Local legend has it that Jesus Christ himself once walked the green hills of the Mendips — and while that tale pushes fantasy too far, this beautiful spot has been inspiring Mankind for 10,000 years.
‘There is a quality in the Somersetshire landscape which gives it a unity in spite of all its variety,’ wrote Edmund Barber in Country Life back in December 1931, describing ‘a checkerboard effect, full of play of light and colour’ and ‘a thousand points of vantage on any of the Somerset hills’. This is a county in which the wild moors and cliffs of Exmoor sweep eastward into the wind-lashed, misty fields of the Brendon Hills, where the warmer Quantock Hills subside into the quivering, rhyne-riven Somerset Levels before the land rises magnificently up to the secretive Mendips.
This AONB is a landscape within a landscape: the limestone cliffs and thrilling caves of Cheddar Gorge below a grass-land plateau 1,000ft above the Bristol Channel, where bucolic, cattle-grazed pastureland split by stone walls, harbouring lakes and ancient barrows, stretches for some 22 miles. Look carefully and you’ll spot the county flower of Somerset, Cheddar pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus). It was first recorded in 1696 in Cheddar Gorge, and is also known as firewitch. Today, the flower is a rare, protected species.
A local saying ‘as sure as our Lord walked in Priddy’ refers to the legend that Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by a young Jesus of Nazareth, walked the Mendip Plateau and visited the ancient, isolated village of Priddy. No surprise, then, to hear that ‘England’s mountains green’ and the ‘pleasant pastures’ of William Blake’s Jerusalem are though to have been inspired by the Mendips. The Rev Augustus Toplady is said to have been similarly moved by the area, apparently writing the words for the hymn Rock of Ages after sheltering from a storm under the Burrington oolite crag in the Burrington Combe gorge.
Priddy itself is surrounded by Neolithic henges, old lead mines dating from Roman times and major cave systems — the largest, Swildon’s Hole, has more than five miles of passages. Aveline’s Hole, near the Rock of Ages, contains Britain’s earliest dated human cemetery and a rare example of cave art in the UK. The whole area has this sort of history: a skeleton discovered in Cheddar Gorge itself in 1903 is the earliest near-complete skeleton ever found in Britain at 10,000 years.
The area also has some more modern concerns to deal with. Since the 1970s, arguments have raged over the merits of a cable car to transport tourists from the bottom of Cheddar Gorge to the tantalising viewing spots above, but, so far, the conservationists have held firm and visitors must tackle the 274 steps of Jacob’s Ladder to gain their exhilarating reward. Plenty make the trip: this is one of the most-photographed spots in the country.
Our nation's greatest glories.
Kate Green focuses on the Tamar Valley AONB.
Victoria Marston takes a look at the magnificently beautiful Kent Downs AONB.
James Fisher takes a look at the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB.