14 February 2006





























































The WoS St. Valentine's Day Cheese Patrol

Valentine's Day is horrible. If you don't have a special someone in your life, you feel like a lonely, unwanted, unlovable leper. (Which you probably do the rest of the time as well, but it seems extra-specially cruel for everyone to draw attention to the fact in the gloom of midwinter.) If there's a special someone but they're not in your life yet, you feel obliged to rush into drastic action that you might not really be ready to take, risking ruining the whole thing. If you're in a relationship that isn't going as well as it might be, the pressure to suddenly make everything magically okay might be enough to tear it apart once and for all.

And even if you're living in perfect romantic bliss with your true soulmate, you've got nothing to gain from a special day devoted to love (you're already IN love, after all), and everything to lose if your idea of a cosy evening in front of the fireside with a bottle of wine and the phone unplugged disastrously fails to match up to her idea of diamond jewellery and a weekend in a five-star hotel in Paris with a proposal at the end of it.

So what's to be done about it all? WoS' advice is this: go out and buy some cheese.

Click the picture to find out what's for sale.

World Of Stuart's heritage-rich geographical location spoils would-be tourist-trippers for choice. As well as the many delights of Bath itself, a veritable cornucopia of natural and un-natural marvels can be found within less than an hour's drive. From the charmingly traditional English seaside pleasures of Weston-super-Mare to the mystical hippy Meccas of Stonehenge and Glastonbury, from the eerie ghost village of Imber to the architectural majesty of the Severn Bridges and the modern wonder that is the Swindon roundabout system, there's a near-neverending range of diversions available for the listless. Today, however, our mission is to leave the world of tacky, sentimental consumerism behind us and soak up the true romance that is a WoS Day Out. Today's destination: the Cheddar Gorge

Click the pic to see the other side of the lake.

Like most destinations in the vicinity of Bath, Cheddar lies at the other end of a quite picturesque route through several small, clotted-cream-fudge-box English villages. You even get to cross the odd little causeway over Chew Valley Lake, on which numerous vehicles were parked even on a Tuesday morning in mid-February, enjoying the view and feeding the swans which congregate on the weir by the barriers. And as with all little English villages populated by local people, there's the occasional roadside eye-catcher to keep drivers alert.

Do you just leave the 20p on the pavement? Click for a much nicer picture.

Cheddar itself is actually quite out of the way, and necessitates an eventual departure from the picture-book Albion of the A39 and travelling a few narrow and bumpy B-roads through bleak and windswept scrubby farmland. The first one you take almost immediately leaves the evocatively-named and coach-party-friendly county of BANES behind and delivers you, by way of a steep, muddy one-track road up a hill, into the primeval rural wilds of deepest, darkest Somerset. If you hear banjo music, step on the gas.

Click to find out what thrilled Her Majesty.

After a long climb to the county line, the road begins an extremely gradual descent into the bowels of the Earth. Initially driving down a barely-perceptible incline across an open, empty plain, you scarcely notice the scenery slowly closing in, claustrophobically rising higher and higher on either side of you, like those parts of the London tube system where the occasional overground station is swiftly, jealously swallowed up into the darkness once again. As your horizon shrinks, the road also changes from a straight line to a corkscrew twist, barely going more than 20 yards without a dramatic swerve through at least 60 degrees, first one way then the other. And then you start seeing goats.

Click for a scary close-up of the Goat Of Satan.

You know you're a long way from the city when you find yourself suddenly having to dodge hoofed animals wandering unworriedly along public highways. Until this point your reporter had been treating the road rather like a rally track - the sort that could have been deliberately designed with a mid-engined, real-wheel-drive ex-racing car with perfect weight distribution like the MX-5 in mind - but you don't want to go smearing innocent ruminants all over the tarmac, so it was gentle pootling from here on in. (Oddly, the beasts seem a lot more scared of people than of several tons of fast-moving metal. They don't bother a horn about even the heaviest and noisiest traffic passing within inches of their matted fur, but when you get out to take a picture, they scamper off up near-vertical hillsides as if they've had bad experiences with two-legged mammals before...)

Click for full-screen dramatic powersliding action as our hero overcooks a bend.

By this point, though, you know you're already in a gorge. Sheer rockfaces scores of metres high tower above you, the road reduced to chicanes just six or seven feet wide at some points, and forming one seemingly never-ending S-bend. Only the steadily-growing stream of oncoming traffic offers any indication that you might be in the vicinity of human civilisation. But then, without any further warning, a succession of new turns all open out to great big clearings marked with parking bays, and you've arrived.

A nearly-panoramic view of twisty road fun. Click for a comforting sign.

I'd been to Cheddar Gorge once before, many years ago, so I vaguely remembered its weird, 1960s kind of feel (though curiously, in my mind everything was in a mirror image of where it turned out to really be, things on the left side actually being on the right and vice versa). It's most striking as you enter the tourist part of the gorge, where at one end a ski-lodgey kind of building nestles snugly against the cliff-face, providing a shop, cafe and entrance to one of Cheddar's several cave systems. (Which, it being a nice sunny day, I didn't fancy venturing into.) The rest of the little town doesn't stick with this vaguely European architectural style, but what it does instead is rewardingly bizarre all the same.

This always makes me think of Connery-era Bond set in the Alps. Click for mountaineer action.

In fact, there are hardly two buildings in the whole of the "resort" area that appear to have been built in the same century. There's Tudor, mock-Tudor, Victorian, Wild West, classic Middle Ages farmhouses and barns, original drystone cottages, early-1970s brutalist... you name it, there's some of it here somewhere. The overall impression is random, amateurish, higgledy-piggledy and (obviously, therefore) totally charming. You get the feeling (rightly or wrongly) that the tourist attractions grew out bit-by-bit from the village, rather than the other way around, which is of course the way it should be in any decent and proper world.

How often do you see pink, yellow and orange houses all in one street? Click for pink-o-zoom.

Considering the time of year, the place is pretty bustling. All the car parks inside the village are full (except for a single space that your correspondent flukily manages to snag because the paint has faded and nobody else has actually noticed that it's a marked-out spot rather than a through-way, thereby dodging all the other bays which, in that hideously small-minded way so common here, are pay-and-display), and there are plenty of individual trippers, family groups and coach parties milling around the various attractions. Unusually for an English tourist destination in February, nearly everything is open, and doing brisk business.


A charming riverside tea-shop. Click to find out where they want you to eat your snack treats.

There's plenty to do in Cheddar Gorge, although you can't even climb up to the top of the gorge itself without paying for a ticket. Oddly, for what's ostensibly essentially a natural attraction, you can't get any sense of it just from being in the general location. If you don't cough up the cash, you could almost be in practically any little middle-of-nowhere slice of scenic English countryside, albeit one with an unusually high and vertical forested hill along one side (much of the main part isn't actually flanked by cliffs) and a weirdly artificial-looking river which is wide but very shallow and full of dense, shrubby plantlife, like someone's lawn just got flooded. But packed into the half-mile or so of the main street are enough diversions to keep even a skinflint amused for a good couple of hours.

Click to discover the price of heritage.

This reporter's favourite, of course, was the Cheddar Sweet Kitchen, where lucky visitors are afforded the opportunity to watch The Sweetmaker at work. This jolly chap toils away every half-hour or so in a cramped rock-making room so violently afire with eye-watering essence of peppermint oil that if you unleashed it on an army it'd probably be a war crime. I actually suspect that "The Sweetmaker" (portrayed as a much-loved, time-served veteran fixture of the confectionery business) is replaced every three or four weeks with an identically avuncular fellow hired from a special agency, each previous one having been blinded by the fumes, and probably suffering from badly scarred and burned lungs to boot.

Click to watch The Sweetmaker in hot uncensored action.

Gaming fans will also find plenty of entertainment in Cheddar. There's a not-all-that-crazy crazy golf course, accessed through a small, dark shed-like building which also squeezes a table hockey game and a prize quiz machine into its tiny space for optimum revenue-stream maximisation potential. And in another small, dark shed-like building at the other end of the village is the splendid Model Motor Racing Circuit, where several Scalextric-style slot racing tracks can be played for 20p a go, boasting advanced technical features like CCTV cameras which show you where your car is while it's going through a tunnel. Sadly, your reporter was the only customer, and bereft of opposition there didn't seem a lot of point.

Click to see the unusual trivia machine in the crazy golf office. Which I won a fiver on.

Toys are a popular recurring theme, too. There's a toy museum, a little toymaking factory and countless toy and model shops, most of them selling things your reporter had never seen anywhere else - dauntingly massive ranges of plaster Camberwick Green figurines, enormous comedy fire-engine sculptures and a "Magic Teacher" boardgame toy with a disturbingly shallow pool of expertise. Even in today's much-maligned British education system, WoS hopes that the average teacher has more than 120 answers at their disposal.

Click to answer the question "Who Is Saving Cheddar Gorge?"

But of course, there's one word above all that leaps into your mind when you hear the name of Cheddar, and that word is "cheese". (NB If the word that leaps into your mind is not "cheese", you are deeply abnormal and may pose a danger to society. Please hand yourself in at the nearest police station for indefinite detention as a suspected terrorist.) And boy, if you're looking for cheese have YOU ever come to the right place!

Click to find out what you can try before you buy at John's.

Click to see a machine bearing a notice I often think should be attached to me.

In Cheddar, one name is synonymous with honey - Cheese And Cider Barn. Click for food news!

Click for more cheese-purchasing options.

There's more cheese around here than you could shake a Jacob's Cream Cracker at, and after extensive sampling, your reporter elected to take home some genuine Cheddar-made Cheddar "With A Slosh Of Port", despite having always been under the impression that the Slosh was a kind of dance performed by drunk aunties at wedding anniversary parties. And very nice the cheese is too, as you might reasonably hope it would be at around 14 a kilo. With tastebuds enlivened by this sudden onslaught of sensation and with lunchtime approaching, it seemed like the ideal juncture to explore some of the town's many reasonably-priced snacking outlets in search of some more substantial sustenance.

Click for a slightly more upmarket tea station.

Click for two kinds of people you wouldn't expect to care about slipping over in the loos.

Click the pics for still more enticing and/or romantic snack treats.

Click to discover how many kinds of people you can thank with inexpensive fudge.

Some mediocre chips, strong Sweetmaker rock and extremely nice ice-cream later, your intrepid adventurer had finally, after half a day, more or less exhausted Cheddar's potential for thrills. (That is to say, thrills you didn't have to pay to get into. Those less tightfisted than your scribe could entertain themselves for several more hours before running out of neat stuff to do.) So it was time to have one last scout around for photo-opportunities, before heading for home in the certain knowledge that the scarcely-signposted rural highways of England would surely throw a few navigational curve balls and send your explorer down dead ends, round in circles and on a few wild goose chases before eventually delivering him home via a route unintentionally but entirely dissimilar to the one he'd arrived by.

Click to find out what the excellent sign on the left advertises.

Click to find out a surprising thing that lions are apparently doing.

Click to climb these rocks and investigate the cave!

Click to find out which mental state you should NOT be in before opening this valve.

Should you ever have the misfortune to find yourself inescapably marooned in Somerset, Cheddar is a great day out. It's in the slightly - but endearingly - ramshackle tradition of all the best British tourist attractions, just a touch neglected but quietly thriving, a million miles away from showier, tackier resorts that'll have crumbled to rusting wastelands long before this casual, narrow little masterpiece of  nature stops drawing crowds, even on chilly February mornings. And certainly, on this particular day, as the rest of the country tried frenziedly to flog truckloads of overpriced pseudo-romantic tat to itself, a few peaceful hours there served as a timely reminder to this weary reporter of how it's often in the most unlikely places that you can find something truly worth loving.

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