Banwell Bone Caves

Banwell Caves


Useful Information

Location: Banwell, nr Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset BS29 6 NA. Zone B. Signposted off A371 to Weston.
Open: A few times a year.
Organized by Mendip Hills AONB, booking on eventbrite essential.
[2021]
Fee: Adults GBP 15, Children (0-16) free.
[2021]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: bring torch
Dimension:  
Guided tours:  
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Andrew Currant, Roger Jacobi (2001): A formal mammalian biostratigraphy for the Late Pleistocene of Britain, Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 20, Issues 16-17, October-November 2001, pp 1707-1716, European Quaternary Biostratigraphy
John Chapman (2014): The Story of Banwell Caves, available from John Haynes, The Caves, Banwell BS29 6NA. £5 plus £2 p&p.
D.J. Irwin, C Richard (1996): Banwell Bone and Stalactite Caves 1757-1826, Proc. Univ. Bristol Spelaeol. Soc. 1996, 20(3), pp 201-213. pdf
Address: Mendip Hills AONB Unit, Charterhouse Centre, Blagdon, Bristol BS40 7XR, Tel: +44-1761-462338.
Banwell Caves Heritage Group, John Haynes, The Caves, Banwell BS29 6NA.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1757 Stalactite Cave discovered by ochre miners, but soon forgotten.
JUN-1824 Stalactite Cave rediscovered and explored.
SEP-1824 Bone Cave discovered.
1827 ground above caves developed by the Bishop of Wells, cottage built.
1840 closed as a show cave.
1950s excavations by the Axbridge Caving Group and the Archaeological Society, Ruby Chamber discovered b< Percy Baker.
1963 notified as a geological and biological Site of Special Scientific Interest.
MAY-1977 pierced reindeer phalanx discovered unstratified.

Description

The Banwell Bone Caves were once more popular than nearby Cheddar Caves, which are now the most famous show caves of the area. The caves are located on private property on the western end of Banwell hill, a property once owned by Dr George Henry Law (1761-1845), Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells, and lord of the manor of Banwell. The vicar of Banwell, Dr Randolph, needed funds for a charity school which had just been opened in Banwell, and he had the idea to use the fees of guided tours into the cave for this purpose. The Bishop and the vicar, planning a show cave, saw the need of an easier access, the vertical shaft was too dangerous. A fissure lower down the hill, which ran in the direction of the cave, was explored, and after some excavations the fissure widened and opened into another cave. This one was even more extraordinary than the first one: it contained bones. The floor was covered by more than a metre of bones of prehistoric animals, so the cave was named Bone Cave. Bishop Law developed the site, near the entrance to the caves he erected some stones similar to a druidical circle and he laid out the park. The cottage, built in 1827, was used to accommodate distinguished guests. The discovery became a national sensation, mainly because of the skull of a great cave lion, which was said to be the best specimen ever found in Britain. As typical for the era the bones were sorted and stacked neatly against the wall of the cave.

The first cave, the Stalactite Cave, was discovered in 1757 by ochre miners. They actually did not know what to do with it, but it was examined by the geologist Reverend Alexander Calcott (1725-1779). But the entrance became blocked for some reason, probably a collapse of the entrance shaft, or it was closed intentionally. Little is actually known from this early period. The re-discovery is traditionally credited to William Beard, thats how the story is told by John Rutter in 1829 and by William Phelps in 1836. But both descriptions are based on a visit of the cave and the story was actually told by William Beard himself, who guided them. However, here is the official story:

The retired farmer William Beard from Banwell was self-educated and had read about the discovery of prehistoric animals' remains in various parts of Great Britain. It was the era of Professor Buckland from Oxford, who talked about the bones of extinct animals which were used to explore the story of life on Earth. At this time, the general theory about bones in caves was that they were of diluvial origin, meaning they were the result of the flood described in the Bible. Buckland now had the idea that the bones could be the result of natural processes and tell us about the situation many thousand years ago.

At that time the area was mined for lead and other resources on various locations. William Beard had heard lead-miners talking of a huge cavern they had struck on Banwell hill, and guessed it could be of importance. John Webb, an old miner, showed him the spot where the shaft had been sunk many years before. William Beard and the miner Colman removed some 35 m of debris and discovered a natural cave. The newly discovered cave was a single huge chamber, 35 m long, 10 m high and 20 m wide. It contained fine speleothems, stalactites and stalagmites, with a floor of huge rocks covered by stalagmites, which was called Stalactite Cave.

When the Bishop and Vicar saw the problem of the dangerous entrance, William Beard suggested to build a horizontal tunnel into the cave. The accidental discovery of the Bone Cave fulfilled his original dream of discovering bones, as described by Professor Buckland. The finest specimens were removed by Beard who became the official guide. He received the parties when they arrived, guided them through Bone Cavern explaining how the discovery was made. Then he proceeded to the Stalactite Cavern which was reached down a crude flight of steps. Highlight was a huge stalagmite known as The Bishop's Chair, which resembled the ancient stone crowning chair at Winchester Cathedral. Returning from the cave the parties rested at the summer house, then walked across the hill to Winthill, to the cottage of Beard. Here he had collections of speleothems and bones. The massive cabinets also contained bones from the Hutton, Sandford and Uphill caves, which Beard had also explored.

After the discovery of the caves, Beard read every line available about palaeontology. He became remarkably informed and so after some time the Bishop started to call him Professor. This title stuck, although Beard never visited an university. Beard became almost a national personality, obviously because he guided many distinguished visitors into the caves.

The legend of Professor Beard was retold numerous times, but in 1996 D J Irwin and C Richard published an article which they re-examined the story with previously unpublished material. A letter written by an early visitor who was obviously not guided by Beard tells a completely different story. The Reverend David Williams (1792-1850) was Rector of Bleadon and Kingston Seymour. In 1829 he wrote a letter to Rutter which told a different story. A considerable quantity of first hand material from the years 1824 to 1826 was discovered and tells a different story.

The earliest notes of mining at Banwell Hill are from 1730. The miners frequently found small caves, Banwell Stalactite Cave was the biggest of them. On 10-JUN-1757 Catcott came to Banwell, when he traveled to Bristol after the exploration of Hutton Cave. He mentions that he was told about a recently discovered stalactite cave, but he did not visit it. That's the basis of the official discovery date. But as many caves were discovered by the miners it is actually not known if this really was the Stalactite Cave known today.

In the 1820s the cave had been almost forgotten, stories of a cavern as big as the church were told. Randolph had the idea to find the lost cave and open it as a show cave, and was supported by the Bishop. But on 21-APR-1824 the Bishop died and George Henry Law was enthroned a month later. Randolph employed two miners, John Webb and Isaac Colman, who were paid 1£ for one week of work. They did not discover the cave though, but returned a little later to search for exploitable minerals, and after some more digging broke through. The 6 m deep shaft was equipped with wooden ladders, but was considered too dangerous for female visitors. Again the two miners were employed by Randolph to dig an entrance tunnel and discovered Bone Cave. The miners actually called it Bone House. Beard mentioned in his own diary the discovery of the cave, but not that he was involved in any way. But he was involved in the exploration of the Bone Cave, he was "engaged" in an unpaid managerial capacity, . Between 1824 and 1826 under his direction workmen cleared unwanted debris, sorted bones and made the entrance more comfortable. The bones were dragged out in baskets, the floor leveled, and spoil to the depth of 'eight or ten feet' was removed.

The era of the Banwell show cave ended rather soon, in 1840. Since then it was some years open after appointment for groups, closed completely, or open on special open days. For several years it was managed by the Banwell Caves Heritage Group, but the group seems to have dissolved. At the moment the cave is Mendip Hills AONB Unit who again offer visits on certain days during the summer, the days are published on their website and participants must book online. Currently, due to Covid, there are no tours at all.