Banwell Caves

Renowned for their archaeological rather than sporting interest, Banwell Caves in Somerset were once only visitable by special permission of the owner, but the caves and their surrounding early nineteenth century ‘picturesque’ landscape have recently enjoyed a renaissance, and are now open regularly to visitors. Under the auspices of the Banwell Caves Heritage Group, a huge amount of work has recently been undertaken to restore the grounds that sit on top of the limestone hill that provides the backdrop to the village. As well as two caves, the site contains a lodge (later to be extended into the present Caves House), a prospect tower and various rustic pavilions constructed by Bishop Law in the first half of the nineteenth century. This work followed the discovery of the Bone Cave by the local Vicar in 1824. And subsequent archaeological excavations revealed a huge assemblage of Pleistocene bones. This drew the attention of early palaeontologists such as William Buckland providing fuel to the controversy which eventually lead to the acceptance that the geological record could not support such biblical stories as the great flood, opening the way for Darwinian concepts to take root.

The Bone Cave is situated below the house and entered via a rustic stone gateway which is Grade II listed along with most of the other structures in the grounds. A steep stone stair descends to the main chamber curiously passing under a Whalebone archway. This small chamber and another smaller one adjacent, is all that is easily accessible but atmospheric lighting is provided solely by candles. Looking around one is immediately struck by the thousands of bones arranged in fascinating geometric stacks around the walls of the cave.

These are only some of the many bones that resulted from the 19th century excavations, others having been removed to museums in Wells and London. They include the remains of Bison, Wolf, Reindeer, Bear and many more species and the site is still regarded as being of international importance.

The Stalactite Cave is part of the same system and is entered by two entrances right outside the back door to the house. It descends steeply right under the house to a depth of 60m.

On several weekends throughout the year it is possible to visit the Bone Cave (the stalactite cave is for cavers only) and enjoy an excellent tea in the stable yard. It is also possible to inspect the various follies in the grounds including the recently restored prospect tower on top of the hill. Everything is delightfully relaxed and informal and a visit is well worthwhile. (see )

Allan Ockenden