I first visited Cheddar as a child on a family holiday, so it’s odd to think that I now live under an hour away! Somehow, I’ve ended up going to Cheddar three times in the last year – mainly because it seems to be the place that all our visitors want to see in order to relive their own childhood memories. Cheddar is a really easy day trip from Bristol and is a great place to escape the city and see some of the beautiful countryside in the area.
Each time I’ve been inside the caves my first stop has been Gough’s Cave, the largest of the attractions. There is a free audio guide tour included in the ticket price which is worth doing, especially as you can very easily pick and choose which bits you listen to. There is also a children’s version of the tour if you’d prefer to listen to stories rather than facts about the caves.
I really enjoy walking around the cave, particularly the mirror pools (although these were created artificially by the Victorians) which are nicely lit and at certain angles looked as if there is a small village inside. It reminds me how impressive caves are and how interesting they are to walk around. The two main chambers are particularly beautiful! You can see Cheddar cheese being matured in the cave and learn a bit more about that, and if you’re lucky you might even come across someone handing out samples.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous then you can take part in an adventure caving activity which will allow you to see more of the caves and get away from the main tourist route. It isn’t something I’ve tried myself, but as I enjoyed caving in New Zealand so much it is definitely something that I want to try at some point.
The Museum of Prehistory
The Museum of Prehistory is directly opposite Gough’s Cave and is a natural next stop on your tour of Cheddar Gorge. Here you can learn more about the famous Cheddar Man (the oldest complete skeleton found in Britain) and his contemporaries. On the first of my recent visits it was the end of a festival of archaeology. This meant there were a range of hands-on activities so we were able to dress up in animal skins and dig for artefacts in a tray of sand. The museum is quite interesting and well laid out, although it is quite small.
Dreamhunters at Cox’s Cave
The Dreamhunters exhibit at Cox’s Cave is Cheddar’s interactive experience. I’ll be honest, the first time I visited I was dubious about it before we went in and I was still less than convinced when we came out on my second visit. Basically you go on a set route around a cave which iss lit up in different colours, and every so often you stop to hear a bit more of a prehistoric story, complete with projections against the rocks. The projections were admittedly quite impressive, but the story was quite odd.
You might put it down to this attraction being aimed at children, but actually the story didn’t seem to be at all. The first bit was very surreal and felt like someone had written it whilst they were on drugs. Then later on it was talking about how much easier horses are to kill for food after they’ve been driven over a cliff and are already broken, which was just a bit unnecessarily graphic and gruesome. I’d have preferred to just walk around another cave as the story didn’t really add anything for me, but I suppose it adds a different element to the experience.
Climbing the 274 steps up Jacob’s Ladder is a great way to get some exercise. Luckily there are conveniently located breaks on the way up, but I still always arrive at the top feeling slightly out of breathe. Once you have reached the top, there is then a look-out tower where you can climb some additional steps for a viewpoint (please note that at the time of writing the look-out tower was closed for maintenance). It feels like hard work but it is worth it as you will be rewarded with beautiful views over the Mendip Hills and Somerset Levels. You can even see Glastonbury Tor in the distance!
The Cheddar Gorge Walk
The Cheddar Gorge walk takes approximately two hours to complete and can be completed in either direction. If you’ve bought a ticket and have come up Jacob’s Ladder then it makes sense to start on this side, but you can do it for free by starting at the other side of the gorge. I’d recommend doing it on a clear day as you will get the most rewarding views this way, although if it is hot it might take you a little longer than expected as there isn’t much shade and the path can be quite steep.
As someone who is not a fan of heights, I tried to stay away from the edge of the gorge and stuck to the path, but if you are feeling brave then it is possible to get close to the edge – I’d advise keeping hold of dogs or small children! The first time I tried to complete the walk we didn’t have enough time before we had to put our visitor back on their train, and the second time it started snowing when we were at the top so we decided to abandon the walk. I’m now pleased to say that I have completed it and it was just as lovely as I was expecting. If you don’t want to pay for any of the attractions but still want to get a feel for the natural landscape then I would definitely recommend completing the walk.
Eating Cheese in Cheddar
No trip to Cheddar would be complete without some cheese so make sure you head to the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company shop for a range of different samples of the only Cheddar made in Cheddar. I can particularly recommend the Cheddar with a good slosh of port! For a small fee you can also visit the Working Dairy and Visitor Centre, which is a great way to learn more about the cheese-making process and watch some of the cheese makers at work.
The essentials for visiting Cheddar
Each time I’ve visited Cheddar I have been able to find a parking space without much problem, but it can get very busy in the holiday season as it is a big tourist attraction in the area. I’d recommend arriving in the morning if you can as it is likely to be quieter then! If you are planning to go to any of the attractions (such as the caves or up Jacob’s Ladder) then you will need to purchase a ticket. I’d buy this online in advance (you can’t buy it online on the day you are going) as there is a pretty good discount.
There are plenty of places to eat and drink in Cheddar so you’ll be able to find food pretty easily. There is even, disappointingly, a Costa attached to one of the caves. The one thing I would note is that there isn’t much in the way of picnic benches so if you are planning on bringing your own food then expect to eat it standing, or perched on a rock somewhere as you complete the gorge walk.
The roads winding through Cheddar Gorge can be narrow in places and are quite steep. If your car doesn’t like hills (like mine!) then expect to go slowly and stay in a low gear. Watch out for goats who may wander into the road and expect to see a lot of cyclists who can be difficult to overtake.
Although I’ve been to Cheddar a few times recently, the landscape never fails to take my breathe away and I think it’s a really beautiful part of the country. It’s a lovely place to spend the day visiting attractions, admiring the scenery, but also going into all the different shops which line the gorge – the Christmas shop and Teddy Bear shop are two of my favourites to browse! Next time I go will probably be the next time we have visitors, but I hope they’re feeling brave as I definitely want to try out the adventure caving.