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The Banwell Caves

New information has been found regarding the opening up of the caves at Banwell which changes the importance of the roles played by a number of people at the time….

An introduction by ‘Wig’

This month we are able to publish an important addition to Speleohistory by Marie Clarke on the opening up of Banwell Stalactite and Bone Caves.  To put the reader in the picture, I’ve put together a number of relevant extracts from John Rutter's 'The Delineations of North Somerset' published in 1829 to set the scene for Marie's paper together Rutter’s account of the Sandford Hill 'Gulf'.

During the past decade, Marie Clarke and Chris Richards have done sterling work by unearthing information that has led to the re-opening of two of Mendip's lost caves.  Their successes were the rediscovery of Bleadon Cavern and Hutton Cavern.  Now the discovery of a letter from Dr. David Williams, Rector of Bleadon and Kingston Seymour has upset the general knowledge of the opening of these important sites.  The extracts from Rutter that follows have been used by many Mendip authors; Gough (Mines of Mendip); Balch (Swallet Caves of Mendip etc.); Knight (Seaboard of Mendip) etc.

Rutter writes, “The Hill in which the caves exist, contains ochre, calamine and lead….which were obtained from the mines in considerable quantities.  A tradition was prevalent amongst them (the miners, Ed.) that about 30 years since, an immense cavern had been discovered in the north-west extremity of the hill; the entrance to which being difficult, it excited no further attention. (Ed. note Catcott records the discovery of this cave as being 1768, not about 1800 as implied by Rutter).  But when the discoveries of Professor Buckland opened a new era for research, a respectable farmer named Beard, who lives at Wint Hill…… remembered hearing of this cavern when a child, and happening to meet with John Webb the miner, who now lives at the Bishop’s Cottage (Ed. note – now the house called The Caves) was directed to the supposed entrance, which Webb and another miner, named Colman (Ed. note- other sources spell his name Coleman) commenced clearing out.  After re-sinking the shaft to the depth of about 100ft, they came to the entrance, or first landing place of the cave, where they found two pieces of candles, evidently left there by the original explorers….The cave thus re-discovered is the one distinguished as the Stalactite Cave; and from its description by the modern discoverers; attached the attention of Dr. Randolph, the vicar of Banwell; who, conjointly with the Bishop of Bath and Wells, resolved to improve access to it, for the convenience of visitors from Weston and other adjacent parts, whose donations on viewing it, might increase the funds of a charity school, just then opened at Banwell.

A horizontal opening was accordingly made lower down the western point of the hill, where a fissure about eight inches wide was observed in the rook, running in the direction of the cave.  The workmen followed this fissure, until it gradually became wider, but filled up with a loose mass of stones and earth.  About twenty feet from the surface of the rock, unconnected with that which they desired to approach, the fissure expanded into a small cavern, being of mush less extent, though ultimately proving of far greater interest than the larger one.  (Ed. note – this was the discovery of Bone cave)…

This unexpected discovery of the smaller cavern, now became the subject of attentive research and curiosity.  The Bishop of Bath and Wells, proprietor of the ground, and Dr. Randolph, together with some other gentlemen, set foot on a subscription for exploring its organic contents, and their exertion's were most zealously aided by Mr. Beard, by whose unremitting attention, the bones were secured as they came into view, and preserved for future examination.

In proceeding from the cottage to examine the caves visitors usually place themselves under the guidance of Mr. William Beard, who evidently appreciates the scientific and interesting characteristics of the scenes of which he was in some measure, the discoverer

It is worth noting that there are references, describing Beard and Professor Beard - this was conferred upon him by the Bishop because of his 'zeal and enthusiasm' and in 1825 presented, him with a silver embossed tankard, having the following inscription.

GIVEN TO MR. BEARD, OF BANWELL, BY GEORGE HENRY LAW, LORD BISHOP OF BATH AND WELLS, AS A SMALL TOKEN OF ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF HIS CARE AND SKILL IN EXPLORING THE ANTEDILUVIAN REMAINS, DISCOVERED AT BANWELL 1825

Finally; a word about the Gulf or Gulph.  Rutter writes:

The mouth of the largest, which the miners call ‘The Gulf’, lies, they say, 80 fathoms, or 480 feet below the plane of Sandford Hill; they also affirm, that they have let down a man, with a line 240 feet deep, without his being to discover top, sides or bottom. Miners, like other men, are very superstitious and wonder working, when they cannot fathom….There is another extensive cave further to the westward, in this hill, near which, the skeleton of an elephant was found, in 1770, four fathoms deep, amongst loose rubble.

So, having these extracts………..