Going Underground

Some of the magnificent caves that can found in the landscapes of our walking holidays

Posted by Mark Armstrong 12th April 2017

On our walking holidays we follow many ancient trails across the various landscapes of France and the UK. But you can also explore underground, where both ancient man and animals have sheltered. Here’s just a few of the many caves that nature has created and humans have explored.

Lot Valley: Pech Merle

The Pech Merle cave is situated close to the village of Cabrerets in the Lot department of France. The caves extend for over a mile and its walls are covered with murals and engravings that date from 16,000 to 25,000 BC. The area once had a river flowing through it, cutting channels, later to be used by humans for shelter. The walls of seven of the chambers at Pech Merle have life-like images of a woolly mammoth, spotted horses, bovids, reindeer, handprints, and some human figures. Footprints of children have also been found. Within a 10km radius of the site are ten other caves with prehistoric art of the Upper Palaeolithic period, but none of these are open to the public.
The cave at Pech Merle has been open to the public since 1926. We would encourage you to pay this place a visit as part of our self-guided walking holiday Serene Lot Valley Trail. You can read more here.

Dordogne: Domme Caves

The village of Domme occupies a lofty position with magnificent views over the Dordogne river and surrounding countryside and is larger than many of the bastide towns in the region. The cave system sits right underneath the main square- the Place de la Halle. In the main square, as well as admiring the beautiful 13th century buildings, you can find the entrance to the Grottes de Domme.
The caves (grottes) have been used to shelter the town's inhabitants during the Hundred Years' War, though the upper part of the system was only discovered in 1954. There are more than 400m of beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formation filled caves; they are the biggest caves in the Perigord Noir area. At the end of the visit a glass lift takes you to the surface, where a panoramic viewpoint overlooks the Dordogne valley. The caves can be visited on our walking holiday Delights of Historic Dordogne

Somerset: The Mendip Hills

The Mendip Hills in England are a cavers paradise. The caves are formed by the geology of the region, where large areas of limestone have been worn away by water to create the largest underground river system in Britain.

The earliest dated human cemetery in Britain was found at Aveline's Hole, in Burrington Combe. The human bone fragments it contained, from approximately 21 individuals, are thought to be between 10,200 and 10,400 years old.

Priddy Caves cover an area of 67.6 hectare (167 acres). The three largest networks, Swildon's Hole, St Cuthbert's Swallet and Eastwater Cavern exceed 100 metres in depth. At 9,144 metres (30,000 ft) in length, Swildon's Hole is the longest cave on the Mendip Hills. A plaque near Priddy village green shows a plan of the village overlayed with the cave system. If you have a drink in the village pub, you will be 170m directly above the caves. Attempts made in the Mendip Hills to traverse from one cave to another through the underground rivers led to the development of cave diving; the first cave dive attempt in Britain took place at Swildon's Hole in 1934.

Cheddar: Gough's Cave is located in Cheddar Gorge and contains a variety of large chambers and rock formations. It contains the Cheddar Yeo, the largest underground river system in Britain. In 1903 the remains of what has become known as Cheddar Man, were found inside Gough's Cave. He is Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton, having been dated to approximately 7,150 years BC. DNA taken from the skeleton has been found to match that of a man living in the local area today, indicating that Cheddar Man is a very distant ancestor. Cheddar cheese is still matured in Gough's Cave, just as it was 100 years ago. The first 820 m of the cave is open to the public as this stretch contains most of the more spectacular formations.
Cheddar: Cox’s Cave consists of seven small grottoes, joined by low archways. A section of the cave's known as Home of the Rainbow, where traces of minerals have given the stalagmites a wide range of colour, from nearly black, green, orange and white. The cave is now home to a multimedia experience called Dreamhunters where you 'walk in the footsteps of our ancestors.'

Wookey Hole Caves are in the village of Wookey Hole near Wells in Somerset. The River Axe flows through the cave. The caves have been used by humans for around 45,000 years. Tools have been discovered from the Palaeolithic period as well as fossilised animal remains. Part of the cave system opened to the public in 1927. The cave is noted for the Witch of Wookey Hole, a roughly human shaped stalagmite that legend says is a witch turned to stone by a monk from Glastonbury. Fossils of a range of animals have been found including the Pleistocene lion and Cave hyena. Wookey Hole was occupied by humans in the Iron Age, while nearby Hyena Cave was occupied by Stone Age hunters.

The vast majority of the caves in the Mendip Hills require specialist equipment and knowledge. Local caving groups organise trips and continue to discover new caverns. However, there are caves which are accessible to the public at Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole and these can be visited on our West Mendip Explorer walking holiday.

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