Cheddar Yeo

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The dam at the bottom of Cheddar Gorge

The Cheddar Yeo is a small river in Somerset, which rises in the Mendip Hills empties ultimately into the River Axe. It is an unusual river it that it disappears underground in the Mendips and forms an extensive subterranean river system before emerging into daylight and resuming as a normal river.

After emerging into Cheddar Gorge, the Yeo flows through the village of Cheddar, where it has been used in the past to power mills.

From the Middle Ages until the 19th century the river had ports for seagoing vessels but is no longer navigable. Some of the water, which is of good quality, is diverted into Cheddar Reservoir to provide drinking water for Bristol.

The Cheddar Yeo is one of several rivers called the River Yeo in Somerset and Devon. The name Yeo is from the Old English word ea, meaning simply "river".


Inside Gough's Cave

The Yeo rises from a spring near Charterhouse and then disappears under the limestone of the Mendip Hills.

The underground river

The Yeo appears in Gough's Cave before emerging into Cheddar Gorge. Within Gough's Cave the river forms the largest underground river system in Britain.[1][2]

From a point relatively close to the areas of the cave open to the public, the cave-divers' descent into Sump 1a begins through a tight passage known as Dire Straits. The bottom of that passage opens into the river passage, which is several yards across. This has been explored for 360 yards downstream, whilst upstream a dive of 500 feet brings the diver out in a 65-foot long chamber named Lloyd Hall (which can now also be reached by an alternative, dry, route).[3][4]

Another dive of 150 yards through Sump 1b, finishing with an ascent through a rising passage, leads to another chamber, 65 yards long and 27 yards wide at its widest point, and full of large boulders, called Bishop's Palace. This chamber is the largest chamber currently found in the Cheddar caves.

Further on, three sump pools (named the Duck Ponds) lead to Sump 2 which is about 90 feet deep at its lowest point and 490 feet long.[3][4] Air is again reached at Sheppard's Crook, which is followed by Sump 3. This sump is 180 feet deep and at its bottommost point is about 100 feet below sea level. Following Sump 3, a wide ascending passage continues for 400 yards before reaching an impassable blockage, still below the water's surface.[3][4]

Cheddar, the Gorge and the Axe

After emerging from the cave the river flows through Cheddar past the site of an Anglo-Saxon palace,[5][6] in the grounds of The Kings of Wessex School, together with a 14th-century chapel dedicated to St. Columbanus.[7] Roman remains have also been uncovered at the site.[6][8]

It then flows south under a disused railway bridge which used to carry the Cheddar Valley line and west through Rackley before joining the River Axe.


The Cheddar Yeo at Hythe

As early as 1527 there are records of watermills on the river.[6] In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were several watermills which ground corn and made paper, with 13 mills on the Yeo at the peak, declining to seven by 1791 and just three by 1915.[9] In the Victorian era it also became a centre for the manufacture of clothing.[1] The last mill in Cheddar, which was used as a shirt factory, closed in the early 1950s.[9]

Rackley was a trading port in the Middle Ages following construction of a wharf in 1200. In 1324 Edward II confirmed it as a borough, however by the end of the 14th century the port was in decline.[10] In the 14th century a French ship sailed up the river and by 1388 Thomas Tanner from Wells used Rackley to export cloth and corn to Portugal, and received iron and salt in exchange. Later slate was imported through this route and it may have still be possible to trade through Rackley until the act of 1915 authorising the drainage of the Axe and installation of the flood gate at Bleadon.[11]

There was also a small port at Hythe on the Wedmore Road, just south of Cheddar, which was used until the 19th century.[12]


Water from the river also feeds the Cheddar Reservoir, a circular artificial reservoir operated by Bristol Water. The inlet grate for the 54-inch water pipe that is used to transport the water can be seen next to the sensory garden in Cheddar Gorge. Dating from the 1930s, the reservoir has a capacity of 135 million gallons.[13] It has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to its wintering waterfowl populations.[14]

In 2007 it announced that the new reservoir close to the existing site would be one of the options considered in its Draft 2009 Water Resources Plan.[15][16] The new reservoir would hold 6,000 million litres, roughly the same size as the existing reservoir, and built on the alluvial flood plain the Cheddar Yeo.[17]



  1. 1.0 1.1 "A brief history of Cheddar". Cheddar Web Site. Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  2. "Cheddar Yeo". Somerset Rivers. Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Thomas, Alan (1989). The Last Adventure. Wells: Ina Books. ISBN 1869897056.  which contains a first-hand account of the exploration of the river passage by Richard Stevenson
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Irwin, David John; Knibbs Anthony J. (1999). Mendip Underground: A Cavers Guide. Wells: Bat Prod.. ISBN 0953610306.  – which also contains a detailed description of the cave.
  5. Rahtz, Phillip. "The Saxon and Mediæval Palaces at Cheddar, Somerset - an Interim Report of Excavations in 1960-62" (PDF). Archaeology Data Service. Retrieved 31 March 2008. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Richardson, Miranda (2003). "Cheddar Archaeological Assessment". Somerset Extensive Urban Survey. Somerset County Council. Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  7. "Former chapel dedicated to St Columbanus". Images of England. Retrieved 31 March 2008. 
  8. "School dig uncovers Roman grave". BBC News. 20 January 2006. Retrieved 31 March 2008. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Outhwaite, John. "A Short History of Cheddar". Cheddar Parish Council. Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  10. "An archaeological assessment of Rackley". Somerset County Council. Retrieved 26 November 2008. 
  11. Toulson, Shirley (1984). The Mendip Hills: A Threatened Landscape. London: Victor Gollancz. ISBN 057503453X. 
  12. "The Cheddar Yeo or Cheddar Water". Real Alternative Site. Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  13. "Cheddar Reservoir Introduction". Bristol Water. Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  14. English Nature SSSI information for Cheddar Reservoir
  15. "Strategic Environmental Assessment of Bristol Water's Draft Water Resources Plan - Scoping Report" (PDF). Entec. October 2007. p. 6. Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
  16. "Water Resources Plan" (PDF). Bristol Water. April 2004. p. 30. Retrieved 2008-04-15. 
  17. "WR1 – Cheddar Reservoir Number 2 Preliminary Design Report". Bristol Water. Retrieved 30 March 2010.