Mendips and Mining
The Mendip Hills are a range of limestone hills located just to the southwest of the Bristol-Bath conurbation in north east Somerset. They effectively mark the northeastern boundary of the Somerset Levels and run east to west from Frome to Weston-super-Mare.
The limestone dates from the Carboniferous geological period (300 to 350 million years ago) which was uplifted after deposition by the mountain building activities of the Variscan Orogeny, at the junction between the Carboniferous and Permian periods (about 300 mya). A number of hill ranges were formed by the buckling of the Eart's surface of which the Mendips are but one.
Geologically, the Mendips are made up of at least four anticlinal folds (ridges) trending E-W over a core of older Devonian sandstones and Silurian volcanics (dating from about 416-443 mya.) Immediately after deposition the Mendips were quite significant hills with steep sides, however over the 200-300 million years, erosion and weathering has produced all the classic structures of typical limestone scenery such as:
- Gorges: Cheddar Gorge and Ebbor Gorge
- Dry valleys
- Caves: Wookey Hole, Goughs Cave and Charterhouse Cave
- Limestone Pavements and other typical karst scenery
- Water Springs predominating on the eastern slopes.
As the underlying Devonoan and Silurian rocks were more resistant to weathering over time, they now form some of the highest points on the hills such as Beacon Batch, some 1,068 (325m) above sea level.
The western section of the Mendip Hills have been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and the Mendip Society, established in 1965 help to promote and protect the area. In 2009, the Mendip AONB proposed that the area should be designated as a UNESCO Geopark, although this has not occurred yet. The largest village on the plateau of the Mendips is Priddy, which had a population of less than 600 in the 2001 Census. On the slopes of the hills lie the larger settlements and towns of Cheddar (5,724), Axbridge (2,024) and Shepton Mallet (9,700), as well as the city of Wells (10,406).
Mining on the Mendips
In some areas the limestones exhibit mineralisation. The main ores found being lead and iron especially at Charterhouse, Smitham Hill near East Harptree, Yoxter and Green Ore, southeast of Priddy. The Mendips have been explored for these metals from at least Roman times with surface deposits extracted first giving the the landscape a raked or grooved appearance known locally as 'gruffy' ground. To a lesser extent other minerals present were silver, manganese, copper and baryte as well as the zinc ores of smithsonite (zinc carbonate) and hemimorphite (zinc silicate) sometimes erroneously called calamine. Some historians think that the silver used in the coinage of the celtic Dobunni and Durotriges tribes came from mines in the Mendips. As already stated, the main area of mining took place around Charterhouse and the Romans even built a fort and small town here.
Coal was also mined, especially around Radstock. The Somerset coalfield ran from the Mendips in the southwest to Cromhall, in Gloucestershire, in the northeast. It lay in an area west of Bath and Mells and was deposited mainly in troughs during the warm, humid, Carboniferous period. It is known to have been exploited from at least the 14th century, (and possibly by the Romans), until its demise in 1973 when it was deemed uneconomic to mine. In the nineteenth century over 4,000 people were employed on the coalfield.
The Mendips have long been quarried for their stone and this continues to this day. Many of the finer buildings in Bath and Bristol are constructed from the local 'Bath Stone', actually an oolitic limestone. Nowadays, the nine remaining active quarries mainly produce road stone (aggregate) to supply the transport industry. Although quarrying has declined along with many other local industries, it still employs over 2,000 people and has a turnover in excess of £150 per year.
Recreational Use - On Foot
Walks in the Mendips include the 'Limestone Link' - a 36 mile route connecting the Mendips with the Cotswolds; the 'Mendip Way' - 50 mile route between Frome and Weston-super-Mare as well as the 'Mendip Pub Trail' - a 45 mile long path connecting six pubs owned by Butcombe Brewery.
The 'Monarch's Way' is a 615 mile (990km) long distance footpath that follows the escape route taken by King Charles II in 1651 after being defeated at the Battle of Worcester during the English Civil War. The route passes through the Mendip Hills AONB, linking Chew Valley Lake, Blagdon Lake, Compton Martin, East Harptree, Stock Hill, Priddy Mineries, Wookey Hole and Wells.
Other areas to explore feature on the Mendip Hills Visitor Guide as Wild Walks. They are: Bleadon Hill; King's Wood; Velvet Bottom Reserve; Blackmoor Reserve; Deer Leap; Stockhill Forest; Priddy Mineries; East Harptree Woods; Chew Valley Lake Visitor Centre; Blackdown; Rowberrow Forest and the Iron Age Hill Fort at Dolebury Warren.
Recreational Use - Two Wheels
Cyclists can enjoy the Mendip section of the West Country Way, as part of the National Cycle Network. They should however be advised that the route is mainly on road and involves steep ascents and descents on both sides of the hills onto the plateau at Ebbor Gorge and near West Harptree. It is therefore more suited to the experienced cyclist.
Another option is to cycle the 'Strawberry Line' - a 15 mile route along a disused railway line between Yatton and Cheddar. It is an easy, level path on the bed of the former Yatton to Wells Line, used for passangers, quarry and general goods until its closure in 1965. It passes through Axbridge and offers access to many areas of the Mendip AONB.
Recreational Use - Other Activities
Other activities on the Mendips include Bird Watching, Fishing (permit required) and Sailing at the Chew Valley Visitor Centre; exploring the World War II decoy town on Black Down or the wildlife of the Blackmoor Reserve.
The Heart of the Mendips
As much of the limestone area has, over the millennia been eroded by water there are caves that may be explored by the casual tourist, such as Gough's Cave at Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole, or by the experienced caver or speleologist such as at the Priddy Caves and Charterhouse Cave. A lot of the caves in the area were explored, at the start of the twentieth century, by Herbert E. Balch and photographed by Harry Savory.
The Mendips hide the largest underground river system in Britain and are home to a number of cave diving groups including Bristol Exploration Club, Sidcot School Speleological Society and other members of the Council of Southern Caving Clubs. The first cave dive took place in 1934 at Swildon's Hole, near Priddy; It is some 30,000 feet long (9,144m). Other important cave complexes include Lamb Leer at East Harptree (Grid Ref. ST54325505), St. Dunstan's Well Catchment and Priddy Caves at ST521515. Incidentally, all are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI's). The deepest cave in the Mendip Hills is Charterhouse Cave, grid reference ST47747 56201. It has a vertical drop of 748 ft. (228). However, due to the various well-preserved formations in the cave, the entrance blockhouse is kept locked and access is restricted to those with permits issued by member clubs of the Charterhouse Caving Company. For the same reason, no novices or cavers aged under 16 are allowed to enter.