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Banwell Bone Caves

It was a crazy thing to do: to drive over a hundred miles on a damp Summer Sunday to the edge of Weston-super-Mare to walk around a cave and some follies on a hill. But how could I resist given this old write-up from Headley & Meulenkamp's book on Follies:

The paths are now heavily overgrown with skeletal, light-starved plants whose fronds brush wetly against your face as you slide on the greasy steps ...  Low stone walls border the paths; unnatural shapes can be made out through the bony undergrowth ...

In 1824, two labourers paid by the Vicar of Banwell to find a cave which had once been discovered on the hillside broke into a completely different chamber, and found it littered with untold thousands of animal bones. The estate was owned by the new Bishop of Bath & Wells, George Law, who was intrigued. He concluded that the bones were the remains of beasts who perished in the Flood, and thus the whole site was proof of the Bible's account of world history. He saw it as his responsibility to open the cave to the public, but having done so, and having built a cottage for the accommodation of his visitors, the whole landscape began to work on his mind. It wasn't enough to prove the Flood: the Bishop conceived the idea of constructing an open-air sermon on the folly of human endeavour and the triumph of Christianity, and began building ruins, a Druid temple, and all sorts of things. This is what gives Banwell its unique, and very strange character.

Banwell is only open a few days a year, and consequently is usually busy. But you get a lot for your trouble - and entry is, at the moment, free. Our visit was damp and eventually worse, but that seemed completely appropriate.

Banwell entrance
Banwell inscription
Entry into the caves is through the arch on the left.
There used to be a stone circle and trilithon on the
grass - until the RAF knocked into it in the War!
Almost illegible, this is the last survivor of the
Bishop's original 'inspiring' inscriptions. As a
flavour of the whole lot, try the following:
Here let the scoffer of God's holy word
Behold the traces of a deluged world:
Here let him learn in Banwell Cave t'adore
The Lord of Heaven, then go and scoff no more.
Banwell cave
Banwell caveBanwell Druid circle
The Bone Cavern, and some of the stacked bones, rather nicely candle-lit.The Druid's Temple. The port bottle is
not part of the original arrangement.
Banwell Cave House
The Caves House, built by Bishop Law to
accommodate visitors to his 'theme park'
Banwell Cave House
Banwell archway
Banwell stepsBanwell way down to Stalactite Cave
An arrangement of follies - a Gothick archway, below it a precipitous flight of steps, and at the bottom the way into the Stalactite Cave
(cavers only please!). Here Bishop Law decided to place an inscription ordering the traveller,
'O thou, who, trembling, viewst this cavern's gloom,/Pause and reflect on thy eternal doom:/Think what the punishment of sin will be/In
the abyss of endless misery'
Banwell Ostoeichon
Banwell Pebble SummerhouseBanwell Dr Randolph's Gazebo
The paths around the wooded hilltop lead to more follies. The
Osteoichon was where the Bishop's manager, William Beard,
farmer-turned-bone-enthusiast, displayed the best of the bones
from the cave. There is also a Gothic Summerhouse awaiting
restoration, and 'Dr Randolph's Gazebo', which
may be the
summerhouse built by the Vicar of Banwell, whose fault all this is,
which the Bishop transferred to the hilltop on the Vicar's death. Off
one ill-frequented path you can also just glimpse the footings of yet
another folly.

Finally you emerge from the oppressive woods and discover the
Bishop's Tower - a strangely squat, inelegant affair, but still giving
wonderful views over to the Welsh mountains, that abode of
dragons and monsters.
Banwell remains of a ruin
Banwell - Bishop's Tower
Banwell tower stairs

Back at the house are a Romantick cascade, a dog so huge it looks more like one of the bears that used to wander prehistoric Somerset -  and these absolutely splendid bat biccies. I hope they're selling them when you go.

Banwell Cascade
Banwell dog
Banwell bat biscuits
Banwell Old Man of the WoodsNow, this is all very well, this Christian philosophising on ruin,
truth and the abiding power of God. But something else
went on at Banwell too. Bishop Law was an apparently
straightforward man, a bishop's son himself, a stalwart
Church of England prelate who opposed Catholic
Emancipation, and a reformer in a moderate way. But here,
in his retreat from the pressures of diocesan life in Wells, he
created a landscape that is perpetually damp and gloomy -
the wood on the hilltop was planted by him, which was
hardly necessary to make his point. He died in 1845 after 'a
gradual decay of mind and body' which appears to have had
an element of paralysing melancholy. Look at this stone,
positioned along the pathway to the Tower. That's a face,
isn't it? What was George Henry Law seeing in the woods by
the time he finished here? Is this not just a Gothic Gardener
responding to the possibilities of landscape, but actually
being affected - unhinged - by it? Stark mad for ruins?
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