The Mendips rise quickly and steeply out of Wells, the limestone from which the city is built manifests itself in every single corner of the surrounding countryside so that even on the brightest of summer days the underlying rock lends a degree of drabness to the scene. Thin grey walls partition the land into tiny symmetrical empires populated by flocks of newly shorn sheep. On the lower slopes a tractor makes its way through the meadows in monotonous passages: up and down, up and down, up and down the field. Further up small crags appear; valleys open out to give access to the plateau, bone dry and river-less. The thirsty landscape quickly gulps down every drop of fallen rain into the depths of its subterranean body; the hills are a girt, humongous sponge, sucking the lifeblood from the land before excreting it into the low, flat Levels. The waterless plateau undulates imperceptibly, barely a hedge or tree in sight, just a stunted hawthorn struggling to retain its blossom, or a battered rowan clinging to the lee of a derelict building.
Simone Lacey: Our Lady of the Orchards
Simone Lacey’s controversial coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s struggle with faith and sexuality begins with her protagonist’s visit to the village of Priddy high up on the Mendip Hills. She’s become fixated with the legend of Jesus Christ coming to Britain as a child but up on the bleak plateau she encounters nothing but the ‘the cold wind on my pampered face; the frozen touch of nature, isolated and withdrawn’.
Priddy is, indeed, a curious little village but although there exists in Somerset folklore the saying ‘as sure as Christ came to Priddy’ it’s better known for its August sheep fair and the extensive cave system that lies beneath its grey limestone walls.
What comes down must have an up
I’m no troglodyte. I like the idea of underground exploration but the reality would be too much for my inner claustrophobe. But I’m not going to let a persistent fear of enclosed spaces prevent me from exploring subterranean landscapes; whatever’s been excavated beneath the earth generally has a presence on the surface. On the Mendips this presence manifests itself in shafts, pits and spoilheaps that stretch back to Roman times but, upon, above and within this landscape exists another; one that speaks with a different language - of swallets and sinkholes and all the parapahenalia that comes with below-ground activity.
|Priddy caves: geology and features (http://www.bgs.ac.uk/mendips/localities/priddy.html)|
|Entrance to Swildon's Hole Cavern, Priddy|
|Entrance to Eastwater cavern?|
|Caving club hut|
We are of the going water and the gone. We are of water in the holy land of water
I’m hoping Dr Lacey’s descption of the Mendips as ‘bone dry and waterless’ is a case of poetic licence rather than a lack of geographical knowledge. It might be a limestone plateau but there's pools, ponds and streams - even a Bristol Water reservoir. You just have to know where to look ...
|Entrance to Eastwater Cavern - swallow hole|
|The Eastwater - you can (just about) make out the route of this short but wonderful watercourse by the winding green line. I took great pride from following its entire course, as if it were the Nile or Uscamacinta|
|Fair Lady Well|
Source of the Eastwater - some 700m up from entrance to cavern
Straight to Hell?
According to the BGS (British Geological Society), mining activity on the western Mendips ceased in the early twentieth century which is why we're inclined to think that this curious and very deep hole, about 1.25 kn south-east of Priddy at grid reference ST537494 is something out of Dante's Inferno. There's no sign as to what it's function is and even though we did just a little bit of trespassing and had a good nosey around, we couldn't see the bottom. Like we said, it's very, very deep.
The 1:25000 OS map shows a disused iron pit just to the south-east, but this isn't it. And we don't think it's disused. If anyone has any ideas, please let us know.