Stepping Out in Cheddar
Neville Stanikk delights in exploring the dramatic sights of Cheddar, from the awe-inspiring ancient Gorge to the cheese-filled Gough's Cave
Cheddar and the gorge at 9am on a weekday morning in February. A few people at the bus stops and the sun is shining, so that’s good, but what am I going to find at an out-of-season tourist attraction? Lots, as it turns out. In fact, one of the most interesting days I’ve had since I’ve been writing these articles.The first good thing is that nearly all the car parks in the gorge are free in the winter, but before heading up there I have a look around Cheddar itself. I find out that it’s a village, despite being much larger than neighbouring Axbridge, which is a town. They both share Cheddar Reservoir which, obviously, you can walk round but which also attracts fishermen and those keen on sailing. The gorge and the surrounding Mendips, of course, attract many walkers, climbers and cyclists.
However, the real start to my unexpected day begins in Bloomers the bakers, where I have a jolly nice tuna and cucumber sandwich, and Karen Grant there is full of optimism about Cheddar’s present and its future, and everyone I speak to during the day is happy with where they are and how things are going. So I have a look round Cheddar, at its parish church of St Andrew and the ancient market cross, and reflect that the inhabitants’ confidence really brings this village to life.Fed, I drive to the top of the gorge and start walking down it, marvelling at its grandeur. At this time of year only the western slopes get the sun but even so, it’s genuinely awe-inspiring. When I was a child everyone went on coach trips and Cheddar Gorge was always chalked up on the boards; these days, however, I find fewer people seem to know about it. In this age of international travel, fewer people, especially younger ones, seem to know that there are any amazing natural phenomena in Britain at all, and every time I visit the gorge I feel I should drag at least a dozen people along just to show them.
Standing on the road at the foot of the gorge, you’re standing on limestone with a depth that spans 320 million years, and if you climb the endurance-testing Jacob’s Ladder (274 steps) to the top of the gorge, the noticeboard near the top will tell you that the thickness of a sheet of paper laid on the top step would represent the duration of human civilisation.The gorge was carved out by successive glacial melt waters that were trapped behind the Mendip Hills in past ice ages, and that water has formed the caves that are its main tourist attraction. A cave always strips away our educated standards of measurement. It’s easy to feel that after a mere 100 yards or so you’re nearing the centre of the Earth, as ancient man must have done and children still do. There’s an irresistible feeling of discovery in caves; that through some tiny hole or behind an inch of rock there might be a huge chamber containing who-knows-what and in Gough’s Cave there is – cheese! Since 2006, the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company have been maturing some of their cheese in the caves, just as it used to be done. At their shop down the road, I ask their Technical Manager, Katherine Spencer, if that’s just a gimmick? She shows me the cheese maturing in their own storerooms and asks me to taste it and then taste the same cheese that’s been matured in the caves; they taste very different. In the shop, the enthusiastic Steph Flinders tells me that, sadly, they can’t reclaim the name ‘Cheddar’ (as Parma Ham or Champagne have done) but they are entitled to call their cheese, made in Cheddar, ‘Authentic Cheddar Cheese’ and I can see that they’re proud of that and of the cheese they make.
A lot of the tea rooms and caf�s are closed at this time of year and I wonder how the little shops that are open have fared during the recession. Very well it seems. Kevin Grinstead opened his woodcarving shop, Tree Top Carvings, in December last year and has done very well; Rich’s Cider Farm Shop, selling another traditional Somerset product, is definitely open for business; the Gorgeous Bear Co, with its teddy bears of every kind, seems to be thriving and Terry White in Cloud 9 is keen to tell me just how many successful aspects there are to his shop – doll’s house furniture, rocks, coins, portraits and jewellery, as well as his own personal crystal collection that he shows to the public as an exhibition; James Aldred in the Cheddar Caves & Gorge Information Centre is enormously helpful and enthusiastic about all the caves and their related attractions and all the caves’ staff I encounter are the same.I hope it wasn’t coincidence, and I hope that I genuinely did encounter one the happiest communities I’ve come across in one of the most dramatic and beautiful parts of Britain. I can’t help but wish them all well.