Deep in the Mendip Hills in Somerset, the River Axe has hewn out a path from a great underground reservoir and flowing out of the caves into Weston Bay on the Bristol Channel. Over millennia, the water has carved a series of caves into the limestone of the hills – caves that go so deep into the earth that they have not yet been fully explored and mapped, as they are largely underwater. The caves have been in more or less continuous use for 45,000 years; near the river’s exit from the system, Britain’s first paper mill was built around 1610. More recently, the caves have been pivotal in the invention of various apparati for cave diving, have been used to age cheddar cheese – and have served as a filming location for two episodes of Doctor Who, separated by nearly 35 years. It is rumored that a witch was turned to stone in one of the outermost chambers of the cave.
In the Paleolithic period, humans used the caves as shelters, and numerous tools (as well as stone-age skeletons) have been recovered from the site. Various other ancient civilizations used the caves as well – there are Iron Age artifacts, as well as evidence of occupation during the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago. The foundation of a hut dating to Roman times has been discovered on the site, and the fourth chamber of the caves contains a Roman cemetery from the 1st through 4th centuries of the Common Era. There are records of a corn mill on the Rive Axe which date to 1086. The entire area is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
BIn the 1860s, the cave was being excavated and the huge systems discovered. The first, second, and third chambers had been known about since prehistoric times, and the fourth and fifth since Roman times, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the full extent of the caves was beginning to be reckoned, as cave explorers developed new techniques for exploring underwater. By 1955, an explorer named Bob Davies used an aqualung and flippers to reach the bottom of the 11th chamber – finding entrances to the 12th and 13th. In the 1970s, the end of the 24th chamber was reached – revealing an “end of the line” for explorers for the time being – a vast underground water source that was called the “Lake of Gloom”. Its exact size is still unknown, but it is too large to be explored further at the moment. Divers have reached a depth of 90m (~300 ft) at present, though the rest of the system seems to be unpunctuated by air pockets.
There are numerous versions of a legend about the human-shaped stalagmite in Wookey Hole; the most common version is that a local witch wrecked all sorts of mischief on the local village for years, until she made a mistake – she separated two lovers, cursing them never to be together. The man took up Holy Orders and became a monk, and lived for many years in an abbey. The witch’s mischief grew so terrible that the local townspeople implored their bishop to send someone to banish her. As luck would have it, that same monk was sent to the caves, where he battled the witch into the darkness. After an intense battle, he was imbued with holy powers and smote the witch, turning her into stone. In some versions, he too perished in the battle, but was summoned up to Heaven, leaving the witch in situ forever.
Something really amazing did happen in Wookey Hole, however – in 1975, Doctor Who filmed “Revenge of the Cybermen” there, bringing the classic silver nemesis back for the first time since the Second Doctor faced them in 1968’s fantastic “The Invasion”. It would be the only 1970s encounter with the Cybermen, and is sadly underrated due to the fact that the story directly preceding it was “Genesis of the Daleks”, to many, the iconic story in Doctor Who history (although I would argue that “Inferno” is better). In any case, “Revenge” is still a great episode, and it was in the outer chambers of Wookey Hole Caves that Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor would confront the classic villain:
The site was also used for part of the 2009 reboot episode “The End of Time”, notable for being a welcome farewell to the Tenth Doctor, as well as for episodes of Blake’s 7 and Robin of Sherwood. But the caves are most notable, of course, for their massive, interconnected series of chambers which is still not entirely explored. Most tourists can only see the outer caves through the 9th chamber (due to expansion of aboveground excavation), although some parts still need be crossed by boat:
As a final note, I’ll mention that, like those of the Blue John Caverns, these stereoviews are of much better quality than those VistaScreen put out for such series as the London Zoo or the Bertram Mills Circus. One wonders why they did pretty well with caves, and so incredibly poorly with animals & circus folk.