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Early Observations on the Cheddar Catchment at Charterhouse

By Chris Richards

The Western Mendip experts have excelled themselves this month.  First Marie Clarke with her paper on the Banwell Caves and now Chris Richards presents the following paper which asks possibly more questions than it seeks to answer….         

During the eighteenth century, the Noachian Deluge was regarded as an event of utmost significance in the geological history of the Earth.  Features ranging in scale from continents and ocean basins, down to some minutise of the landscape such as tors and sink-healers were all claimed as part of the diluvial legacy.  The Rev. Alexander Catcot (1725 – 1779) – a Bristol born geologist and devine – sought to uphold the Deluge Theory in his well established classic “A Treatise on the Deluge” (first published in 1761) by reference to his own detailed geological observations made in the field.  Catcott visited the Mendip Hills many times during the 1750’s and 1760’s and in his “Diaries of tours….” left us a view of an area so little described previous to the nineteenth century and which subsequent to Catcott’s writings saw great changes during the realisation of the Enclosure Acts which started to affect Mendip during the close of the eighteenth centre, and during the gradual transition form a mining to an agricultural economy.

For some time I have been studying Catcott's accounts of Western Mendip and attempting (with varying degrees of success) to locate caves, mines and other topographical miscellanea described by Catcott.  In view of the great amount of work, scientific and other, which, particularly in the last two decades, has been carried out in the Charterhouse Swallets, I have not been able to resist with holding Catcotts observations on the natural drainage of that same area even though I have not carried out a detailed analysis of the relevant material, nor of the actual ground (which close study it well deserves).  In presenting the extracts from Catcotts' writings I have tended to treat them as pure topographical description well aware of the fact that they provide a window (so to speak) on the eighteenth century comprehension of topography, a stand point more or less avoided in this, article.

Both of the extracts presented below, with the minimum of editing, are from Catcotts “Diaries of tours made in England and Wales” (MSS) preserved at the Central Reference Library, Bristol.  The first is dated the 2nd April 1756.

"Took a view of Blackdown Hill situated about 1 and ½ mile from Mr Gore’s house, and the country beneath.  This hill is the last and highest on the western side of Mendip, in length about 5 or 6 mile, reaching from the beginning of  ____(2)____Brook Combe, (which has a spring at its head, about a mile from Mr. Gore's house) to Crook's point, which terminates Mendip to the west (3).  This Hill is situated about 4 miles from the Severn or British Channel, and I believe in perpendicular height may be near a mile above the water. On the top of this hill, at different places, is very moist ground, being the ousing of Springs (10).  About a mile from the beginning at Brook Combe (which points eastwards) to the west on Crook’s Point there is a standing pool on the very summit of the hill, 20yds long, 10 broad, and bout ½ foot deep, but the ground very moist all around it and the bottom of the pool so…… tracing the moistish part of which…… I found several little gusts unite into one spring about 300yds down the hill, which meets another about 200yds further; and here begins a small Combe (thro’ which the stream runs pretty fast) which extends about ½ mile further, & there is not deeper than 5yds & about 8 over; and here it is ended by a Swallet (or Swallow as called in the north) which terminates the Comb & receive the spring into it, which never appear again, but passes down thro' the bowels of the Earth, as the water did at deluge, after it had made this Swallet to receive it self, (4).  This Swallet is about half a mile's distant from the top of Blackdown Hill; & is 40yds over and 14 deep (5); & near to it are four lesser Swallets, each about 4yds deep and 6 broad; to which annexed in another lesser comb, coming in line as far from the Hill, & so little…torn by the waters that, in their descent, made these lesser Swallets; as the other comb tending in front of the hill to the larger Swallet.  About 100yds further on, another, very regular Swallet, (6) of an oblong form: 20yds deep: its length at top 30yd 30yds over & breadth 20: its length at bottom 12yds & breadth 7.  It lies oblong, pointing South, as from the hill, with a sudden descent downwards at its entrance & at the farther side it is quite perpendicular; as the waters rushed against this side, & were stopped in its passage directly forwards, & so entered the hole or cavity at the bottom of the Swallet; the mouth of which is now covered over with large loose stones, which were either brought from the Hill or part of the Cavity which was torn to make the Swallet: & as these stones are plainly worn & somewhat rounded & are covered over thick with moss, & turned quite black, they shew, they are of long standing.  The Strata here lies in a position inclined with the hill, ? towards the South, and this way the length of the Swallet is (as having been torn by the water sucking from the Hill) so that the Strata lay this way, & the horizontal fissures directly opposite to the course of the stream, in all probability that waters made their way thro’ a horizontal fissure to the Abyss beneath; had it been a perpendicular fissure it can scarcely have been so broad as it is, we’d have been torn more in length: & narrower (in) breadth; in the manner the….or veins, then they come day, appear on Mendip.  There are hereabouts the appearance of 2 or 3 more Swallets, &  when the ground was dug for Calamin, they found it very cavernous, & many Swallets underground, which were not visible above, being covered & stopped by time or accident (7).  The ground where these Swallets are is about 7 or 8 acrea, & is called Pit-Close; is situated in the middle of a large flat space, about 7 miles in circumference, first at the foot of the declivity of Blackdown Hill, & reaches to Cheddar Cliffs: and the reason why this space or ground was flat & level & not at all torn with combs (which occur in places all about) was doubtlessly the free passage that the water, in descending, found thro’ these Swallets.  The stones in Pit-Close abound with entrochi, (8) & sometimes the shells of this creature are found here, & the branches many and united: & a curious kind of Honey-comb Coral. (7)”


1.                  Where was Mr. Gore's house?  The Gore family were once important landowners, and as this date (1756) land at Charterhouse was held by a Mr. Gore at whose home Catcott stayed for a few days on his Charterhouse visit. (Gough, 1930, pp89 – 90).

2.                  Catcott evidently expected this brook to possess a name & under this conviction left the blank for later inclusion of a name.  To which brook does Catcott refer?

3.                  In Catcott's day the westernmost point of Mendip was regarded as Crook's Peak (= "Crook's point")

4.                  Catcott considered Swallets as being natural drains for and created by (like the dry valleys of Mendip) the retreating waters of the Deluge, rushing powerfully away, through pre-existing lines of weakness, towards the Abyss - a subterranean reservoir lying beneath the surface of the whole world.

5.                  This is almost certainly Tyning's Farm Swallet (Barrington & Stanton, 1977, p.166). At this point I should like to say that great care should be taken in comparing Catcott's text on this and further swallets mentioned with the present - configuration of the ground as this particular area has no doubt undergone modifications effected by man’s activities and natural processes (such as the flood of 1968) which was shown (Hanwell, J. D. & Newson, M. D. 1970 pp) to have effected substantially this immediate vicinity.

6.                  This is obviously the ‘Great Swallet’ (Barrington, N. R. & Stanton, W.I. 1977)

7.                  Dr. John Woodward (1665 - 1728) a geologist and physician had in his possession.  “A mineral map, by means of Veins and Partitions, divided into various cells.  The Partitions are hard, and of a dusty brown, near a Rust Colour.  The Cells are filled a friath, yellow Ochre.  Digg’d up near the Road betwixt Shipham and Charterhouse, Mendip.  They had raised a considerable Quantity of it; but whether for the Ochre, or in expectation of Calamin in it, I cannot tell” (from John Woodward, 1728, p.23).

Juxtaposing this with Catcott’s text, I am led to think that mining on the spot may have commenced decades before the year of Catcott’s visit, if indeed the site referred to by Woodward is one and the same as Catcott’s Pit Close, for Woodward made his mineral collecting between 1684 and 1695 (Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 62  pp423 - 425)

8.                  The name 'entrochi' refers to the class Crinoidea.

9.                  The curious kind of Honey-comb Coral must be one of the Order of colonial cords (Tabulate.) e.g. Michelinia

10.              Of these springs, Catcott wrote: The Pools and moist ground on the very summit of Blackdown Hill (……..& which gives rise to several springs, undeniably refute the opinion of those who, imagine rain to be, the cause & origin of springs.

Catcott believed (like many of his contemporaries) that Springs, on the top of hills proved that such out-flowings of water were created by the condensation of ‘streams’ or vapours rising from the Abyss.

In the following year (1757) on a visit to the same locality, Catcott discovered more about the natural drainage of the Charterhouse area:

“Went to Cheddar Cliffs to show them to a stranger", writes Catcott in his diary (entry date 10th August 1757).  "The Spring at the bottom was vastly shrunk to what it was when I last saw it in March 1756 ..... There had been an uncommon draught & scant water everywhere for several months past.  One Will Hares told me that as he was digging for ore in daccot's hole in Charterhouse mineries (2 miles from this spring) he came to a stream of water, in which they threw all the rubble, which so muddied the spring at Cheddar, that it could not be used: 40 fath: deep.

Where exactly is daccot's hole'?


Barrington, N and Stanton, W (1977) The Complete Caves and a view of the hills. Third revised edition. Cheddar Valley Press.

Catcott, A (1748 - 1774).  Diaries of Tours made in England and Wales.  MS Bristol Central Reference Library.

(1761 A Treatise, on the Deluge.  First Edition. London: M. Withers.

Gough, J (1930)  The Mines of Mendip.  First Edition.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press

Hanwell, J & Newson, M. (1970).  The Great Storm and Floods of July 1968.  Occasional Publication of the Wessex Cave Club, Series 1 Vol. (2)

National Biography, Dictionary of. Vol.62

Woodward, J (1728).  A Catalogue of the Additional English Native Fossils in the collection of J. Woodward. Tome II, London: F. Fayrum.

C. Richards, April 1979.