For just a few special days during each year, a local place of interest opens its doors to allow the public a rare glimpse into an amazing past age. Banwell Bone Cave was discovered in 1824, on land then owned by George Henry Law, Bishop of Bath and Wells. His estate nestled on the shoulder of the Mendip Hills, looking over the outskirts of the village of Banwell. (It’s now part of Western Fields Farm.) Here are the Google Earth Placemarks: the Bone Cave Entrance, looking towards Bishop Law’s Tower (also known as Banwell Tower) in the wood on the hillside (see below) and the village of Banwell in the near distance.
The discovery of this amazing cave was accidental. A stalactite cave had been found by mineral miners in 1757 and in 1824, in order to make an easier entrance for the public (Dr. Randolph, vicar of Banwell, wanted to open it as a show cave to raise money for a charity school in Banwell) a tunnel was driven into the hill at a lower level, but instead of connecting with the Stalactite Cave, it broke into a hitherto unsuspected cave containing large quantities of prehistoric animal bones. Bishop Law became very excited by this discovery. In the early 19th century, the scientific understanding of geology was in its infancy. While geologists were beginning to question the Biblical account of the Creation, the Bishop regarded the bones as being the remains of animals drowned in Noah’s flood and he hoped to show his visitors that the Bible story was true.
Bishop Law planted the wood, laid out paths, built summerhouses and sham ancient monuments to remind his visitors of a wicked world drowned in the flood. Many of these follies had stone or wooden tablets with verses in keeping with the Bishop’s beliefs. Here you see the Druid’s Grotto (or Druid’s Temple); at the entrance to the Stalactite Cave (now only accessible to properly equipped cavers) his inscription declared it was the entrance to the abyss of endless misery; above an alcove seat looking out over the magnificent view, he wrote: And while I feel by fast degrees / My sluggish blood wax chill and freeze.
It was a beautifully sunny day (though breezy) when we visited and as the site was only open for four hours during this particular afternoon, interest amongst locals and holidaymakers was high. We joined the patient queue and slowly shuffled towards the Bone Cave entrance. We’d been once before, in 2006, so we had an idea of what to expect — but I still felt a frisson of excitement as we approached the entrance with its steep damp steps, low stone roof and the murky darkness beyond.
It’s cool, damp and dark down in the cave. The bones, the remains of animals that fell into the cave via a hidden “chimney” while grazing on the hillside above, have been identified by the British Museum of Natural History as belonging to creatures that lived during the Ice Age some 70,000 years ago — including bison, reindeer, very large brown bears, wolf, wolverine, arctic hare, otter, arctic fox and red fox. They’re now tidily stacked in great piles by the walls, but when first discovered they carpeted the floor of the cave and must have presented the unsuspecting miners with an incredible sight. The caves and grounds are now designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), but in the Bishop’s day they were managed for him by William Beard, who kept the caves open until 1865 when he was 93 years old! The Bishop’s family eventually sold the property in 1902.
A short walk through the woodland brings you to Banwell Tower (also known as Bishop Law Tower), another of the Bishop’s follies. This animation shows the view as the tower is approached, the view from the bottom — and some views from the top: looking down at the grounds (that’s Marcy down there, looking up at me hanging on to the railing for dear life in the stiff breeze), looking out over Banwell (our house roof is one of those you can see) and in the opposite direction over south Somerset. The circular stone staircase, I promise you, is quite tricky to navigate — especially on the way down! (But if I can do it, with my dodgy head for heights, I reckon anyone can.)
Banwell Caves Heritage Group and the Bishop Law Tower Restoration Committee organise Open Days, help raise funds and manage the conservation and restoration work. There’s no admission charge, but it’s polite to donate some money at the cave entrance — and you can also enjoy a marvellous cream tea after your trek to and from the tower.
To view the dates for the Open Days, go to banwellcaves.org.
To see all my photos from our visit, go to my Flickr account.