One family's tips on how to travel the world without leaving home, much. This post takes us to the Grand Canyon, via Somerset's immense Cheddar Gorge, and is by Nicola Baird (also see www.homemadekids.co.uk)
We're in Wiltshire house sitting for a while (this is a brilliant way to holiday cheaply). In fact just swapping houses for a night gives you a sense of living quite differently. Pat Barker, winner of the 1995 Booker prize, calls time spent in another person's house (so long as that family isn't there) "a holiday from adult life". In the more recent Double Vision (Faber, 2003) a character enjoys: "The mere fact that the house was not his gave him an Alice-in-Wonderland feeling. He seemed to be wandering around between the chair legs while items of furniture loomed above him, mysterious with withheld significance. They made him feel insubstantial, these rooms with their carefully selected antiques, the fruits of years of settled, successful endeavour, and yet the feeling was not entirely unpleasant. Like Goldilocks in the house of the three bears, he had a sense of danger and transgression."
I have to admit that my lack of action with the vaccuum cleaner - despite today's full timetable of dawn to dusk rain - makes me feel edgy too... What will my friend Julie say when she surveys her house after her holiday?
But yesterday there was sun and a chance to enjoy a day trip to the Cheddar Gorge which splits the Mendip Hills, Somerset. I'd never been, couldn't even imagine what it looked like, but the Gorge with it's dramatic views enhanced by old grass, sheer rock faces, wild scrub, colonising ash trees, real climbers,magical stories and "British Primitives" (aka goats) and soay sheep browsing is as good as a wonder of the world. Comparisons include the Grand Canyon and any drama cliff coastline - Italy's Amalfi coast say (except there's been no sea here for millions of years) or maybe some spot in Albania or Croatia.
Way back the gorge was home to a spectacular river, and inside the carbonifeous limestone are some amazing caves. We toured the Gough Cave with its frozen waterfall, rough scratched mammoth cave painting and at the very back the huge dome space nicknamed St Paul's. Cooper Cave has lured in TV's Time Team, been home to a shepherd and his family in Victorian times, and no doubt was the ultimate in designer living for people in the Mesolithic Age.
Cheddar Man is a must see. It's Britain's oldest complete skeleton (approx 9,000 years old) and was used in 1997 to make DNA tests that show there's still a descendant of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer living in Cheddar today - a history teacher called Adrian Targett. Amazing thought, and one which the small Museum of Prehistory spends time encouraging visitors to think about how much this disproves the notion of God. In case that's not enough brain meat there are also three skulls on display providing absolute evidence of cannibalism in the Cheddar cave network.
The downside is Cheddar Gorge, once cheese, mills and shepherds, is a real tourist trap. Every village building sells tacka-tack rubbish, postcards and snacks probably no different from Wookey Hole nearby (except at Cheddar Gorge dogs are truly welcome, thank you!). It's also expensive - a family ticket is around £40 plus a car parking fee. You can of course just take a walk to Jacob's Ladder which is up the Gorge (on the National Trust land) for free, but paying lets you see the caves, and that's what we wanted to do in our borrowed Fiat car.
I was impressed by the amount of people employed by the Cheddar Caves & Gorge company (no doubt for low wages, but the staff were invariably friendly, mixed ages and seemed to take some pride in working in such a honeypot). I also really enjoyed the onus on nature conservation at the site - we saw a buzzard and heard tales of 10 different types of bat, breeding peregrine falcons and a family of nationally endangered water voles near the mill pond.
It is also the true home of the Cheddar pink (a flower) and of course Britain's best-loved, and best-known cheese. We bought a slice of some cave-matured "authentic" cheddar from the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company (£22.95 per kg). Irresistible after seeing it stored under lock and key during our tour of Gough's cave.
You don't just have to look and learn, or guzzle on the various cafe menu options as there's a place you can learn to cave, climb and abseil - and perhaps do something a bit dirtier and more challenging than just learn - at the Rock Sport centre.
After a summer spent feeling rural, I felt Cheddar Caves & Gorge had hit a potent mix that suits every sort of tourist, and perhaps even locals too. The next plan is to fit a ski lift from top to the bottom of the gorge, an ambitious £2 million idea, that if carried out would certainly gives British staycationers a taste of the Alps. I can't wait to go back...