MICHELLE TOMPKINS goes on a family trip to the chilly but enchanting Cheddar Gorge

IT WAS the hottest weekend of the year so far – time at last for the suntops and flip-flops to make their annual appearance.

But while the temperature guage tipped 240C outdoors in the sunshine, inside Gough’s Cave at Cheddar Gorge – under 450ft of rock – it was a steady 110C. And while the contrast made for some welcome relief at first, it wasn’t long before we started shivering.

The chilly conditions made for a pretty rapid tour of these fascinating 500,000-year-old caves, but still time enough for the three youngsters in our group (not to mention the adults) to learn a thing or two.

For example, with the help of a brilliant audio guide we learned that around 250,000 years ago calcium-enriched water began dripping through the cave roof, helping to create the stunning array of stalactites and stalagmites (‘tites’ fall down, ‘mites’ run up). We also learned that the bones of Cheddar Man, a hunter-gatherer who lived around 9,000 years ago, on show in the caves are the oldest complete skeleton ever found in Britain.

Most interesting of all – to us at least – was our search for the black cat of Cheddar. It’s actually a shadow cast by the light that looks like a cat wearing a bow tie, but it took a fair bit of hunting before we could all see it.

Cleverly, there’s a Costa coffee shop just outside the exit of the caves and a hot drink has never been more needed.

But if we’d know how many steps lay ahead on the climb up Jacob’s Ladder, we might have relied on body heat alone to warm us up.

More than 270 steps are set into the side of the gorge to take you to the top, and there are another 48 in the lookout tower built at the summit. It’s quite a climb, but your reward is a breathtaking view across the steep-sided valley of Cheddar Gorge, an Area of Outstanding Beauty which cleaves into the Mendip Hills. Just don’t look down if you are afraid of heights!

With young children in our group – not to mention the temperature – we decided against the three-mile circular walk across the cliff tops, but meandered back down to ground level for a cool drink and an ice cream.

However, there was still plenty to see at this tourist spot, which is visited by more than half a million people every year.

The Museum of Prehistory contains all things gory and therefore fascinating to kids, like butchered human remains that are evidence of cannibalism, flint spear points dating back to 40,000 years ago and a bloodied replica of Cheddar Man.

We also popped into Cox’s cave, another colourful display of calcite sculptures, fountains and mirror pools, which in turn leads to The Crystal Quest, a strobe-lit cavern where children are invited to meet Mordon the Lord of Darkness and his evil dragon Thynngar, and battle it out with creatures from the underworld.

It was here that the adventure all got a bit too much for our three young explorers and we emerged back into the sunlight with all three spooked and in tears.

Well, it wouldn’t be a proper family day out without a few tears, now would it?

  • Cheddar Gorge is open 10.30am to 5pm daily (10am in school holidays and through July and August). Ticket prices include entry to Gough’s Cave, the Museum of Prehistory, Cox’s Cave and The Crystal Quest, the look-out tower, the cliff-top walk and the an open top bus tour.  An adult ticket cost £18.95 (£16.11 if bought online in advance), children (5-15) are £12.50 ( £10.62) and under fives go free. A family saver ticket (2+2) costs £57.50 (£48.75).