Mendip caves: Myths, legends, folklore, tall tales and hearsay. Compiled and edited by Vince Simmonds.
Wookey Hole Cave, Wookey Hole. ST 5319 4801.
Wookey Hole Cave represents the upper course of the River Axe, and has been extensively developed in the 19th and 20th centuries as a show cave. Originally, the cave comprised a small entrance way and a tunnel circa 85 metres in length, which led to four chambers. Three of these are partly occupied by the River Axe. The fourth is submerged, but was examined in the 1970s. The cave has been subjected to archaeological excavations on a number of occasions. Casual finds were made by Buckland during visits in the 1820s. William Boyd Dawkins conducted an investigation of sorts in the later 19th century. Herbert Balch intermittently undertook excavations during the first half of the 20th century, and some minor excavation has occurred as recently as the 1970s. The bulk of finds belong to the Iron Age and Roman periods. Ritual protection marks have been recorded at the cave and it is suggested these are Post-medieval in date (Simmonds, 2014, p.59-60).
The legend of the ‘Witch of Wookey Hole’ appears to date back to the early 17th century when the representation of a woman holding what appeared to be a crystal ball was depicted on a map featured in Poly-Olbion, a long topographical and poetical description of the wonders of England and Wales written by Michael Drayton (1563-1631.
Image from Drayton’s ‘Poly-Olbion’. Note the historic spelling of Wookey Hole. (accessed online at poly-olbion.exeter.ac.uk 03/03/15)
Part of the 1612 map of Somerset and Wiltshire engraved by William Hole from ‘Poly-Olbion’ depicts a water nymph (naiad) in the cave. In Song 3 the female spirit of ‘Ochy Hole’ bemoans the fact that she is not recognised amongst the wonders such as Peak Cavern, Derbyshire or Stonehenge in Wiltshire.
The tales of the ‘Witch of Wookey Hole’
and of a Glastonbury monk who turned her to stone have added to the interest of
visitors to the show cave complex (MU5, 2013, p.468). The story goes that a man
from Glastonbury becomes engaged to a girl from Wookey. The witch reputed to be living in the Wookey Hole Cave curses the romance so that it fails. The man, now a monk,
seeks his revenge on the witch who—having been jilted herself—frequently
spoiled any budding relationships. The monk stalked the witch into the cave
where she hid in a dark corner near one of the underground rivers. The monk
blessed the water and splashed some of it into the dark parts of the cave where
the witch was hiding. The blessed water immediately petrified the witch, and she remains in the cave to this day preserved as a stalagmite.
As with many of these stories there are a number of variations depending on who
is telling the tale.
'He chauntede out his godlie booke,
He crost the water, blest the brooke,
Then - pater noster done -
The ghastly hag he sprinkled o'er:
When lo! where a hag stood before.
Now stood a ghastly stone.'
[from a ballad written in 1756 by Henry Harrington]
The discovery of a skeleton early in the 20th century enhanced the legend, it has been suggested that the skeleton is that of an old woman who lived out her days in the solitude of the cave and was either a goatherd or a hermit. The skeleton was found in an open fissure with a number of other objects including some 4th century Roman coins (Valentinian and Gratian) by Herbert Balch and Reginald Troup. The majority of the bones [and the coins] were found 70 feet into the open fissure in 1908, the skeleton was missing the upper part of the skull and the right femur. This was apparently found some weeks later 20 feet away and several feet deep into the floor. Herbert Balch founded the Wells Museum in 1894 where the skeleton and associated objects are still on display to this day.
The display in the Wells and Mendip Museum, Wells, Somerset in March 2015.
Experts are divided on whether the bones are male or female. Some features of the mandible suggest that the bones are from a male, but the cranium and pelvis would be required to confirm the sex of the individual. Tooth wear and other indicators suggest the age of the individual to be circa 25-35 years. Recent C14 dating of two of the bones indicates that the main skeleton is of Iron Age (circa 295BC) date, while the left arm is Roman (circa 190AD). It is likely that the arm bone was found elsewhere in the cave and added by Balch to complete the skeleton for display. Two goats skulls, a small carved bone comb and pottery vessel were all said to be associated with the human bones.
The goat skulls, comb and pot on display at the Wells and Mendip Museum.
The comb and pot are both of Iron Age/Roman date and C14 dating for one of the skulls indicates an Anglo-Saxon date (circa 713AD). With the bones and artefacts a carved stone ball was found. It was recorded ‘as a large pestle of stalagmite’ but it has in fact been carved from a lump of gypsum or alabaster, which is commonly found in Mendip rocks. Carved stone balls have been found at a number of prehistoric sites including a Mesolithic ball made of tufa at nearby Midsomer Norton. They are thought likely to have had a symbolic or ritual function.
The carved stone ball on display at the Wells and Mendip Museum.
Barrington, N. and Stanton, W. 1977. Mendip: The Complete Caves and a view of the hills. Third revised edition. Cheddar Valley Press.
Simmonds, V. 2014. An overview of the archaeology of Mendip caves and karst. Available online at www.mcra.org.uk
Gray, A., Taviner, R. and Witcombe, R. 2013. Mendip Underground: a caver’s guide. Fifth Edition. Published by the Mendip Cave Registry and Archive.
http://poly-olbion.exeter.ac.uk/author/Daniel-charles-cattell/ accessed online 3rd March 2015
http://mcra.org.uk Mendip Cave Registry & Archive