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The Sandford Gulf

A new look at an old problem

by Dave Irwin

For many years cavers have pondered the existence of the Sandford Gulf and its location on Sandford Hill.  Of all the ‘lost’ caves of Mendip the 'Gulf' is the best known.  Lost caves have been searched for, particularly those located by miners on Western Mendip. Many still remain lost but diligent work by a few have solved the problem and subsequently re-discovered the caves.  Richards et al re-discovered Bleadon Cavern (1) and the lost caves of Burrington was not to be found in Burrington but at Butcombe.  John Rutter misleadingly called the site a cave but in fact it was an excavated long barrow.

The lost cave of Loxton, often confused with the present cave discovered in 1867 by mining activities, is said to have three entrances and several beautifully decorated chambers.  The search for this cave is currently being carried out by Richards.

Perhaps the most perplexing is that of the lost cave of Cheddar. The earliest report by Henry of Huntingdon records the existence of a large cave with an active river.  17th and 18th century travellers record caves at Cheddar that are now well known (Coopers, Gough’s Old cave, Pride Evans etc) but none mention any site relating to a river cave.  It may well have been that Gough's Cave was active at the time of Henry's visit and since became choked, or as some have suggested it may well have been the gorge itself.  Shaw has suggested that it may have been Wookey Hole, though some four miles away it could well have been regarded as being as part of Cheddar.

Sandford Hill has been the site of more or less continuous speleological interest and many shafts have been opened including Triple Hole (1973) and Mangle Hole (1970).  Part of the reason for digging in this area is to locate the illusive 'Gulf’, though little documentary evidence exists and may have been, in part, legend.

The basis of the reports of the Sandford Gulf is John Rutter's book, The Delineations of North West Somerset (2), Published in 1829.  The extract is given in full: -


Like those at Hutton and Banwell, lie in the northern escarpment of the Mendip Range, immediately south of Churchill.  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 able to discover top, sides or bottom.  Miners like other men, are very superstitious and wonder working, when they meet with anything extra ordinary, which they cannot fathom.  Some may consider it one of the Hutchinsonian swallet holes, made to carry off the waters of the deluge, to supply their internal ocean, and put out the central fire of the Huttonians.  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.  The success attending the examination of the caves at Banwell, Hutton etc will, probably, induce some active and public spirited individual to make further researches into these caverns, of which, at present, so little appears to be known.

In the April/May issue of the Belfry Bulletin, 1979 (3) a copy of a previously unrecorded letter was published from the Reverend David Williams to John Rutter at Shaftsbury.

Bleadon January 4th 1829


As our progress on Sutton Hill daily increases in interest, from the abundant and variety of the organic remains we discover, I shall be happy to forward to you a paper on these figures and the one at Uphill if you think it will be of any service to the topographical work you are about to publish.  I have been required to do it by some very influential men in the neighbourhood but I wish to know from you first whether it will suit your, wishes - if it should I shall defer publishing any account of them ‘til you come out.  Be kind enough to let me know when you require the Paper(s).  We have specimens of all sizes and varieties from the elephant to the mouse, I hope you will give the "quantum merit" of the discovery of Banwell Caves where it is due – I regret to say, tho’ he assumes the merit.

Professor Beard had nothing to do with it.  Dr. Randolph, wishing to ascertain the truth of a rumour that such a cave existed, offered two men a pound to clear out the shaft that led to it. The men worked a week or ten days without success - it was abandoned - subsequently Coleman (who works on Hutton Hill) and another, thinking the minerals might repay them, continued clearing out the chimney and ultimately came to the large Cavern or the “ Deep Cave as it is called.  This is the simple truth - I am sure our Professor has too much respect to wish to sully it by purloining what belongs to another.  I have lately other evidence from Uphill Cave authenticating its history.  I hope before you publish I shall be able to give you soma account of an immense Cave on Sandford Hill, which has never been explored, near which an Elephant was found in 1770.  The mouth of it is said by the miners to be 80 fathoms below the plane of the hill and they have let a man down upwards of 300 feet from its verge without coming to the floor, nor could he see any sides or termination to it - they call it the Gulph.  They deal in the marvellous I know, and I am determined to find out this mare's egg. When you see Mr. Patterson I will thank you to give him and his my best assurances.

I am Sir

Dr. Williams.

A second letter this time from Williams to Patterson, Rector of Shaftsbury is dated February 16th 1829. This was subsequently published by John Rutter under the title "Some Account of the Fissures and Caverns hitherto discovered in the Western District of The Mendip Range of Hill" in 1829 but before the publication of the book. The relevant extract is to be found on pages 15 and 16.

Sandford Caves, like Hutton and Banwell, lie in the northern escarpment of the Mendip Range, but of these I can only speak by report.  The mouth of the largest which the miners call the ‘Gulph’ lies, they say 80 fathoms, or 480 feet below the plane of the hill.  They also affirm that they have let down a man, with a line, 240 feet deep, but that he could see neither top, sides or bottom.  Miners, like other men in their station of life, are very superstitious and wonder-working, when they meet with anything like this fissure, which they cannot fathom.  It may, however, be one of the Hutchinsonian swallet holes, made to carry off the waters of the deluge; to supply their internal ocean, and put out the central fire of the Huttonians.  If truth lies at the bottom of a well, why not at the bottom of a cave? and from the Sandford Cave, I have no doubt, I shall elicit her before the ensuing summer.  There is another extensive cavern further to the westward in this hill, near which the skeleton of a full sized elephant was found in 1770.”

From the three versions above, the Rutter account can be ignored as it is merely a rewrite of the Williams letters.  If one accepts Williams to be a reliable authority the information regarding the Gulf can be extracted and reduced to the following: -

1. The distance that the can entered the cave is:

(A) 300ft (January 1829 letter) and

(B) 240ft (February 1829 letter).

2. The man could not see: -

(A) “any sides or termination to it”

(B) “top, sides or bottom”

3. That the cave entrance lies 80 fathoms or 480ft below the plane of Sandford Hill.

Williams appears to have corrected the length of the rope used from 300ft to 240ft. Williams 'phrase' “they have let a man down” does not imply a vertical descent but that a men penetrated the cave to a distance of 240ft.  To have descended to a depth of 240ft would have meant that the cave entrance was 60ft and the bottom of the cave at 300ft below sea level as the plane of Sandford Hill is only 420ft above sea level!

In the January letter Williams wrote that the man could not see "any sides or termination to it".   Let us suppose that the man was being let down a rift, probably holding a candle in his hand or attached to his cap, then it is most probable that he would not see the sides or the bottom but he would have seen the wall in front and the wall behind him.  Any daylight penetrating the shaft would have still been seen quite some way down.  The February letter changes the general description to read "that the man could not see “top, side or bottom!”  If the man, with his dim light had entered a void further in he could possibly not see sides, top or bottom particularly if he was hanging on the end of the rope or standing at the top of a sloping floor.

The last piece of information in the puzzle is that of the 480ft below the plane of Sandford Hill. The hill in section is that of a truncated triangle, which at its highest is 420ft O.D.  Below this point are the three known sights, Sandford Levy, Triple Hole and Mangle Hole.  Their respective altitudes are 184ft, 405ft and 220ft.  Clearly Triple Hole is too high and if we take Williams’s figures of 480ft, so too is the Levy and Mangle Hole.  Various Mendip Cavers have suggested that Sandford Levy could well be the site of the "Gulf".  Stanton suggests that it could be the crossroads some way inside the Levy but this seems unlikely from the dimensions of this interpenetrating shaft.  However, as the Levy was being worked in the 1820's it could well be the site as the Williams letters imply that the Gulf had recently been found.

Considering this information in total there seems to be considerable discrepancies until one realises the significance of the 18th and 19th century surveying methods of measuring the height of the hill.  Today the height of a hill is its vertical range but about at the time, the height was the slope distance or the walking distance up the hill.  For example Catcott on one of his several visits to Mendip in the mid 18th Century described Blackdown as being one mile high whereas today we know it to be just over 1000ft above sea level.  This being the case the location of the Sandford Gulf as described by Williams is quite plausible.

With this in mind Marie Clarke and the author surveyed the location of both the Levy and Mangle Hole, back in mid 1981.  The result was that the Levy was about 530ft below the plane of the hill and Mangle Hole was 470ft.  Could Mangle be the Sandford Gulf?  The slope distance down the side of the hill fits the Williams figure.  So too do the very generalised description of the cave. Mangle Hole has a steeply sloping rift at the bottom of which lies the large chamber with several pits in the floor. Though the cave has a vertical range of only 19ft it is possible that this 19th century miner could easily have penetrated to the chamber and used up all of his 240ft of line.  A later visit to the hill by the author found no sign of depressions at the 480ft level in the immediate vicinity.

The evidence is not conclusive, nor is it ever likely to be unless further contemporary information still survives.  It is the author’s opinion that there is a very strong case that Mangle Hole could well be the lost Sandford Gulf.  If it is not, the possibility of finding another shaft at the same level is extremely good.  A further search to the west may well reveal another lost cave near where the elephants remains were uncovered.  Good Hunting.

References: -












Richards C.


Rutter J.



Williams U.



Clarke U.


Shaw T.

Hutton Cavern, a reconstruction in the light of recent discoveries Wessex Journal 12 (142)110-118(1972).

Delineations of the North Western Division of the County of Somerset and of the Mendip Caverns.  Longman, Rees & Co etc, London (1829).

Some Account of the Fissures and Caverns hitherto discovered in the western district of the Mendip Range of Hill.  Comprised in a letter from the Rev. J. Williams to the Rev. D. Patterson.  John Rutter Shaftsbury (1829).

West Mendip Worthies.   Bristol Exploration Club Belfry Bulletin 33 (4&5)8-13 ( 1979).

Early Visitors to the Mendip Caves.  B.S.A.