No one is born a solo traveller. Somewhere along the path of life, you determine the need or desire to travel alone and then forge ahead. At least, that’s the way I look at it.
I’ve been a latecomer to the world of solo travel. Till about five years ago, my solo travel time was limited to trips to-&-from home/boarding to the airport and a flight. Or the bus trip. Or the train journey. I’d never picked up my bag, packed in the essentials and ventured out alone.
Until the time when I went to the elder sister’s in Bristol, United Kingdom, and dipped my toe – so to speak – in solo travel with day trips to places around Bristol. It was during this phase that I visited Cheddar Gorge and learned the first of the several lessons that come from travels.
Part ancient, part quaint
Cheddar Gorge located near the village of Cheddar in Somerset, England is a network of majestic limestone gorge and caves, synonymous with cheddar cheese (obviously!). Counted among the most beautiful natural places in Britain, this area is also famous for the Cheddar Man – Britain’s oldest whole human skeleton, believed to be over 9000 years old, and found in Gough’s Cave in the year 1903.
Cheddar as a whole lives up to the visitors’ idea of a quaint English village. Filled with tiny coffee shops and stores selling cave-matured cheese, the village road leads up to the centre where you can get tickets for
- a guided bus ride up to the caves and back
- entry into Gough’s Cave
- entry into Cox’s Cave
- audio guide
- a walk through the exhibition centre
The ride up to the cave entrance is a delight and a tad bit intimidating. As the bus lumbers up the winding roads, the limestone rocks loom over you, a reminder of the grandness of nature. Filled with vividly different flora and fauna, the ride is peppered with interesting information given by the guide onboard the bus. If you are adventurous enough, you can even hike up the road from the base to the cave entrances. Or you could go rock climbing!
Delving into the cave systems
The highlight of my visit to Cheddar was the walk through the two caves – Gough’s Cave and Cox’s Cave.
It was especially important and difficult with the fear of closed and dark spaces petrifying me, making the idea of entering the caves alone a terrifying one. I paced the entrance for nearly 15 minutes before taking a deep breath and walking into the yawning black. Honestly, there was nothing remotely black about the cave system, well-lit as it was and filled with indicators to guide you through. But when you are on the precipice of something you fear, things tend to look darker than they should.
The chill and dampness aside, I was delighted to walk through the caves. Discovered in 1903 by Richard Cox Gough, Gough’s Cave contains large rock chambers created by the movement of water. It also contains the Cheddar Yeo, the largest underground river system in Britain.
The rock formations are magnificent, formed by the movement of water against the hard surfaces. Several of the chambers in the Cave have been named after manmade structures owing to the resemblance. The most stunning among these formations is the one named St Paul’s Cathedral; personally, I feel it is much more ethereal than the manmade structure.
The cave is also a processing unit for the local Cheddar Gorge Cheese Co Ltd. Records have revealed that caves were used to store cheese owing to the temperature conducive to mature cheese and the natural humidity. The local company reintroduced the method in 2006, making the cheese in Cheddar the authentic cave-matured variety.
Cox’s Cave, discovered in 1837 by local man George Cox contains seven grottoes and while smaller than Gough’s Cave, this is truly one of the most beautiful caves you might see. Filled with stalactite and mirror pools, the caves could well be a setting for magical, fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings and the likes.
Word of caution here – the floors of the caves are slippery and some paths are a tad bit dark so watch your steps or you’ll land on your butt like I did. Luckily, my posterior survived the fall but my camera didn’t.
Wandering till you time escapes
After the walk through the caves, I spent some time walking in and out of the stores, doing my own version of cheese tasting until I felt stuffed to the gills. Don’t forget to pack your cheese – the cheddar matured here is to die for.
Obviously all the cheese tasting did not affect my appetite and with two hours to kill until my bus back to Bristol – or so I thought – I walked into a cafe. Patting myself for braving the dark, I was happily munching on my cheddar cheese sandwich (what else!) when I suddenly realised that the buzz of the town had gone down. I looked up and out to realise the roads were empty. A quick check with the local girls at the cafe and I realised that I had misread the timings of my bus ride to Bristol.
All in all, that led to me spending some of the most unnerving moments of my life standing alone at the bus stop in the rain in a village that had slept off.
Another word of caution! Note your timetables correctly.