Banwell Bone Caves
Imagine entering a tiny opening on a hillside into a slippery, rocky cavern to explore pitch black chambers by candlelight, the lowest one revealing a turquoise blue lake and much later a further discovery of a cave filled with thousands of animal bones, the like you have never seen before.
In 1842, a human skeleton was found on the grounds of the estate close to the caves and remains an unsolved mystery to this day.
In the 19th century the reopening of this lost cave, followed by the second cave stacked with bones of animals no longer living in Britain found on Banwell Hill, caused a great deal of interest.
At the time, the land was owned by the Bishop of Bath and Wells, named George Henry Law who believed that the bones had been washed in by Noah’s flood.
He invited people to come and see the caves to witness the aftermath of Gods punishment of a wicked world as a warning of their own fate if they did not live their lives within the ideals of the church.
Nowadays, we know that the bones are from animals who lived in the ice age and the little known site in Banwell village has been classed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and important to the scientific study of Ice Age Britain.
According to John Chapman, who made a short film about the caves, any bones found of the ‘same period of the Ice Age as these bones are known as ‘Banwell Type Fauna’ and the caves are one of the best areas in Britain for the protected species of Greater Horseshoe Bats.
The bones are now known to be from the Pleistocene period, 50,000 – 80,000 years old, it would have been arctic landscape in that time and the animals had been living above the caves on the land and their bones would have washed into the cave by melting ice and high rivers.
The Natural History Museum has identified the bones as:
Bison (Bison priscus)
Otter (Lutra sp.)
Wolf (Canis lupus)
Wolverine (Gulo gulo)
Arctic Hare (Lepus timidus)
Reindeer (Rangifer taradus)
Northern Vole (Microtus oeconomous)
Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus)
At the time of the discovery the public were fascinated by the site fueled by the Bishops wild religious beliefs and people flocked to see the caves, the Bishop planted woods on the hill and built follies, summer houses and a tower.
Then in 1834 he built a small Druids temple to show visitors how ‘the wicked Pagans were punished for their way of life.’
According to local men John Chapman and John Haynes the caves were popular for about 40 years but then people lost interest and the caves were forgotten for a long time.
These two men, who I shall refer to as the two Johns have taken people to see the caves, but nowadays it is by invitation only as they are both retired and struggling to keep it going, on the website it stated ‘No tours in 2016’.
However I wrote to them and asked if I could see the caves and they willingly accepted and on meeting them it was apparent that their enthusiasm and passion for the caves is still very much alive.
So, here is the story of the caves illustrated with some of my photographs.
Many years ago Banwell Hill was just a meadow which was being mined for lead, ochre, calamine and barites, in 1757 some minors chipped their way through into a large cavern full of stalactites.
There are records of it being as big as the inside of Banwell church and according to writings from a local Solicitor George Bennett, the village choir went in and tested out the acoustics of the cave.
The interest in the cavern passed and the cave eventually collapsed preventing anyone from entering it, but in 1824 the local Vicar got curious about the cave and organised a new search which led to the re-opening of the cave.
He hired two miners and paid them 50p each to excavate the old mine shaft which took them a week to complete, the cave now had an entrance but it meant that visitors had to climb down two ladders to reach it, which was considered to be unsafe.
The Vicar wanted to charge the public to come and see the cave and put the profits towards the church and the local school, to make the cave more accessible to prospective visitors the minors went for an alternative route in through a small opening in the quarry.
This opening led into a completely different cave which instead of stalactites held thousands of animal bones from species that no longer lived in the UK, it was an incredible find and made this cave far more interesting than the original one that they were trying to get to.
The Vicar was totally awe struck and convinced that such a large collection of animal bones in that cave must have been the aftermath of Noah’s Flood from the bible, he truly believed this and thought that to have such an important find would put Banwell and its caves on the map.
In 1924 George Henry Law became Bishop of Bath and Wells and the owner of the estate where the caves were and he took over the opening of the caves to the public. He sold the idea that if people saw the bones of all the animals drowned in Noah’s flood as a punishment for a wicked world that the people would think about their own life styles.
As an added attraction he had a mock Druids temple built on the land, even though the Druids in fact had nothing to do with the area, he also added the Trilathon, which was a mound with three stones on and a stone circle around it, this was to make visitors believe that the Pagans were also punished in the flood.
The Druids Temple is very simple with a stone table representing an altar inside, at the entrance of the doorway are written these words:
Here, where once Druids trod in times of yore
And stain’d their alters with victims gore
Here, now, the Christian, ransomed from above
Adores a God of mercy and love.
This was clearly written to make people contemplate the Druids in comparison with that of Christians and the Bishop played out a very strong message of this in the grounds.
Of the summerhouses built by the Bishop, by far the most interesting was the Pebble House which was a small building with three arches and pillars inside and decorated with hundreds of pebbles.
The ceiling looks incredible with a spiral of pebbles, even the pillars are covered in the smooth oval pebbles of all different shades, on the roof stand two animal statues to guard the building; one of the statues was a lion and the other a camel.
The lion was stolen but has since been replaced, however the camel, which lay on the ground for years before being restored to the roof, is still the original statue.
Behind the summer house are stone steps that lead to all the stones and rocks that were taken out when making the tunnel to the bone cave, all neatly stacked against a wall.
This was a really interesting place to look around and when you stand inside and look out, you can see out across the Bristol channel and surrounding areas.
Banwell Tower was built at the hill top as well as hundreds of trees which had been planted to make a wooded walk way up through to the tower, the woods nowadays look stunning.
The Banwell tower that Bishop Law built still stands today and is 50 feet high, constructed of lias stone from the nearby hamlet of Knightcott, the tower cuts a handsome spectacle for all to see.
If you are willing to walk up the steep, narrow stairwell to the top of the tower on a clear day you will be rewarded with views as far as the Brecon Beacons to the North and Exmoor to the South as well as the woods of the estate.
The Trilathon was demolished in the second world war because the RAF, who had set up a camp in the grounds, could not turn their vehicles around as this mound was in the way.
The Bishop had put a great deal of effort into the caves, he later appointed a farmer called William Beard who taught himself about bones and it was he who kept the public interest up in the caves after the Bishops death in 1845, so enthusiastic was he, that he continued taking people in to see the caves until he was 93 years old.
In 1868 William Beard died and the caves seemed to die with him as interest in them all but disappeared and they were virtually forgotten about by the locals.
A human skeleton was found close to the caves which was more modern than the animal bones, William Beard took the skeleton to the other end of the estate up through the woods past the tower and buried it beneath a stone there.
On the stone is written the words:
A human skeleton found near the Bishops cottage 1842
Beard with his kindness brought me to this spot
As one unknown and long forgot
He made my grave and buried me here
When there was no kind friend to shed a tear
My bones are here but my spirit is fled
And for years unknown numbered with the dead
Reader as I am so shall you be
Prepare for death and follow me
Quite a creepy statement I thought.
William Beard (1772 – 1868) played an essential part in keeping the bone cave open and created public awareness about it through drawing people in with the mystery of the bones, a young female visitor wrote a poem about him in the visitor book and he kept it by his side in his notebook.
Stranger, to Banwell Heights, where gently blow
The soft sea breezes! Thither thou must go.
Bend thy unwilling steps in cavern drear
Behold earths ancient relics hidden there
Bones of the Buffalo, the Wolf, the Bear
And pass a moments time, in thought severe
But not alone, let those your thoughts engage,
There lives, who in your memory claim a page,
One, of whose patient searching you have heard
Famed for his kindness, as his learning, sound
Without whose skill, those bones had near been found
Stranger! I need not say his name is Beard!
A worthy tribute and thank you to the man who was so passionate about the bone cave, if it was not for him, the cave would have disappeared without any further interest.
Nowadays the caves are conserved by the Banwell Caves Heritage Group, a small group of local people who, along with the land owners are trying to ensure that the unique caves remain protected.
If you wanted to visit the caves you can request to see them through www.banwellcaves.org and John Chapman and John Hayes will take you round after showing you a short film about the history of the caves.
These two men are retired and are struggling to keep it all going, they were so interesting to talk to and I felt extremely privileged to have had the chance to go and see the bone cave and meet the two Johns.
I really do hope that the Banwell Bone Cave keeps going, it would be so sad if the candle lit light of interest finally went out on this cave after all of the efforts to keep it going.