Springs and wells of Mendip
THE rain which falls on the Mendip Hills does not, in general, stay for very long on the surface. It seeps underground, or sinks into the numerous swallets which are to be found along the sandstone – limestone boundary. This water is responsible for carving out Mendip’s caves and then decorating them With PHILIP with calcite formations. Eventually, the water HENDY reappears at the foot of the hills as magnificent resurgences such as at Wookey Hole, down to small springs and seepages. The value of this water was recognised as soon as people began to settle in the area and all the villages and settlements at the foot of the hills are centred around a spring. Few of these can be seen today in their natural state, for they have almost all been capped, to preserve the purity of the water. Wookey Hole is perhaps the most magnificent, where the River Axe flows into daylight from a wide arch at the foot of the conglomerate cliff. Worthy of a visit is St. Aldhelm’s Holy Well at Doulting. Here the River Sheppey flows from two small medieval arches set in the rock, then through a wall to fill a stone trough. The overflow runs down to Shepton Mallet, while to the side there is a small chamber with the remains of the waterwheel which once pumped water up to the village. As well as providing drinking water, the springs were also used to drive waterwheels to provide power for mills. It is said that the Cheddar Yeo, which rises in various places in the Gorge below Gough’s Cave, once had 18 mills along its course. As well as flour, the mills produced gunpowder, paper, cotton and snuff. Below St. Dunstan’s Well at Stoke St. Michael can be seen the shells of mill buildings, while leats and more ruins lie in Ashwick Grove downstream of the three capped risings. There were also mills at Rickford, Banwell and Wells. The powerful springs of Wells gave the city its name, of course, and the water was used to feed the moat of the Bishop’s Palace before flowing into the city for more mundane purposes. The water seen in the fountain in Market Place, which then flows down the St. Aldhelm’s Well gutters, is only a small amount of the total volume. Most of the flow runs through a network of subterranean conduits. Wookey Hole, of course, is known for its paper mill although papermaking at the caves ceased some years ago. Although it is known that many of the streams which rise at the foot of the hills run through cave
systems, it is unusual on Mendip to be able to penetrate upstream. Most of the water flows through impenetrable cracks, or massive boulder chokes, making entry impossible. Cavers are also aware that most of the risings are used for water supply purposes, which in itself puts them off-limits. At Cheddar and Wookey Hole, of course, there are large caves which allow access to the inner course of the river. At Wookey, the showcave allows visitors to visit six flooded chambers, although divers have discovered many more. A shaft leading to the subterranean river can be seen in the Skeleton Pit in Gough’s Cave, and cavers can see the river farther up in Lloyd Hall. Beyond this point, the cave is for divers only. Diggers have on occasion, over the years, dug the resurgences at Ashwick Grove which are no longer used for public water supply. The hope is to find a cave system which may be similar to the magnificent caves in Fairy Cave Quarry which lie above and behind St. Dunstan’s Well nearby. The rising at Ludwell Cave, near Hutton, was dived in 1951 to find a small chamber, which was later dug into by the boys of the Sidcot School Speleological Society. Another small chamber was found, but there was no prospect of going any further. Today, the mills have gone and the risings have been capped, even though many are no longer used for a public water supply. The Cheddar Yeo is used to fill Cheddar (or Axbridge) Reservoir. This is to save water flowing at its peak during the winter, when demand is lowest, for use during the summer. Most of this water is pumped to Bristol, and demand is so great that another reservoir is planned nearby. Blagdon Lake stores excess winter water from the Rickford and Langford areas, while Chew Valley Lake dams the water of the River Chew, which rises at Chewton Mendip. The first of the schemes to use Mendip water to supply Bristol began in the mid 18th century, when a ‘Line of Works’ was built by the Bristol Waterworks Company. A series of pipes and tunnels was built to collect water from the area between Chewton Mendip and the Harptrees and take it to Barrow reservoirs beside the A38 south of Bristol. The cast iron aqueduct can be seen in East Harptree Combe, where it is still in use. One of the most picturesque risings is at Dulcote, where water from a spring on the hillside is piped to a stone fountain surrounded by a pool. The pressure of the water results in jets of water which after heavy rain can be thrown several feet into the air. There is a small trough set in a nearby wall, to allow animals to drink.
Phil is a member of Wessex Cave Club and has been caving for the last 44 years. Still active, his main interest is in digging to try to find new caves. He has published a caving cartoon book and collaborated on the recently-published Swildon’s Hole – 100 Years of Exploration.
MENDIP TIMES • APRIL 2013 • PAGE 63
Photography by Phil Hendy
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Celebrating life on the Mendips and surrounding areas