Mendip Hills

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The Mendip Hills from Crook Peak to Shute Shelve Hill

The Mendip Hills are a range of limestone hills in Somerset, to the south of Bristol and Bath. Running east to west between Weston-super-Mare and Frome, the hills overlook the Somerset Levels to the south and the Avon Valley to the north.

The highest hill in the range is Beacon Batch on Black Down, which reaches 1,068 feet above sea level.

The hills are largely formed from Carboniferous limestone, which is quarried at several sites. The higher, western part of the hills has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which gives it a level of protection comparable to a national park. The hills are famed for the complex cave systems beneath, and in past ages for mining, a profitable activity amongst the Mendips since the Bronze Age.

A wide range of outdoor sports and leisure activities take place in the Mendips, many based on the particular geology of the area. The hills are recognised as a national centre for caving and cave diving, as well as being popular with climbers, hillwalkers and natural historians.

Name of the hills

Several explanations for the name "Mendip" have been suggested. Its earliest known form is Mendepe in 1185. One suggestion is that it is derived from the mediæval term "Myne-deepes".[1] Others suggest it derives from the Old British Mened (Modern Welsh mynydd), for mountain or upland moorland, with a suffix, perhaps from Old English: yppe or hop (valley).

Othewer origins have been proposed, none of which can be proven nor disproven; one suggests a meaning "stone pit" from the British meyn dyppa in reference to the collapsed cave systems of Cheddar, albeit that the word order seems to be awry if that is the case.


Deep inside the Mendips limestone hills are wonderous cave systems; the most extensive in Britain. Cavers have explored for miles underground but have found only a fraction of what lies beneath; the most famous entry is Wookey Hole, from which a series of galleries and passages lead down beneath the hills, each carved by water.

It is from the caves deep under the Mendips that water bursts up to the hot springs at Bath.

A combination of the rainfall and geology leads to an estimated average daily runoff from springs and boreholes of some 72 million gallons. Bristol Waterworks Company recognised the value of this resource and between 1846 and 1853 created a series of underground tunnels, pipes, and aqueducts called the "Line of Works", which still carry approximately 4 million gallons of water a day to Barrow Gurney Reservoirs for filtration and then on to Bristol and the surrounding areas. This collection and conveyance of water from the Chewton Mendip and East and West Harptree areas is accomplished by the effect of gravity on the runoff. Water from the Mendips is also collected in Cheddar Reservoir, which was constructed in the 1930s and takes water from the springs in Cheddar Gorge.[2]


Three nationally important semi-natural habitats are characteristic of the area: ash–maple woodland often with abundant small-leaved lime, calcareous grassland and Mesotrophic grasslands in the British National Vegetation Classification system|mesotrophic grassland.[1]

Much of the Mendips is open chalk grassland, supporting a wide variety of flowering plants and insects. Parts are deciduous ancient woodland and some has been used intensively for arable agriculture, particularly since First World War. As the demand for arable land in Britain declined, some areas were returned to grassland, but the use of fertilisers and herbicides has reduced its biodiversity.[1] Grazing by rabbits, sheep and cattle maintains the grassland habitat.

Of the many bird species found in the Mendips the peregrine falcon, which has gradually recolonised the area since the 1980s, is particularly significant. It breeds on sea and inland cliffs and on the faces of active and disused quarries. The upland heaths of the west Mendips have recently increased in ornithological importance, due to colonisation by the Dartford warbler, which can be found at Black Down and Crook Peak. Elsewhere in Britain, this species is usually associated with lowland heath. The woodlands at Stock Hill are a breeding site for nightjars and long-eared owls. In 2007 the first confirmed sighting of a red kite on the Mendips was made at Charterhouse.[3]

The Waldegrave Pool, part of Priddy Mineries, is an important site for dragonflies, including downy emerald and four-spotted chaser.

A range of important small mammals are found in the area, including the hazel dormouse and bats. The hazel dormouse is restricted largely to coppiced woodland and scrub, while the bats, including the nationally rare lesser and greater horseshoe bats, have a number of colonies in buildings, caves, and mines in the area.

Amphibians such as the great crested newt have a wide distribution across the Mendips and are often found in flooded disused quarries.

The white-clawed crayfish is also nationally rare and is a declining species with small populations in a tributary of the Mells River and the River Chew.[4]

Dry stone walls

The dry stone walls that divide the pasture into fields are a well-known feature of the Mendips.

Constructed from local limestone in an "A frame" design, the walls are strong yet contain no mortar, although many have been neglected and allowed to disintegrate, replaced or contained by a mix of barbed wire and sheep fencing, which do not support the wildlife that the walls encourage.

Sport, leisure, and tourism

The Mendips are home to a wide range of outdoor sports and leisure activities, including hunting, caving, climbing, and abseiling. The rich variety of fauna and flora also makes it attractive for hillwalking and those interested in natural history.[5][6]

Caving and cave diving

Stalagmites and stalactites in Gough's Cave

Large areas of limestone on the Mendips have been worn away by water, making the hills a national centre for caving. Some of the caves have been known about since the establishment of the Mendip lead mining industry in Roman times. However, many have been discovered or explored only in the 20th century.[7] Specialist equipment and knowledge is required to visit the vast majority of the caves, but Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole Caves are two caves which are easily accessible to the public. The active Mendip Caving Group and other local caving organisations organise trips and continue to discover new caverns.

The Hills conceal the largest underground river system in Britain;[8] attempts to move from one cave to another through the underground rivers led to the development of cave diving in Britain.

The first cave dive was attempted at Swildon's Hole in 1934, and the first successful dive was achieved the following year at Wookey Hole Caves, which has the deepest sump in Britain at 250 feet.[9] The cave complexes at St. Dunstan's Well Catchment,[10] Lamb Leer,[11] and Priddy Caves[12] have been identified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The deepest cave in the Mendip Hills is Charterhouse Cave with a vertical range of 720 feet.[13]

Many caves in the Mendip area were expertly photographed by caver Harry Savory early in the 20th century using huge cameras, glass plates and flash powder.[14]


A marker for the Mendip Pub Trail at Charterhouse

Several sites on the Mendips are designated as open access land, and there are many footpaths and bridleways, which are generally clearly marked.

The Limestone Link is a 36-mile long-distance footpath from the Mendips to the Cotswolds and the Mendip Way covers 50 miles from Weston-super-Mare to Frome. The western section runs from the Bristol Channel at Uphill Cliff, affording views over the Somerset Levels, crosses the central Mendip plateau leading down to Cheddar Gorge, and then continues to Wells and Frome.[15]

The much longer Monarch's Way runs for 615 miles, from Worcester to Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex. It closely follows the route taken by Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The route enters Somerset near Chewton Mendip and crosses the Mendip Hills heading for Wells.[16]

Mendips in the arts

Thomas Hardy described the Mendips as "a range of limestone rocks stretching from the shores of the Bristol Channel into the middle of Somersetshire", and several of his books refer to the Mendips or sites on the hills.[17]

According to legend, Augustus Montague Toplady was inspired to write the words of the hymn "Rock of Ages" while sheltering under a rock in Burrington Combe during a thunderstorm in 1763; there is a metal plaque marking the site.[18][19]

Lindsay Davies's The Silver Pigs, the first of her Falco series, involves Roman silver and lead mining in the Mendips and contains a gruelsome account of the slaves in the mines.


Topographic map of the Mendips

The Mendip Hills are the most southerly Carboniferous Limestone upland in Britain, of the Carboniferous Limestone laid down during the Early Carboniferous Period, about 320–350 million years ago.[20]

In some areas the Carboniferous Limestone and the dolomitic conglomerate have been mineralised with lead and zinc ores. From the time of Roman Britain until 1908, the hills were an important source of lead.[21] These areas were the centre of a major mining industry in the past and this is reflected in areas of contaminated rough ground known locally as "gruffy". The word "gruffy" is thought to derive from the grooves that were formed where the lead ore was extracted from veins near the surface.[22] Other commodities obtained included calamine, manganese, iron, copper and baryte.[23] The eastern area reaches into parts of the Somerset Coalfield.[24]


Roman lead mines at Charterhouse

Evidence of mining goes back to the late Bronze Age, when there were technological changes in metal-working indicating the use of lead. The Roman invasion, and possibly the preceding period of involvement in the internal affairs of the south of Britain, was inspired, in part, by the mineral wealth of the Mendips.[25] Much of the attraction of the lead mines may have been the potential for the extraction of silver; the Latin "EX ARG VEB" stamps on the Mendip lead pigs specify a de-silvering process and cast silver ingots have been found.[26] Before the Romans came the silver was known; the silver coinage of the Dobunni and Durotriges bears witness to that.

By the end of the mediæval period a complex body of customary law had come into existence dealing with the four "Mendip mineries". The mediæval control of mining was in the hands of the monastic foundations.

William Wilberforce's visit to Cheddar in 1789, during which he saw the poor circumstances of the locals, inspired Hannah More to begin her work improving the conditions of the Mendip miners and agricultural workers.[27] Under her influence, schools were built and children were formally instructed in reading and Christian doctrine. Between 1770 and 1813 some 18,000 acres of land on the hills were enclosed, mainly with dry stone walls that today form a key part of the landscape.

Twentieth and twenty-first centuries

A view across Black Down from Beacon Batch

In Second World War a bombing decoy was constructed on top of Black Down at Beacon Batch in an attempt to confuse bombers aiming to damage the city of Bristol, and cairns were created to prevent enemy aircraft using the hilltop as a landing site.[28]

In the 1960s, the tallest mast in the region at 961 feet above ground level, the Mendip UHF television transmitter, was installed on Pen Hill near Wells, one of the highest points of the Mendips.[29] The transmitter's antenna rises to about 1,930 feet above sea level, raising it above even Somerset's county top at Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor (1,702 feet).

Since 2003, arguments have raged over plans to erect a wind turbine near Chewton Mendip. The proposal was initially rejected on the grounds that the environmental impact on the edge of the AONB outweighed the tiny amount of electricity which would be generated, but it was permitted by the planning inspectorate in April 2006.[30]

The Mendip Power Group are installing micro-hydroelectric turbines in a number of historic former watermills.[31] The first to start electricity generation was Tellisford Mill, on the River Frome, which began operating in 2006 and produces 50–55 kW.[31] Other mills in the Group, together with initial assessments of their capacity, include: Stowford Mill (37 kW) and Shawford Mill (31 kW), Jackdaws Iron Works (10 kW), Glencot House (5.8 kW), Burcott Mill (5.2 kW), Bleadney Mill (5.4 kW), Coleford Mill (6.6 kW), Old Mill (5.2 kW) and Farrants Mill (9.9 kW).[31]


Western extension of Whatley Quarry

In recent centuries the Mendips, like the Cotswolds to the north, have been quarried for stone to build the cities of Bath and Bristol, as well as smaller towns in Somerset. The quarries are now major suppliers of road stone to southern England,[32] among them producing around twelve million tonnes of limestone every year, employing over two thousand people, and turning over approximately £150 million per annum.[33]

Part of Cheddar Gorge, from the air

There are two main rock types on the Mendips: the Devonian sandstones visible around Blackdown and Downhead and the carboniferous limestones, which dominate the hills and surround the older rock formations. There are nine active quarries and a host of disused sites, several of which have been designated as geological Sites of Special Scientific Interest by English Nature. Because of the effect quarrying has on the environment and local communities, a campaign has been started to halt the creation of any new quarries and to restrict the activities and expansion of the existing ones.[34]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Mendip Hills)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Mendip Hills Natural Area profile" (PDF). English Nature. January 1998. p. 20. Retrieved 30 November 2011. 
  2. "Cheddar Reservoir Introduction". Bristol Water. Retrieved 2 March 2010. 
  3. "Bird records for June 2009". Monthly Newsletter of the Bristol Ornithological Club. Bristol Ornithological Club. July 2009. Retrieved 5 April 2010. 
  4. "Award for bridge restoration team". BANES. 23 November 2006. Retrieved 30 November 2011. 
  5. "The Mendip Hills". Somerset Guide. Retrieved 9 March 2010. 
  6. "The Mendip Hills". Enjoy England. Retrieved 5 April 2010. 
  7. Johnson, Peter (1967). The History of Mendip Caving. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. pp. 36–47. 
  8. "Rivers". Cheddar Caves & Gorge Discovery Pack. Cheddar Caves & Gorge. 2001. Retrieved 8 March 2010. 
  9. "UK Caves Database". Retrieved 5 March 2010. 
  10. "St Dunstan's Well Catchment SSSI citation sheet". English Nature. Retrieved 5 March 2010. 
  11. "Lamb Leer SSSI citation Sheet". English Nature. Retrieved 5 March 2010. 
  12. "Priddy Caves SSSI citation sheet". English Nature. Retrieved 5 March 2010. 
  13. "UK Caves Database". Retrieved 5 March 2010. 
  14. Savory, H. and Savory, J. (1990) A Man Deep in Mendip: The Caving Diaries of Harry Savory, 1910-1921, Southern Illinois University Press, ISBN 978-0-8093-1623-6
  15. "Mendip Way". The Ramblers Association. Retrieved 21 November 2009. 
  16. "The Monarch's Way". The Monarch's Way Association. 2 February 2006. 
  17. Hunt, Peter (2001). Children's literature: an anthology, 1801-1902. WileyBlackwell. pp. 398. ISBN 978-0-631-21049-8. 
  18. Pollard, Arthur (2004). "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  19. Staff writer (7 June 2009). "The original Rock of Ages, Burrington Combe, Somerset". Guardian News and Media (London). Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  20. Faulkner, T.J. (1989). "The early Carboniferous (Courceyan) Middle Hope volcanics of Weston-super-Mare: development and demise of an offshore volcanic high". Proceedings of the Geologists' Association (The Geologists' Association Published by Elsevier Ltd) 100 (1): 93–106. doi:10.1016/S0016-7878(89)80068-9. 
  21. Toulson, Shirley (1984). The Mendip Hills: A Threatened Landscape. London: Victor Gollancz. pp. 22–27. ISBN 0-575-03453-X. 
  22. Coysh, A.W.; Mason, E.J. and Waite, V. (1977). The Mendips. London: Robert Hale Ltd. pp. 47–48. ISBN 0-7091-6426-2. 
  23. Gough, J.W. (1967). The Mines of Mendip. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. pp. 3–7. ISBN 978-0-7153-4152-0. 
  24. "Proceedings of the Royal Society- The Somerset Coalfield, as observed 300 years ago". High Littleton & Hallatrow History and Parish Records. 1681–1725. 
  25. Todd, Malcolm (1996). "Ancient mining on Mendip Somerset". Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society 13 (2): 47–51.,%20Somerset%20-%20A%20Prel.pdf. 
  26. Boon, George C; Collingwood, R. G.; Wright, R. P.; Frere, S. S.; Roxan, M.; Tomlin, R. S. O. (1991). 'Plumbum Britannicum' and Other Remarks. 22. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. 317–322. doi:10.2307/526649. 
  27. Coysh, A.W.; Mason, E.J. and Waite, V. (1977). The Mendips. London: Robert Hale Ltd. p. 95. ISBN 0-7091-6426-2. 
  28. "Military remains in the Mendip Hills". English Heritage. Retrieved 30 November 2011. 
  29. "Written statement in support of application". National Grid Wireless Ltd Digital Switchover project. Mendip District Council. June 2007. pp. 3. Retrieved 9 April 2010. 
  30. "Shooters Bottom, Somerset". Ecotricity. Retrieved 31 December 2011. 
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Mendip Mills Energy Makeover, Centre for Sustainable Energy. Retrieved 2000-11-21.
  32. "Mendip Quarry Producers". Archived from the original on 2 August 2008. Retrieved 2 February 2007. 
  33. University of the West of England, Faculty of the Built Environment and Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education (undated). "Case Study 1: Stone quarrying in the Mendip Hills, Somerset". Royal Town Planning Institute. pp. 8. Retrieved 9 April 2010. 
  34. "Quarrying Issues from the Mendip Socierty". Archived from the original on 16 April 2008. Retrieved 17 February 2007. 


  • Atthill, Robin (1971). Old Mendip (2nd ed.). Newton Abbot: David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-5171-0. 
  • Hardcastle, Jim; Merryn Nisbet (2008). Lifelines: The Vital Dry Stone Walls of the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Mendip Hills AONB Service. ISBN 978-0-9559110-0-2.