

Gough’s cave is famous as the original location of the Cheddar Man, an approximately 10,000-year-old male skeleton that was discovered in 1903. It's the oldest complete human skeleton found in Britain so far. The man had some interesting features.

Features of Cheddar Cheese

Cheddar cheese has traditionally been made in the Cheddar region, but today it’s also produced in many other places and countries. It's a hard cheese that is cream or pale yellow in colour and has a mild to sharp flavour, depending on its maturation time. The orange colour of many of the cheeses sold in food stores is artificial.

Mild Cheddar cheese is allowed to mature for about three months, medium cheese for about six months, and sharp cheese for nine to twelve months. The cheese with the strongest flavour matures for a longer period, which in some cases may last as long as several years.

The word “Cheddar” in the name of the cheese isn’t trademarked. In the sections below, I describe the original version of the cheese that was and still is made in Somerset.

A wedge of Cheddar cheese made in Somerset

A wedge of Cheddar cheese made in Somerset

How Cheddar Cheese Is Made

Cheddar cheese is made from cow's milk. A bacterial culture is added to the liquid. The milk is then separated into solid curds and liquid whey, usually by the addition of rennet. The mixture is gently heated after the rennet has been added.

Once the pieces of curd have fully formed and joined together, a special process called cheddaring is performed. Slabs of fresh curd are piled on top of each other. The pressure created by the pile pushes additional whey out of the slabs. The pile of curd slabs is periodically flipped (usually every fifteen minutes), and more whey is allowed to drain. This process allows a firm cheese to develop.

The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company is the only cheesemaker still operating in Cheddar. It offers daily tours and operates a store. According to the company, a "true" Cheddar cheese has to meet three requirements: it must be made from milk supplied by cows grazing on vegetation around Cheddar, it must be produced by hand, and it must be matured in cloth.

Some Interesting Facts About the Cheese

  • At one time, cheese had to be made within thirty miles of Wells Cathedral in order to be called "Cheddar" cheese. Wells is a city in Somerset.
  • King Henry the Second bought 10,240 pounds of Cheddar in 1170.
  • Queen Victoria was given a drum of Cheddar that weighed over 1,000 pounds. It was reportedly made from the milk of more than 700 cows.
  • When Captain Scott went to the Antarctic in 1901, he took 3,500 pounds of Cheddar with him.

I think the full-fat version of the cheese is delicious. It's rich in vitamin A and contains a small quantity of vitamin D. It's also a good source of riboflavin, vitamin B12, and a range of minerals. It's an excellent source of calcium. The cheese is rich in saturated fat, so some people may not want to eat it in excessive amounts.

Cheddar cheese and crackers

Cheddar cheese and crackers

With the absence of refrigeration or adequate transport, the problem of what to do with surplus milk was solved by turning it into cheese. Cheesemakers discovered that if you pressed the fresh curd to squeeze out the moisture, the cheese lasted much longer.

— Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company

Cheddar Gorge Formation and Facts

Cheddar Gorge is located in the Mendip Hills (or the Mendips), which are made of limestone. Their formation began over three-hundred-million years ago when sea corals and shelled creatures collected on the ocean floor. Over a very long period of time, the calcium in the animals' shells was converted into limestone. At some point, the ocean floor was moved upwards, forming the Mendip hills.

The formation of the gorge began about a million years ago when intensely cold glacial periods alternated with warmer interglacial ones. During each warmer period, some of the snow and ice that had formed during the glacial period melted. The process produced powerful meltwater floods that carried rocks and debris and gradually carved a passageway through the limestone. Today the gorge is about four-hundred-and-fifty feet deep and about three miles long.

Cheddar Gorge is a nature reserve. It's a great place for walking, rock climbing, caving, nature study, and photography. An open-top double decker bus accompanied by a tour guide travels through the gorge. The guided tour is good for people who don't feel up to more vigorous activity or who would like to get an overview of what the gorge offers. Part of the tour is shown in the video below.

Gough's Cave

Caves form when water drips through limestone and dissolves it. Gough's cave is the larger of the two show caves in the Cheddar Gorge and has multiple chambers. It contains spectacular and colourful formations of stalagmites and stalactites as well as underground pools. The River Yeo once ran through Gough's cave, but now it flows underneath the cave.

Stalagmites are rocks made from minerals that drip from the ceiling of a cave onto its floor. Stalactites are also made from minerals dripping from the ceiling of a cave, but they hang from the ceiling instead of resting on the ground. I remember the difference between the two formations by association. I look at the first letter that differs in their spelling. The c in stalactite tells me that the formation hangs from the ceiling. The g in stalagmite tells me that this formation points upward from the ground.

Gough’s cave is carefully illuminated to produce an almost magical appearance, which I still remember from my visit. Free audio guides are available for visitors to carry around as they explore. The opening of the cave is surrounded by a visitor's complex, which includes a coffee shop.

The cave is over two miles long and is still being studied. Only part of it is commercialized. The area was excavated and opened to the public by Richard Cox Gough in the nineteenth century. He was a nephew of George Cox, who excavated and opened Cox's cave.

Cox's Cave

Cox's cave is also attractive. It's more tourist-oriented than Gough's cave, however. Like Gough's cave, Cox's cave is illuminated, but the trip through the cave is also accompanied by music.

The cave is connected to a chamber with a display called "The Crystal Quest". This is described as a "fantasy adventure" and contains models of Tolkienesque characters. J.R.R. Tolkien (John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 1892–1973) visited Cheddar Gorge during his honeymoon. He's known for his imaginative books, including The Hobbit. Tolkien is thought to have based some of the scenes in his books on his memories of the gorge.

As people walk through the display in Cox's Cave, they follow the story of a quest for a special crystal. I've never seen the Crystal Quest display, but it sounds like it might be fun for children. It's probably still worth visiting the cave even if you don't like the idea of commercialization in order to see some natural and beautiful features.

The entrance to Jacob's Ladder in Cheddar

The entrance to Jacob's Ladder in Cheddar

Jacob's Ladder and Cave Surroundings

Near Cox's cave is Jacob's Ladder, a series of 274 steps that lead up the side of a cliff to a viewpoint and lookout tower. There are places for climbers to rest on the way up the steps, but a person should be in reasonably good physical condition to make the ascent. The viewpoint connects to a walking trail that travels over the cliff tops of the gorge.

The steps are said to be named after a ladder mentioned in the Bible. In Genesis 28, Jacob has a dream in which a ladder extends from the ground to heaven. Angels are ascending and descending the ladder.

Another attraction in the area is the specialty shops located around the caves. The shops provide the opportunity to buy local Cheddar cheese as well as other items. Cheese is still left in Gough's cave to mature because the cave provides a good humidity and temperature for cheese ripening.

Cheddar Man Features

A museum is located near the caves. Artifacts discovered in the gorge caves are displayed here, as well as a replica of the Cheddar Man. The real skeleton is in the Museum of Natural History in London.

Cheddar Man was discovered in 1903 when people were trying to improve the drainage system in Gough's cave. In real life, the man was about about 5 feet 5 inches tall. He lived around 10,000 years ago during the Mesolithic, the period of time between the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age and the Neolithic or New Stone Age. The caves were occupied by humans as long ago as the Paleolithic period.

Some of the man's DNA (his genetic material) has been discovered and analyzed. This has enabled scientists to learn more about him. The DNA was discovered in an inner ear bone. In 2018, scientists announced that the man had dark skin and blue eyes, a combination that wasn't uncommon at the time when he was alive. The video below was made before 2018 and shows the man with light skin.

The man’s teeth were in good condition, and his remains suggested that he was well fed. He was lactose intolerant, another common feature of humans in the area at that time. He’s thought to have died when he was in his twenties.

Cheddar Man lived during the period when the UK was connected to Europe by land. It’s unknown how he died. His body was found under a stalagmite, and his legs were curled underneath his body. Researchers don’t yet know whether his body was deliberately buried at the site. The BBC report says that there was some damage to his skull.

Not only was DNA preserved, but Cheddar Man has since yielded the highest coverage (a measure of the sequencing accuracy) for a genome from this period of European prehistory - known as the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age.

— BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Local Wildlife and Plants

Many rare plants and animals live in the Cheddar Gorge and caves. The largest colony of greater horseshoe bats in the United Kingdom inhabits Gough's cave. This bat is endangered in the UK. Lesser horseshoe bats also nest in the caves, and these too are endangered in the United Kingdom. Peregrine falcons, dormice, water voles, great crested newts, and cave spiders are other animals that live in the gorge. Soay sheep graze on the cliffs, and goats have been introduced to control the overgrowth of certain plants.

Some plants grow around Cheddar but nowhere else in Britain. The Cheddar pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus) is grown as a garden plant, but the only place it grows in the wild in the UK is in the Cheddar Gorge. It's also known as the firewitch and is an evergreen plant. It has lovely pink flowers and an appealing fragrance. Several sources say that the flowers smell like cloves.

Another plant discovered in the gorge was originally known as the Cheddar bedstraw. According to BRC (Biological Records Centre), a British organization, the Cheddar plant was once identified as Galium fleurotii but is now known as G. pumilum, or the slender bedstraw. The plant is a perennial with narrow leaves and bears clusters of small white flowers. It’s an endangered species in the wild.

Three new species of whitebeam trees (Sorbus spp.) have been discovered in the gorge. Whitebeams are deciduous trees with broad leaves. They generally have white flowers and red berries. Mountain ash and rowan trees also belong to the genus Sorbus.

Berries of Sorbus aria, a European whitebeam

Berries of Sorbus aria, a European whitebeam

Location of Cheddar Village and the Gorge

Visiting Cheddar

A visit to Cheddar is very worthwhile for people travelling to Somerset or a nearby county. There's a bus service to Cheddar from Western-Super-Mare and from Bristol. The area has places for cars to park. A railway line used to pass through the village, but the line has now become part of a long distance footpath. Some people may choose to explore part of this path.

The gorge is just a short walk away from Cheddar village. The area contains hotels and other forms of accommodation. Information about activities, accommodation, and transport can be found on the Cheddar village website. I hope I'm able to visit the area again. It's a fascinating place to explore.

References and Resources

  • The Cheddar Village website has information about the village and the surrounding attractions.
  • The Cheddar Gorge website is run by Longleat Enterprises. It has information about the gorge that may be helpful for tourists.
  • The National Trust also has a website about the gorge. The goal of the organization is to preserve areas of natural beauty and cultural significance.
  • The history of Gough's cave is discussed by the University of Bristol Spelaeological (caving) Society in a PDF document
  • has a report about the discovery of three new whitebeam species in Cheddar Gorge.
  • The website of the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company has information about the history of the cheese.
  • A list of nutrients in the cheese is provided by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
  • Cheddar Man's physical appearance is described by the BBC.
  • Information about Cheddar man from The Guardian
  • More facts related to the skeleton from the Smithsonian Magazine

© 2012 Linda Crampton