Just a few strides into a late summer walk from Charterhouse in the heart of the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) to Black Down, its highest point, and confusion has already descended. According to my companions, the land we're walking on is "gruffy ground dotted with the odd buddle pit". This, I'm told, is typical of the Mendips landscape. Before me lies green pasture divided by dry stone walls. Here and there, the gently rolling pastureland is disrupted by mounds, channels and plateaus of varying sizes, but gruffy ground and buddle pits? What on Earth are they talking about?
The physical landscape of the Mendip Hills as it is today is very much a living, working record of human activity and history. The lumps, bumps, channels and depressions, not to mention the rocks that have been meticulously slotted into position within the dry stone walls, have a great deal to say about the history of this part of England a history that has been largely based upon mining, farming and, more recently, tourism.
The underlying geology has played an enormous role, not only in shaping the topography of the region, but also in the way in which the land has been used.
Over millions of years, weathering of the region's limestone bedrock has formed the gorges, caves and plateaus that can be seen today. The more resistant sandstone and igneous rocks that have been left behind form the higher grounds, including 325-metre Black Down. In some areas, the limestone has become mineralised to form reserves of lead and zinc. Where you find lead, you also find silver, and it's these two resources that are thought to have attracted the Romans to the Mendips in around 43 AD, and have subsequently had the greatest impact on the region's character.
Mike Chipperfield, a volunteer warden and admirer of the Mendip Hills AONB for more than 30 years, explains that one of the small plateaus visible near Charterhouse is actually the remains of a military fort built to control the lead production. "This is a most fascinating place," he says. "It's mostly famed for the huge quantities of lead that have been produced. The Romans knew that lead was here, and within six years of them landing here, they were digging it up. We know this because lead ingots have been found in the area."
The Romans, however, weren't the first to inhabit the region. Evidence of very early human activity has been discovered in the region's caves and rock shelters. In some cases, that evidence has been very well preserved, having been washed into the caves by floods and then buried by silt. The caves at Wookey Hole and Cheddar Gorge have yielded evidence of human activity from between 10,000 BC and 8,500 BC, and Britain's oldest complete skeleton the famous Cheddar Man, which dates back to 7,150 BC--was found in Goughs Cave in 1903.
Links to the past abound in the Mendips, even in the beautifully forested Nether Wood. There, the remains of a furnace and flues used for lead mining up until the late Victorian era can still clearly be seen, despite the softening of their edges as they're gradually drawn back to nature.
After the lead mining industry had declined at the end of the 19th century, the area played a vital role in the Second World War. According to Chipperfield, the disused flues at Nether Wood were used as a hiding place for important or sensitive documents.
With hindsight, this may not have been the best idea, considering that at nearby Black Down, a bombing decoy made to look like a city from the air had been constructed. The idea was for the decoy--a network of lights to simulate street lights--to entice enemy aircraft to drop their bombs on this remote stretch of land instead of on densely populated areas (it wasn't successful). In addition, a top secret underground resistance army was stationed here in 1940, when an invasion seemed likely (see Somerset's war efforts).
Today, tourism and farming have replaced mining as the cornerstones of the local economy. …