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A circuit around Somerset's most impressive natural feature and beside the home of its gorgeous cheese.
Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)
Minimum time 2hrs 15min
Ascent/gradient 1,000ft (300m)
Level of difficulty Hard
Paths Stony and sometimes steep and slippery, 3 stiles
Landscape Crag tops and woods
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 141 Cheddar Gorge
Start/finish ST 462536
Dog friendliness Open land, but care needed near cliff edges
Parking Pay-and-display at Cliff Street, close to visitor car park for Cheddar Gorge show caves
Public toilets Toilets outside car park, and at showcaves
1 From the car park turn right, across a roundabout and over the river to the entrance to the gorge road. This looks more like a fairground than a public highway: indeed it has been a fairground since early Victorian times. Ignoring it for now, bear right into Lippiatt and go up this steep lane for 80yds (73m). Steps on the left lead up to another lane. Go up this to a signed footpath into some woods. At the top is a metal viewpoint tower: it gives a fine view into the gorge, and out to the sea, the distant Quantocks and the Exmoor coast.
2 A wide path runs uphill, close to the edge of the gorge. Steps arriving from the left are 'Jacob's Ladder', a Victorian attraction whereby visitors to the show caves paid to walk up on to a public footpath. After the steps the path is clear, but the well-trodden limestone becomes very slippery when it's damp. On the left are various viewpoints overlooking the gorge. Careful - King Edmund of England narrowly escaped falling over the edge when hunting up here in the year ad 941, and he wasn't the last.
3 At the highest point of the path ignore gates on the right but continue between fence and gorge. The path descends quite steeply through a wood to a stile. After a short level stretch it continues down through the wood - this can be muddy and slippery - to the gorge road.
4 A path ahead continues into the Blackrock Nature Reserve, but the Gorge Walk turns left down the roadside for 120yds (110m) to a waymarked path that climbs through the woods on the right. After an initially steep ascent it turns left up a long flight of wood-and-earth steps. It continues with a fence on its right and the gorge on its left, gently downhill through thorn scrub that's adorned in autumn with old man's beard. The whiskery seed heads appear in autumn; in spring the flower is called travellers' joy.
5 At a junction a stile on the left is a side-path running down to the National Trust's (NT) viewpoint. This path descends steeply to an exposed slope above crags: a sensible sign suggests that dogs and children should be closely controlled, and the place should be avoided when very wet or by those with flat-soled shoes. It does give a fine outlook on the gorge mouth and the rockfaces opposite.
6 From the NT viewpoint return over the stile to the path junction and turn left. Head downhill now for 250yds (229m). Turn right, away from the gorge, at a low signpost marked 'Cheddar'.
7 Ignore a gate on the left but turn downhill at the first of two stiles. The path goes down under trees with a broken wall on its right, then passes through the wall at a kissing gate. At the first houses of Cheddar turn sharp left into a walled path. At the track below turn left to arrive among the shops and attractions of Cheddar Gorge near the tourist information centre.
8 Turn right, into a path forbidden to cyclists. It passes behind a mill pool and a slightly incongruous crazy golf course, then runs along the foot of a wood, with a rare chance for the observant to glimpse the extinct sabre-tooth tiger. Rejoin the main road through the gorge at the toilets, and head down past (or via) the tea rooms and snack shops to the car park.
Cheddar is, of course, doubly famous, not only for its gorge but also for its cheese. Cheddar cheese does not have holes in (that's Emmental, from Switzerland) but Cheddar's holes did originally have cheese in: they were stored underground where the temperature is a chill-cabinet 4°C (39°F) all the year round. The particular process of 'cheddaring' consists of slicing up the curd at a crucial moment, placing it in layers and letting it slump - much the same as what's happened to the limestone strata overhead. The process is fairly easily reproduced on an industrial scale, so that we now have New Zealand Cheddar, Orkney Cheddar, and Cheddar from everywhere in between. However, authentic, hand-made Cheddar is available at Cheddar Gorge and is considerably tastier than the orange lumps vacuum wrapped in plastic found on supermarket shelves.
The gorge has many pubs and cafés, ranging from the cheap to the classy. Walkers may like the White Hart, which is a cavers' hang-out.
In early summer you may find the Cheddar pink. This is a close relative of the garden pink and looks very like it - they are both Dianthus. Its single, fragrant flower grows out of cracks in the limestone around the gorge - and nowhere else in Britain.
The Cheddar Caves and Gorge, crowded as they are, are still impressive; try to visit before noon and on a weekday. Also interesting are the Toy and Model Museum and the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, where you can follow the cheese-making process.