When is a hole not a hole?

When it's Wookey Hole in Somerset, one of the most brilliantly eccentric days out
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The Independent Travel
On a cold and dreary winter's day, you thank heaven for places like Wookey Hole. This rather incongruous mix of attractions, based near Wells in Somerset, is almost entirely under cover and so a perfect refuge when rain stops play.

Wookey's principal feature is a series of labyrinthine underground caves, complete with weird rock formations and greenish lagoons, which follow the path of the river Axe under the Mendip hills. Nine of these cavernous chambers are now open to the public, although intrepid divers have penetrated a further mile upstream. Access to the caves is by guided tour, held every 10-15 minutes in summer, every 20-30 minutes in winter.

As you exit the caves, a short walk along a canal brings you to the Victorian paper mill, where adults can examine the old mill machinery, and children can try their hand at making cotton-based paper. Next on the agenda is an attractively arranged display of Victorian fairground carousels, complete with authentic organ music and a sizeable selection of old coin-operated "spectacles". Quite magical.

A truly confounding mirror maze leads you into an arcade, not the flashing lights and endless cacophony of modern versions, but an impressive collection of the old penny machines that used to grace every pier in England. Those who prefer a dose of education with their entertainment can round up their trip with a visit to Wookey's museum, which charts the history of the caves, including their ancient inhabitants and modern explorers.

The Visitors

Emma Haughton is a freelance writer, while Jonathan Rees combines child care with occasional supply teaching. They took their three children, Joshua, six, Nathaniel, four, and Zachary, 18 months.

Nathaniel: The caves were good because they dripped on Joshua like a tap. The rocks have water in them and it drips through on to the floor. I liked the bit where the big green witch light goes flying over the roof.

In the paper mill you can make paper out of bits of wet stuff and then they leave it to dry off. The mirror maze was good because you go straight through and you just bang into it, and the penny machines were good, too, because you always lose - but Joshua didn't. I liked coming home too, because we saw a beautiful sunset.

Joshua: The caves were wet and really exciting, although it was very slippery. The rocks were quite strange. There was a stalagmite which looked like a big hockey stick, and some of the roofs in the caves were high up and some were low down. The man who told us about them had a nice voice. I like it when he turned the light off and you could see the river and it looked as if you could almost walk on it.

I didn't want to have a go at making paper in the mill because it looked too messy, but I really liked the mirror maze because it was so confusing - you didn't know which bit was real and you ended up crashing into all the mirrors. I really enjoyed the old penny arcade. I won 12 old pennies on one machine, which was the highest prize.

Jonathan: Plenty of parking space and everything under cover is a real bonus. There was a lot of interesting information about each activity, but it wasn't rammed down your throat.

I got the impression of everything having been very well thought out. I thought it had all been done fairly sympathetically with the local environment, which is more than you can say for nearby Cheddar Gorge. I particularly liked the fact that all the attractions follow on from one another, so there's not much scope for the kids getting lost or missing anything out.

Emma: I have happy memories of Wookey Hole from when I was a child, and so was eager to return, but prepared for anticlimax. In the event I was not disappointed. The caves were much as I remembered, full of stalagmites, stalactites (I can never recall which is which), and a ghostly luminescence of a river. The tour guide achieved a deft balance between amusing the children and informing the adults, and it all lasted just long enough to satisfy both without trying the patience of either.

What had changed since I was young was the number of attractions brought under the umbrella of the mill. I was hard pushed to see quite why someone had decided to house this motley collection under one roof, but nevertheless it was vastly entertaining for young and old alike. While I found the appeal of the paper mill rather limited, I'd defy anyone not to appreciate the magical atmosphere of the fairground by night or enjoy trying their luck on the old machines in the penny arcade.

Wookey offers just the right mix of the informative, fun and nostalgic. I was fascinated by the eerie beauty of the caves, but for me the highlight of the trip was something far more artificial. There is nothing quite so delightfully disconcerting as wandering around the mirror maze, a pillared hall seemingly stretching off into infinity in all directions, never knowing quite which way to turn or which one of your endlessly reflected children is flesh and blood.

The deal

Location: Wookey Hole (01749 672243) is just a couple of miles north of Wells, Somerset. From the M5 take Junction 22 (Burnham on Sea) via A38 Axbridge and Cheddar.

Opening times: Open every day of the year, except the week before Christmas. Times are 9.30am-5.30pm in summer and 10.30am-4.30pm in winter. Allow two hours for a complete tour. In high season and bank holidays you may have a fair wait to get into the caves.

Admission: Adults pounds 6, children over four pounds 3.50. There are family tickets varying from pounds 14.50 to pounds 17.50, depending on the combination of adults and children.

Access: The caves are not for the infirm or chairbound as the steps and walkways are uneven and slippery and headroom drops to under four feet in places. Wheelchairs can be accommodated in the mill and admission prices are reduced accordingly.

Facilities: There is a well-stocked gift shop and a cafe on site, and clean toilets in the mill and main car park.