Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Witch of Wookey Hole - A Hallowe'en Post by Rob Bayliss

Marking the north-eastern edge of Somerset, stand the Mendip Hills. These are hills of Carboniferous limestone and Triassic dolomite, and exhibit classic karst landscape features. Climbing up through the hills is the amazing Cheddar Gorge and its network of cave systems. Inside these caves the air has a steady temperature and humidity which was found to be ideal conditions for the six to nine month maturing process of Cheddar cheese.

South of Cheddar lies Wells, the smallest city in England, famous for its Bishop’s Palace and its swans that swim in its moat and ring a bell to be fed. Near to Wells is the tourist attraction of Wookey Hole Caves.

Unfortunately Wookey has nothing to do with Chewbacca from Star Wars! As is usual in Somerset the name derives from an amalgam of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon words to describe a geographical feature. Hence we have a derivative of ochie (Welsh for cave) tagged with hole (Old English for cave) and of course cave, itself a Latin/Norman word. So Wookey Hole Caves translates literally as Cave Cave Caves, and at the same time gives us a linguistic history of England in chronological order!

From out of Wookey Hole the River Axe emerges. It is the dissolving effect of the water on the limestone that has created this cave system: a network of caverns that has been used by humans for at least 45,000 years, evidenced by the discovery of Paleolithic tools and fossilised remains of animals. Ice Age denizens who found shelter in shallow caves in the nearby cliffs included cave hyenas, Eurasian lions and woolly rhinoceros. Other fossils indicate an almost tropical climate was enjoyed here between ice ages.  

The full extent of the main cave system, as it worms deep into the Mendips, is still to be ascertained. It was at Wookey Hole that some of the first successful cave diving expeditions in Britain were attempted by teams led by Malcolm Balcombe in 1935 using standard diving dress. How these early cave divers managed to squeeze through these dark tunnels in cumbersome diving suits doesn't bear thinking about. So far divers have explored approximately 4km including 25 chambers, but at the cost of two lives.

From the Stone Age and beyond the Iron Age these caves and its river have been used by humans. There is evidence of occupation up to the Roman period and the River Axe was used to power mill to grind corn in 1086, and the water used for both power and the manufacturing process for a paper mill since 1610.

The caves and mill are now a popular tourist attraction. In fact the beautiful stalactites and stalagmites have long drawn people to marvel at them. In the 18th century Alexander Pope visited the caves. He had several stalactites shot down from the roof to take home as souvenirs! In 1912 archaeologist Herbert Balch undertook a two-year exploration of the caves prior to them being opened to the public as a recognisable modern tourist attraction.

Obviously with such a long period of occupation the dark mysterious caverns have gathered about them many a tale and legend. I wonder if those early cave divers had a niggling doubt regarding the legend of a huge, 30-feet-long conger eel that once haunted the Severn estuary and set himself up as king of the fish? He would feast and gorge himself, destroying fishermen’s nets and flooding the land with his thrashing about. Eventually, sick of his antics, fishermen managed to corner him near Brean Down and forced him up the River Axe. Unrelenting, they forced the beast further and further upstream. With nowhere to go the deposed king of the fish squeezed into the caves, and was never seen again.

The most well-known legend of course deals with the famous Witch of Wookey. There are a few versions of the story of the goat herding witch who lived in the caves. All gave the caves a wide berth during her reign of terror. If ever there was an example of “hell hath no fury than a woman scorned” then she was it. It was said that the witch had experienced a failed romance and if she was to be denied love, then so would all others. Relationships and marriages around Wookey turned sour as she threw her curses at the villagers. The villagers sent word of their plight to Glastonbury Abbey who dispatched a monk to deal with the fiendish assassin of love.

Some versions say the monk had once been betrothed to a girl from Wookey until the witch had spoiled the relationship; others that he himself was the witch’s one time love before spurning her and commiting  himself to holy orders.

The monk ventured into the dark forbidding caves and there fought a terrible battle with the witch. She cast spells and threw curses at the Benedictine who parried them with prayers and incantations of his own. The caves were lit with the fell light of her magic as she, strong in her lair, sought to finish the priest. But as she advanced upon him he reached inside his robes and, finding a vial of holy water, cast it upon the sorceress. She screamed, stricken by its holy power and turned to stone before his very eyes. And there the petrified witch remains to this day. You can see the crone’s nose, chin and bonnet quite clearly.

A nice story to explain a stalagmite and yet… during Herbert Balch’s investigation in 1912 a thousand-year-old skeleton was unearthed. It was an aged Romano-British woman. Around her were the bones of goats, and beside her a dagger and a polished lump of  stalactite shaped like a crystal ball...

Rob Bayliss is a reviewer at The Review and is currently writing his Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow fantasy series. Book 1 - The Sun Shard is available at Amazon.


  1. Another fantastic piece by Rob!I love reading these--fun, informative, fascinating!