The History of Cheddar

Cheddar lies partly on the dry limestone uplands of Mendip, and partly on the low, wet clays of the Cheddar Valley. The village itself sits on a low terrace at the foot of the hills, and at the entrance to Cheddar Gorge, from which the river Yeo springs. The slopes of the hills around Cheddar village still retain large areas of ancient woodlands, descending from the time that trees re-colonised Britain after the ice ages.

The parish has been occupied by man for 100,000 years, as the finding of a flint hand-axe in New Road in 1987 showed.

Finds of human skeletons and flint tools of 10-12,000 years ago in caves in Cheddar Gorge are our earliest evidence of human remains and settlements, but scatters of flint and stone tools across the fields on Mendip show where later prehistoric peoples settled. The earthen circle of the Gorsey Bigbury henge at the top of Cheddar Gorge, and the later round mounds of Bronze Age barrows show where they buried their dead. In the low light of morning, the fields of later prehistoric peoples can be seen everywhere on the south-facing slopes of the Mendip hills, above the Cheddar to Wells road.

A large building (possibly a villa) stood somewhere near the site of Cheddar church in Roman times, while many other Roman farms have been found in other parts of the parish, revealed by the spreads of pottery left after the ploughing of their long-abandoned sites. Other Roman finds in the village imply that Cheddar may have been a small settlement even this long ago.

Cheddars name is probably from an old Celtic word meaning a bag or pouch, and referring to Cheddar Gorge; this great landmark can be seen from many miles away. It is first recorded in the will of King Alfred the Great, in about 880 AD, when it was called Ceodre. In this document, the king referred to the community at Cheddar, which was probably a religious community, as Cheddars church was later described as a minster, an important lay and religious regional centre.

The village was also the centre of a medieval forest; not a tree filled landscape, but an are in which the king had hunting interests, and where a special set of laws prevailed, to protect the game the king took for his own, and to feed the Royal household when it came to Cheddar. A story in the medieval Life of St Dunstan claimed that King Edmund narrowly escaped falling into Cheddar Gorge while hunting in 941. The so-called palace (actually a grand wooden kings hall and farm - the layout of its buildings can be seen in the Kings of Wessex school, in the village was the kings hunting lodge when he came to Cheddar.

At the time of Domesday Book in 1086, Cheddar was largely owned by the crown, but in the later medieval period, there were as many as six separate small manors, or estates, within the parish, owned by such worthies as the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and by powerful families. such as the Berkeleys and de Cheddres. The manor house of the de Cheddres, later known as Hannam Manor, stands near the Kings of Wessex school, and still has a fine 14th century timber roof.

Each manor had at least one mill on the river Yeo that runs from the rocks in Cheddar Gorge; as late as the 18th century; there were fifteen mills on the river within a mile of its head. Initially for the purpose of grinding corn, they later became cloth mills, paper-mills, and in the late 19th century, even a shirt factory. Some of these buildings survive much altered today.

Cheddar was generally a peaceful agricultural village and thrived during the prosperous years of the l3th century, when its cheese was already famous. In the more troubled years of the early 14th century, when farming was poorer and famine common in England, the great landowners, among them the abbot of Glastonbury and the bishop of Bath and Wells, embarked on huge and ambitious drainage schemes to make the wet Cheddar valley blossom; they straightened rivers, drained the moors and built bridges, although the lines of the old winding rivers they replaced can still be seen today.

Cheddar's church of St Andrew, built over and above the ruins of the great Roman building, was important as a minster before the Norman Conquest, but only one or two stones now visible in its structure are as early as the l2th century. The majority of the fabric visible today is late l4th century, with a fine 15th century tower. Another chapel, dedicated to St Columbanus, and now a ruined shell of a building close to the Kings of Wessex school, was the chapel of the royal palace, perhaps originally built in the 10th century. Its site was lost for many years, and drawings in the 19th century show it as a pair of cottages, complete with smoking chimneys'.

A stone 15th century market cross stands at the meeting of three roads in the village, where the twice yearly fairs and weekly markets were held for centuries.

After the Reformation in the middle of the l6th century, the Thynne family; ancestors of the present Lord Bath, became the Lords of the Manor of Cheddar Episcopi, the largest manor, which had formerly been the bishops; the Bath Arms, in Cheddar, is named in honour of this great land owning family.

Visitors to Cheddar over the centuries have been impressed by its Gorge and caves; in the l2th century. Henry of Huntingdon described the caves with awe as one of the wonders of Britain; Daniel Defoe was more impressed in the 18th century by its fine cows and its cheese; the philanthropist Hannah More in 1789 by the poverty and illiteracy of its people.

The caves of Cheddar Gorge seen today were discovered by the Coxes and Goughs in the l9th century, and it was during the digging and blasting that opened Goughs Cave to the light of day, that the remains of the now famous Cheddar man were found. engrave.gif (37101 bytes)

The caves and Gorge, and the strawberry industry brought good fortune and the railway to Cheddar in the middle of the l9th century; although little now remains to be seen of the railway apart from the fine station buildings, the prosperity remains.

Vince Russett South West Archaeological Services