The little village of Cheddar gives its name to the world famous cheese and a spectacular gorge and caves that cuts through Mendip Hills in Somerset.
Over a million years ago, during cold periods, the permafrost stopped water seeping through limestone, and when it got warmer, the water flowed on the surface and cut a gorge, which is currently 137 deep at its lowest point. Then it got even warmer, and water flowed through limestone, forming spectacular caves. 40,000 years ago ancient people lived in the caves, leaving for us faint traces of their lives.
This was the home of the Mesolithic Cheddar Man, who lived 9,000 years ago. This is the oldest complete human skeleton found in Britain (discovered in 1903). The original bones are in the Natural History Museum, but a spectacular reconstruction is on display in Gough’s Cave, the main tourist attraction in Cheddar Gorge.
Although the smaller cave was discovered in 1837, the larger Gough’s Cave was dug up from debris at the end of 19th century by Richard Cox Gough. He opened it to the public, installing electrical lighting in 1899. The cave is full of enchanting nooks and crannies, spectacular caves with limestone deposit formations, some bats, stalactites and stalagmites, and, of course, the world famous cheese, which is being matured in the cave at the constant temperature of 11C throughout the year.
A small part of the cave, featuring the most spectacular chambers and rock formations is open to the public. The whole system stretches for over 2,000 meters, to the depth of 90 metres, and is largely inaccessible due to flooding by Cheddar Yeo – the largest underground river system in Britain, which floods the caves from time to time.
Stalactites (hanging from the top) and stalagmites (growing upwards) are deposits of water soluble limestone, and the way they are displayed in pools of water, creating magical reflections, is the most theatrical aspect of the visit to the caves.
Having got there in the afternoon, we did not manage to visit the whole complex – the smaller cave with an audio/video experience or the climb to the viewing platform at the top, – so definitely worth a return visit.
As you wander around Pound Lane, between Willesden Bus Garage and Roundwood Park, you cannot fail to see people dressed all in white going in and out of the imposing building of Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University.
They go there to teach and to learn how to live a spiritual life of meditation, peace and happiness.
Brahma Kumaris is a religious movement (although they see themselves more of a teaching group – hence ‘university’ in the name) started in mid1930s in the Indian city of Hyderabad (now in Pakistan). A prosperous jeweller Dada Lekhraj Kripalani had a series of visions and began teaching his understanding of the world and spiritual experiences to a group of followers. The group took the name of Om Mandali, – from them chanting ‘Om’.
The teachings of Brahma Baba, as he became affectionately known, elevated the role of women as bringers of peace and tranquillity. ‘Brahma Kumaris’ translates from Sanskrit as ‘daughters of Brahma”. The managing committee consisted of 8 women. Women were given respect and the power of choice of their life – whether to get married or have sex, even within marriage. Moreover, people from any caste were allowed to join. This was an outrageous challenge to the patriarchal and stratified Indian society, full of tensions in the last decade of British colonial rule.
Pressure and persecution drove the fast growing community to move first to Karachi in 1938, then to Mount Abu in Rajasthan in 1950, where the organisation has its headquarters now.
With its roots in Hinduism, BK believe that a person has a body and a soul, the latter entering the body at birth in order to experience life in physical form. The soul is intrinsically good, the goodness coming directly from God. The mundane attributes of the body, such as status, race, nationality, religion or gender impede this goodness. The world will be a better place if we follow the culture of soul consciousness through meditation, which purifies the mind and paves the way for a better life in the present and the soul’s next incarnation.
BK see God as a ‘Supreme Soul’ embodying all virtues of the world, and his role is the spiritual awakening of humanity leading to the banishment of all sorrow, evil and negativity.
The BK Pound Lane building is one of over 40 teaching centres around the UK, and part of a network of over 100 BK centres around the world. 80% of followers are women, and many centres are in people’s home. A novice is offered a course of 7 lectures on BK teachings and meditation and is expected to attend meditation sessions and adhere to BK concepts. Many followers choose to adhere to some, rather than all of those principles: celibacy, vegetarianism, abstaining from alcohol, tobacco and non-prescription drugs, meditation at 4 am, a daily class at 6.30 am.
BK’s teachings are open to members, and also for anyone willing to learn positive thinking, self management leadership and living values courses.
White dress is not obligatory, but is regarded as a colour of choice symbolising purity.
BK Spiritual University is not just about teaching meditation – in it became affiliated to the United Nations. It provides consultation services to the UN Economic and Social Council and UNICEFF, as well as taking part in UN’s International Peace initiative, Climate Change and Global Co-operation for a better World campaigns, with a permanent office in New York for this work.
BK put their ideas for a better world into practice. Their headquarters at Mount Abu are powered by the world’s largest solar thermal power plant. They run a local hospital there, providing free healthcare to one of the most impoverished areas in India.
In a programme backed by Indian government and university research, BK are teaching meditation to Indian farmers – and to crops, – researching how meditation can improve crop yields.
Back at home in the UK, BK do not charge for their services, asking for donations instead. Every year they put on a Christmas family performance, showcasing general human values, such as honesty, respect for others, love and forgiveness. This is free, and makes a great alternative to your usual bawdy panto.