top of page
Abtot Logo. Encounter Walking Holidays member number 5357

Section 3 - The Central Mendips, Shipham to Cheddar

7 miles - Generally moderate Grade becoming strenuous in the Gorge Area - What these grades mean


The Mendip Way route today takes a steady climb up to the central Mendips plateau before a dramatic drop into the Gorge at Cheddar.


The day starts with a short circle out of the main village of Shipham, passing over “The Gruffy”, a shambolic area of grassed over pits, mounds and troughs created during the 18th century, when this was a prospectors town with its own rush of miners looking for lead and rare minerals. This area was peppered with hundreds of small pits full of ‘groovers’ (as the miners were locally called), all looking for their fortune in everything from lead to copper and even small deposits of silver. The Mendip Way twists through the depressions and pits before heading into the Rowberrow Bottom Nature Reserve on an old sunken trackway – the Hollaway, lined with moss covered trees and lush ferns. Having reached the valley floor, the route follows a narrow sliver of pretty stream meadow, sandwiched between increasingly steep sided dense woods. This is still part of the Roman route which eventually climbs the side of the highest ridge on the Mendips at Black Down on a lofty and stony logging track that runs in its upper levels through cool and shady forest plantations.


There is an abrupt a change of scenery as you break out of the forest at Tynham’s Farm, the site of several Bronze Age round barrow burial chambers, onto the wide expansive Mendip Plateau. The skies and the views open in a wide space that feels free, uncluttered and expansive and you reach the highest point of the West Mendip Way Route at around 900ft.


The Mendip Way traverses across this high plateau passing occasional isolated farms and tumbled ruins. This is now caving country and you pass the Gruffy Nature Reserve, another area of shallow medieval mining pits and natural limestone swallets (sinkholes). GB Cave,  one of the most significant and best-preserved cave systems in the Mendips, lies in the centre of the reserve here and over 2 miles of passages and chambers lie hidden below where you walk. It’s well worth a quick look into the small reserve which, due to its sinkholes, has unusual plants and flowers, attracts many butterflies and provides a home for a tribe of badgers and the endangered Lesser Horseshoe Bat.


For something so immense, Cheddar Gorge still manages to hide away from you up here, giving no indication it’s so close. The signs are there however, and as you drop down off the plateau through Long Wood Nature Reserve, the stream in the valley suddenly vanishes underground into the upper cave system linked to Cheddar Gorge, leaving you to descend the first of several dry valleys. Long Wood is another ancient woodland which formed part of the holdings of the Carthusian monks of Witham priory in medieval times; its humid conditions encourage the growth of moisture loving plants, ferns and mosses.


After a few twists and turns on the descent down the valley, the sense of the gorge strengthens as The Mendip Way is joined by another dry valley from “Velvet Bottom.” The sides get steeper and more rugged above you, now wild gorse and bracken line the valley sides whilst the valley bottom becomes a haven for wildflowers and orchids. As you approach Black Rock Nature Reserve, a section of sheer quarry face leers up above tumbled boulder litter while hidden sets of disused lime kilns lurk in the undergrowth beyond. Black Rock provides good habitat for adders, and it is often possible to spot them basking near walls and rocky outcrops. The forest envelops you here, rich and dense, and the smell of wild garlic is almost overpowering - you have now reached the top of Cheddar Gorge.


At over 400ft deep and 3 miles in length this is Britain’s Grand Canyon, its largest and most impressive limestone gorge. Thick forest clings to a dramatic run of huge, weathered crags and twisted pinnacles that literally tower over the narrow dry chasm below - it’s a spectacular sight!


Formed at the end of the last ice age, the water from melting glaciers formed a river so powerful it bored through the limestone rock to carve out the steep cliffs you see today. Deep underground, the Cheddar Yeo River was busy creating the famous Cheddar caves which you will encounter at the foot of the gorge.


The Mendip Way meets the official circular Gorge Walk on the west side of the chasm, and after ascending flights of rough steps you get to top out on the lip of the fissure itself. The views are outstanding, over immense tree-covered cliffs and down soaring drops to the bottom of a gorge that is almost impossible to see from up here. At the far end of the cliffs, the Mendip Escarpment seems to just collapse abruptly in a massive crash to then spill onto the wide expanse of the Somerset Levels which stretch out far beyond you, allowing you to see beyond all the way to Exmoor and the Coast.


The gorge trail stays high is a haven for wildlife. Swarms of butterflies bob around the bracken and gorse, kestrels, buzzards and even peregrine falcons - the world's fastest bird - are in flight hunting overhead, while feral goats gaze down from the rocky outcrops on the edge of the cliffs. There are plenty of wild deer as well, though you need to be quiet to try and spot them, and both greater and lesser horseshoe bats roost here, often spotted as the light fades as they shoot in and out of the caves.


This is the home to the rarest of plants - Cheddar Pinks – a protected species that only grows in this spot anywhere in the world. Look out for the rock rose, and herbs such as thyme, wild basil, garlic and marjoram on the lower slopes - you will often smell them before you spot them! The cliffs get larger and clearer as you follow the rim towards the levels before you suddenly encounter that dramatic final drop to the bottom of the gorge, a heady steep rush of woodland switchbacks passing rocky outcrops clad in shady fir trees giving an almost alpine feel to your descent.


And then suddenly you are out in the bottom of the gorge. For the walker passing through it comes as shock after the lonely Mendip Plateau to suddenly find yourself arriving in the chaos and crowds of the Cheddar Gorge day visitors. Yet only someone with no sense of humour won’t find amusement here as you descend from solitude into a virtual Babylon of gift shops, cave attractions and general Stone Age orientated razzmatazz!


Rest up with refreshments and watch the circus for ½ hour and once you have had enough then it’s a great feeling to be able to just walk out and continue your way back to the tranquil Mendips!


If you are here for the night be assured that staying beyond the gorge in Cheddar village itself has a lot to offer and as the walkers arrive at the end of the day so the day trippers go, making it an ideal time to explore further.


Click Here for more information about overnight stays, outdoor activities and attractions at Cheddar.

bottom of page