Visit to Banwell Bone Caves

On 8 August a group of NEAT members and friends visited Banwell Bone Caves. Having had our appetites whetted by the video shown at our last AGM, we decided to see the caves for ourselves. We were welcomed by John Haynes, and Yvonne and Ron Sargeant, and then taken to the original part of the house built by Bishop Law where we were shown the introductory film. After this we were guided to the Bone Caves themselves by John Chapman who explained how the caves had been cleared and showed us the stacks of bones that had been arranged by William Beard.

The caves are lit partly by electric light, but mainly by candles, recreating the atmosphere encountered by the original explorers in the 1820’s. The rubble of later excavations has been removed from the caves and the present floor is the same level as that revealed by the first excavation. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the bone deposits continue several metres below this level. In the roof of the cave is a fissure which connects with the surface and could be the entrance through which the bones were washed in to the cave, during an interglacial period.

One of the bone stacks

The bones appear to have been washed into the caves through a fissure in the roof as the result of glacial melt waters over a period of many years. The fauna represented is mainly that of bison and reindeer, the former being the dominant species found in the caves. Other animal bones found come from a very large brown bear and from wolves. The collection is so highly regarded scientifically that it is now designated the Banwell Bone Cave Mammal-Assemblage Zone and is a type recognised across Britain as of Early Devensian age, about 75,000 years ago. 

NEAT in the Bone Cave

Having had a good look at the caves we returned to the surface where John showed us the Druids Grotto, the first of several follies built by Bishop Law in 1834. The Bone Caves were discovered pre-Darwin’s evolutionary theories, and the bishop considered that the bones were irrefutable evidence of the biblical flood. As he wanted to show how this would have destroyed the pagan world, he used the druids as an example of that pre-Christian society swept away by the flood.

The Druids Grotto

From the grotto we walked uphill past the Osteoicon, built to show some of the bones, but now undergoing rebuilding. Further on, we arrived at the Pebble Summerhouse which has been recently restored with the help of NEAT member, Peter Scott. The view from the summerhouse towards the Bristol Channel is quite spectacular. Behind the summerhouse is a large wall constructed of the stones removed from the Bone Caves in the nineteenth century.

The President framed at the Pebble Summerhouse

We then walked east along The Carriageway which leads to the Banwell Tower. On the way we passed the remains of the Gazebo, another summerhouse, now surrounded by trees planted in modern times. Before the planting, the view would have been open to the north, towards Banwell Moor, Clevedon and the Welsh mountains.

The remains of the Gazebo

The 50 ft. high Banwell Tower was built in 1840 by Bishop Law on an artificial mound and has been restored by the Banwell Caves Heritage Group. A spiral staircase leads to the top of the tower, from where you can get far-reaching views of the local area and across the Channel. Again, the vista would have been greater before the surrounding trees were planted.

Banwell Tower

Crook Peak from the Tower

After climbing the Tower, we returned to the House, stopping off to see the original entrance to the stalactite cave, now only accessible to experienced cavers. Our visit concluded with a cream tea on the Terrace and a chance to talk to our hosts and learn more about the area.

I would like to thank John Haynes, Ron and Yvonne, and John Chapman for their hospitality and a very informative afternoon. Many thanks also to Peter Scott who liaised with our hosts and arranged the visit.

For further information about the Bone Caves see

All photos © Dave Sowdon, 2010.

See The Gallery for a selection of images from our visit.

Dave Sowdon, 18.8.10