Beneath the Mendip Hills is a series of caves; tens thousands of years ago some of them were inhabited by people, and before them, animals sought shelter or came to die or had their bones washed into the caves by torrential rains or melting ice.
One such cave, a bone cave, is near where we live, further along the Mendip chain in a small village called Banwell. It’s possible to visit, either through making an arrangement with the people on whose land the caves are, or on one of their open days. We went recently and went down the steps cut into the rock, down into the cave. The caves are natural, created millions of years ago by the action of water on limestone.
Banwell Cave was lit by a few electric lamps, but mostly by candles which gave it a gentle, warm illumination. There is another cave, a stalactite cave which we couldn’t go into – no-one can without proper caving gear – how I’d have loved to do that! This cave was just a bog, roundish cave, and stacked neatly along the walls are piles of bones from the creatures who had died there. The eighteenth and nineteenth explorers working for the Bishop of Bath and Wells who owned the land, tidied it up for visitors – the caves, gardens and buildings, grottoes, an osteoicon (bone house – museum) and tower, were all part of what might be called a ‘theme park’.
As you might imagine, the cave is extraordinary, and extraordinarily atmospheric. Some of the bones were in a heap and our guide picked some up and we were able to handle and hold them. Mostly bison and reindeer, but also mountain hares, red foxes, otters,cave bears, wolverines, oxen and wolves… bones going back over 80,000 years. These bones give an interesting picture of life then; wolves for example, were less hunters and more scavengers – the predominant predator species was the bears.
Our guide handed me a huge, yellowing hip bone; a gigantic bear thought by scientists to be a species of bear related to polar bears, not a cave bear, and one of gigantic proportions. These bears could be up to twelve feet tall… imagine that… a twelve foot tall carnivorous bear…
As I stood in the flickering candlelight, holding this massive hip bone, I had a really curious, almost overwhelming sensation… which I can’t really explain. It was only a momentary sense of something, but I can really understand how people can feel that objects contain power. It was an unforgettable experience.
Look at the size of its skull :
… and a link to the cave site: