Drive through Cheddar Gorge, under steep, craggy cliffs that block the sun’s light, past buttresses that jut into your path creating the twisting, winding route, and you could almost imagine yourself in Jurassic Park. It is an otherworldly, eerie landscape, one that hints at danger, not just that of the threat of rock falls as flagged by the road-side signs.
However, as you round a corner half expecting to see a rampaging Velociraptor, what you’ll actually see is far more terrifying… a spluttering, stuttering cyclist, head-to-toe in lycra, slowly snaking his way up the gorge or an anxious looking parent trying to shepherd their children to the very edge of the road. And that to me is what makes Cheddar Gorge so special, it is a truly spectacular natural wonder, carved out over millions of years by glaciers and the thundering actions of the Ice Age, but it remains accessible and, at points, almost comically British.
Nowhere is this contrast more evident than in the small town of Cheddar itself, at the western end of the gorge. It has that curious, slightly-dated, almost seaside vibe: there are countless shops selling trinkets and knick-knacks; ice cream booths and even an old-fashioned sweet shop (where you can watch demonstrations of rock and other boiled sweets being made); and plenty of places to pick up bottles of local cider and Cheddar cheese – you’d be a fool not too. You almost expect to hear the wheeling cries of seagulls overhead, and when I visited last weekend I kept having to look up at the towering cliffs to remind myself I wasn’t at the coast.
Of course, the easiest way of reminding myself of the scale of the surroundings was to get up high, and look down into the Gorge. Because we were fairly late getting there, we decided against the Gorge Ticket available from the visitor centre which includes entrance to caves, a skyline walk and all other attractions, and instead followed a footpath on the northern side of the Gorge. Climbing steeply over a slippy scree slope, flanked by woodlands, it was a challenging walk. If we weren’t breathless from the hike up, we were as soon as we saw the views from the top. To our right, a flat flood plain stretching to the Bristol Channel and finally the hills of southern Wales, bumpy on the horizon, and to our left the Gorge itself, all sharp cliffs, snaking away inland. It was, simply, awesome.
As we carried along the footpath, the rain started to come down and tummies started rumbling, so after dropping down to the road rather than follow the path along the other side of the gorge, we ambled along the road back into town. Despite it only being an hour’s walk or so (and easily do-able by families) we felt we deserved a big lunch, so stopped for a sandwich, numerous samples of cheese and cider, and then finally an ice cream. Job done.
In short, Cheddar Gorge was fab and I can’t believe it has taken me this long to vist. Yes, the town is a touch tacky and dated (arguably part of its charm), but that just makes the natural beauty of the area all the more impressive. I think I’ll have to come back and try a little bouldering or climbing soon, maybe even caving! Watch this space…
Getting there: Cheddar Gorge is located in the Mendip Hills in northern Somerset, easily accessible from Bristol via the M5. It is the B3135 that runs through the gorge, a short and snappy contender for one of Britain’s best drives.
Eat here: There’s a cluster of tea shops and cafes in Cheddar, but for my money the best place for a bite to eat is Cafe Gorge, just next to the National Trust shop. This small cafe offers a brilliant selection of light lunches, from a ploughman’s, salads, and pasties, to brilliant sandwiches using the best of local produce. Licensed, you can wash down your lunch with a bottle of local beer (one called Gorge Best made me laugh) or cider – the better, local choice!