Let me out

It does do, when you have charged a wallet-throbbing amount of money for a tourist attraction entrance fee, to let your victims out at the end.

Wookey Hole Caves, nestled in Somerset, are spectacular. British cave-diving began here. A Romano-British cemetery nestles in the fourth chamber. It was our treat on the long drive home from Cornwall.

But a survey of the entrance tariff was enough to make one blanche. I gulped. No turning back now.

Call me old-fashioned, but geological wonders demand, do they not, a certain subterranean theme to the attraction?

Undeterred by convention, it was pirate-themed crazy golf which greeted us as we ambled to the restaurant to pick up sandwiches. Lifesize Jack-Sparrow-alikes loomed over ships and tiny greens with holes in them, and all for only £3 a go. Tourists were happily indulging in this top attraction. I scowled and stomped past.

Heading underground,we could hear the terrified toddlers wailing from the door. We could not hear the guide over their little voices, though. Clearly the Mums were not for turning, though. “It’s all right”, one of them said cheerily, “I’ll bribe him with food.”

The caves were lit and staged with all the aplomb of a fairground attraction. To help our feeble imaginations there were props: a pile of stage-bones to represent the unfortunate old woman who lived in the caves with her two goats; a set of bang-up-to-date cave paintings painted, if my guide was to be believed, by a chap in Bristol a couple of years ago.

The natural beauty was astounding. Azure pools, rock formations redolent of the Alien films, cavernous cathedrals and plummeting subterranean canyons. It needed no embellishment.

Still, those West Country tourism magnates must give us our money’s worth. All was dark in a huge cavern we accessed by a narrow bridge and walkway, until the guide triumphantly slapped a big red button.His charges jumped violently. A robustly distorted  version of Rule Britannia began blaring out and lights flooded the 100-foot-high cavern. The guide whistled cheerily along.

We got Rule Britannia twice: once for the people at the back.

We trooped past cheddar cheese ageing in a vault, and wine ageing in a vault, and then the guide let us out.

Except that he didn’t.

We were caught in a labrynth of questionable West Country tourism. We passed a plastic gorilla as tall as a house and several enormous dinosaurs. And a family of four cavepeople without heads for joke-photo purposes. We trailed past an unsettling fairground museum. Where, oh where was the exit?

There was a soft play area where toddlers rid themselves of their cave terror by running up and down padded playstuff. We negotiated a hall of mirrors by following everyone else, because it said it was the only way out.

There there were the slot machines. Vast acres of them, it seemed, vintage and modern, presented with little chronology but a canny knowledge that 90 per cent of the population would lose more of their hard-earned cash here.

I had had enough.

I walked up to a money changing booth. “I need to get out,” I announced, with a flustered face which thinly veiled some as yet undefined threat. “Now.”

I will say this: the attendants were flawlessly polite.

They had hidden the exit, of course, using that old showman’s chestnut, misdirection. The exit was tucked away from the main path, so most of us wandered off on another path.

We got out and fled without complaint, as if this labrynth might draw you back in given half a chance.

Don’t look back, they said to Orpheus once long ago.

We didn’t.

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65 thoughts on “Let me out

  1. Ooo-er, since when did Wookey Hole turn into Blackpool? The witch of Wookey wouldn’t have been seen dead wearing a “kiss-me-quick” hat.

    Shame isn’t it? I visited as a kid when ‘attractions’ weren’t really see outside Blackpool. It was simply a Hole. We were there for all of half an hour. 😉

    1. Most of the time we seem to get lucky, Roger, like Cotehele yesterday. But every now and then we stumble into a place where everyone else goes. You’d have thought we would have learned to read the signs by now.

  2. This made me feel very disconsolate. The barbarians are not just at the gates, they’re manning the turnstyles and importing their junk for us to gawp at in our own natural heritage.

    1. I know, Chris: there should be a scheme to compulsorily purchase national treasures and run them the way they should be run. I felt like lecturing someone about it all the way through but couldn’t find any people, only attractions….

  3. The times that I have driven passed Wookey Hole and thought we must go there!!! I am shocked that they should despoil such a wonderful natural asset.
    Let me suggest the Blue John Caverns in Derbyshire for your next little foray into the bowls of the earth.

  4. After diving in caves and swimming through underground rivers, I don’t think that I would find this very much fun. The only thing that compares to it in agony is the ride at Disney World called “It’s a Small World”. There you are trapped in endless sing song and mini-munchkins crying because they hate it too and the ride is interminably slow and seems to never end.

  5. Your caves sounded interesting (and thanks for the image) until the bait and switch ending. I definitely would have demanded “let me out of here now” too. Like Lou Mello, I also thought of Disney’s tortuous “It’s a Small World” ride. I rode it 15 years ago in Anaheim — the location of the first Disneyland when my niece was pushing three. She was in her bliss and then it lets out in the gift shop. Real clever. Naturally, she wanted every doll in the shop and to do that ride again. We did the ride. I wanted to kill myself, but I was told by a couple with their son sitting behind us (the second time) that we were lucky. Their little boy had demanded to see it a dozen times. So much for parental control.

  6. What a pity that, once again, the moneychangers have gotten the upper hand… Folks cannot be content to let a natural wonder speak for itself if there’s a chance to turn a nickel from it. 😦

    I’m not sure I would have been so polite as to thinly veil my feelings about it either!

    1. What I really needed was to sneak away from the rest and see it for myself, Andra. Do you know, they persisted in defaming Alexander Pope? There’s an old piece of mischief saying Pope took a group of musketeers down there and shot off all the stalactites for his grotto in Twickenham; but there’s no proof he ever went near the caves. The caves owner issued a public ‘pardon’ a few years ago, but they were still touting this juicy little bit of defamation on my tour. Humph.

      1. It is the same the world over. Our guides make up stuff all the time to fill dead air. They actually ask whether anyone lives here on the carriage rides before leaving the gate. 🙂

        Happy Anniversary to you and Phil.

  7. We did this with the girls once in Wisconsin. It was rather interesting, in a creepy sort of way, until all lights went out and I wanted to flee like a bat out of, well, you know where. Then, with a flashlight on, there were the Smurfs. All blue and cute and gimicky.

    1. Smurfs!!! I feel strangely fortunate now, Penny 😀 I wonder why people feel they must persist in putting their mark on caves? Still, I suppose it was man’s first artistic impulse, wasn’t it?

  8. oh no! it’s always terrible when they take something that would, otherwise, be amazing, and turn it into a cheap tourist trap – emphasis on trap. I can just imagine you telling the woman “I need to get out. Now.”…

  9. Here comes a very disturbing comment not meant to be insensitive to your experience–You make me feel a little less alone, Kate! I often think this kind of tacky only lives, breathes and proliferates in America, land of the disposable and transitory! I’ve spent the week with my grandchildren and been “up close and personal” to the “We’ll bribe with…” to stop the whining. 🙂 I shudder on oh so many levels! You’ve given me a very good laugh this morning, but it is tinged with a little sadness at what we’ve all come to expect. Debra

    1. Well, it depends which Britain you believe in, Ruth: un-Jane Austen, certainly; but read a little Henry Fielding or William Makepeice Thackeray and you’ll see our local businessmen, a law unto themselves, have always been there. The middle and merchant classes can be a little ‘hatstand’.

  10. I wish I could have watched you! What a dreadful attraction – I can just imagine the people who put it together, trying desperately to capitalize on natural beauty by cramming everything they possibly can into a place where people can’t get away from it (unless they’re with the intrepid Shrewsday clan).

  11. sad sad sad…a natural wonder such as that and you spy a PLASTIC gorilla, boo! Why must everything be ‘disneyfied’?

  12. Slot machines?! It beggars belief! Sounds like you were literally in a tourist trap, Kate. How awful that they feel the need to do this to a natural wonder – it shouldn’t be allowed.

  13. Another must-see for me – the caves, and not the hoo-ha. We were there once, and I only knew about the gorge – I am cheesed off!
    Funny, they didn’t lay that sort of stuff on in my days of cave exploration. Could that be because we were most likely the first human beings ever in many of the stretches? 🙂

    1. It could. Diving technology has romped ahead in the last decades. Each advance neans they can explore a further cave. I think they discovered a few chambers in the thirties: and I believe they have dived their way to chamber 25 now, Col!

  14. I love that photo in the cave. It’s a shame about the tourist-trap aspects – seems like you can’t escape the stuff.
    I confess I’m one of those who love the “It’s a Small World After All,” ride. But 3 times would be my limit. (I don’t think I’ve ever done it twice in a row.) 🙂

    1. Inescapable is the word, Judy. The tourist tat is relentless. Phil and I survived the ‘small world’ using our staunch British sense of irony. I think we have a film somewhere of the entire experience 😀

  15. I wonder why they had to make it all a ‘showy’ thing as opposed to just leaving nature to its course, and letting people explore? Very brave of you nonetheless 🙂

  16. Oh Kate, I shivered my way through this post. Claustrophobic…I cannot bear to be inside of anything that isn’t transport or security. It sounds like a grave attempt to pimp the mediocre. Oops…primp! 😀

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