The small but sublime limestone gorge that inspired Coleridge.
Distance 4.8 miles (7.7km)
Minimum time 2hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 700ft (210m)
Level of difficulty Hard
Paths Small paths and field edges, with a rugged descent, 9 stiles
Landscape Vast view across the Levels, then tight little gorge
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 141 Cheddar Gorge
Start/finish ST 521484
Dog friendliness English Nature asks that dogs to be on leads in reserve
Parking Lane above Wookey Hole (optional, small fee)
Public toilets At Wookey Hole's visitor car park
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1 From the noticeboard at the top end of the car park descend a stepped path. After a clearing, turn left (signposted 'The Gorge'). The wide path crosses the stream to another junction.
2 Turn right, away from the gorge, and follow the valley down to a road. Turn left, to pass through the village of Wookey Hole. At its end the road bends right; take a kissing gate on the left with a 'West Mendip Way' waymarker post. After two more kissing gates turn left up a spur to a stile and the top of Arthur's Point.
3 Bear right for 60yds (55m) into woods again. Beware: hidden in the brambles ahead is the top of a quarry crag. So, turn right, down to a stile. Go down the field edge to a kissing gate, and bear left between boulders back into the wood. After a sharp little rise bear right, contouring to join Lime Kiln Lane below. This bends left with, again, a path on the left diverting through the bottom of the wood. This emerges at the end of a short field track, which is followed down to a footpath signpost.
4 Turn sharp left, on a track that passes through Model Farm, to Tynings Lane. Turn left for 85yds (78m) to a signposted stile on the right. Go up with a fence on your right, then bear left to a gate with a stile. Go straight up the next, large field, aiming for a gateway with tractor ruts running into it. A track leads up through a wood and a field to a gate. Slant upwards in the same direction to another gate next to a stile 100yds (91m) below the field's top left corner.
5 A small path runs along the tops of three fields with a long view across the Levels away to your left. With a stile on the right and a gate and horse trough in front, turn downhill with the fence on your right; follow the fence to a stile leading into the Ebbor Gorge Nature Reserve.
6 A second gate leads into a wood. At a junction with a red arrow and sign marked 'Car Park' pointing forward, turn right into the valley and go down it - this narrows to an exciting, rocky gully. At the foot of the gorge turn right, signposted 'Car Park'. You are now back at Point 2 of the outward walk. After crossing a stream turn left at a T-junction to the wood edge, and back right to the car park.
In the introduction I made a facetious comparison between Somerset and Snowdonia. All the same, it's significant that when the poet Samual Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wanted to paint in words the ultimate in sublime landscape, he based his poem not on Snowdonia (which he had visited) but on Somerset. The setting of Kubla Khan (published in 1816) is based partly on Culbone Combe, on the Exmoor Coast, and partly on memories of a visit to Wookey Hole and Ebbor. So we have: 'the deep romantic chasm that slanted, down a green hill, athwart a cedern covert; a savage place!' While down at Wookey Hole (though you'll have to pay to see it): 'Alph, the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man?'.
To the writers and painters of the Romantic period, a landscape could be merely beautiful - or it could be sublime. A scene that's 'sublime' goes far beyond the merely pretty: it induces awe and even terror. It stills the noisy chattering mind, to the point of breaking through into the 'divine Reality' that lies behind the world. Today most of us don't believe in the divine Reality, and aren't driven to sort our views into categories and seek out the sublime. And yet I've felt it on Glastonbury Tor at sunset and I've found it at midnight on the Quantocks whilst staring down on some very 21st-century streetlights.
It's interesting to compare Kubla Khan with Stourhead Garden: the walls and towers are there; the incense-bearing trees; even the domed shapes of the buildings. Not that Stourhead's designer, Henry Hoare, was copying the poem, it's just that he and Coleridge were both after the same thing. There was a third category of satisfactory scenery: the picturesque. This is one that's arranged correctly, with foreground, middleground, and a hill wall shutting off the end. The foreground should have some ornamental peasants or brigands, from whom a carefully placed river or country lane leads the eye into the scene.
Turning from the sublime to the ridiculous, or at least the trivial: Coleridge did pronounce 'Kubla Khan' to rhyme with 'Measureless to man'. We know this from a letter of Dorothy Wordsworth's where she puns on 'Kubla Khan' and 'watering Khan'. Wordsworth himself mocked those of us who only go walking for the sake of the view - the 'craving for a prospect', as he called it. But Ebbor Gorge is impressive whatever its landscape category.
Wookey Hole Caves - the 'absolutely top hole' - was first recorded as a tourist attraction in 1480, when visitors had to bring their own rushlight tapers. The underground River Ax and the vast chambers are now dramatically illuminated by electric lighting.
Keep your eyes open for wailing women and demon lovers, obviously. But also note how the cramped narrow passage of the Ebbor Gorge has clearly been a waterfall. The stream now runs underground and there are some cave entrances below the gorge.
The Wookey Hole Inn has real ale and a sculpture garden. The food is not cheap but it is home-cooked and unusual. There is also a family restaurant, the Galloper, in the large Wookey Hole visitor car park.