Three adjacent, contrasting nature reserves across the upper reaches of Cheddar Gorge; Black Rock, a rock-lined valley, Long Wood - tall trees and a stream, and Velvet Bottom, a shallower valley once used for lead mining
At the upper end of Cheddar Gorge, the sheer limestone cliffs give way to the grassy and wooded slopes of a traditional valley, which then forks; one branch angles southeastwards, and is followed by the gorge road (B3135), while the other heads northeast, becoming steadily shallower and ending in the midst of mounds and excavations at Ubley Warren. The 1.5 mile stretch between here and the valley junction has much of interest to see, and the land is protected within three adjacent nature reserves, known collectively as Cheddar Complex Nature Reserve.
The closest to the road is Black Rock, named after a prominent, dark-coloured cliff, and containing deciduous woodland, calcareous grassland, other limestone exposures, and half mile of the valley floor. Next is Long Wood, a sizeable area of ancient woodland, along a north-side tributary valley that contains at least two cave entrances, and a short section of stream. The third nature reserve is Velvet Bottom, which encompasses the remaining mile of the valley, all rather shallow, containing relics from abandoned lead mines, and extensive grassland; calcareous in the lower end, where the best selection of wildflowers are found, and more acidic further upstream.
A track and then a path follows all of the valley floor, while other routes explore Long Wood and the southern section of the Black Rock reserve, and to see all areas would require about a seven mile round trip. Because of the varied habitats, the three reserves contain many plants and animals, and a visit at different times of the year can reveal contrasting species. The reserves may be accessed either from the west, staring from the Black Rock parking area along the B3135 (the usual location, 1.2 miles from Cheddar) or from the east, on a minor road, the same place as for Ubley Warren, also a nature reserve.
The path, or vehicle track, from the B3135 first enters the 181 acre Black Rock Nature Reserve, climbing gently along the valley floor, which here is enclosed by a cool, moist forest of tall trees, and much undergrowth. The valley sides slope steeply upwards and in spring are covered with numerous flowers of bluebell and wild garlic. A junction near the start is with a westwards path along the north rim of Cheddar Gorge, while soon after, on the south side, is another secondary path, crossing a mix of grass and trees for 0.8 miles to the south edge of the reserve, emerging back at the main road. There are several limestone outcrops nearby, some reached by lesser trails. One further route crosses more grassland towards the east side of the reserve, intersecting the other paths, and it is these eastern slopes that are home to the majority of wildflowers, such as rock-rose, milkwort, tormentil, wild thyme and spring cinquefoil. Vegetation along the valley floor gradually changes from enclosed forest to open scrub, interrupted at one point by a dramatic cliff face, formerly a quarry site, consisting of several thick layers of sloping limestone. There are more extensive grasslands above the quarry to the north, not crossed by a trail, but easy enough to reach, by walking up the valley sides.
The track along the valley floor divides at the east edge of Black Rock Nature Reserve; the path on the right enters Velvet Bottom, while the main route continues through a gate into Long Wood Nature Reserve, and then forks again. The left path climbs steadily up the west side of the valley, along the western edge of the ancient woodland that covers the lower slopes, and has existed since at least the 13th century, when it was associated with Witham Priory. The land to the west is covered by mix of rough grassland and scattered trees, and is a noted orchid habitat, with the early purple and common twayblade species particularly widespread. The path - part of the West Mendip Way - soon leaves the trees and enters farmland. The main route into the nature reserve, the right branch at the junction, follows the usually dry creekbed along the valley floor, through a particularly thick, luxuriant forest of beech, ash and hazel, carpeted by especially dense fields of wild garlic in late spring. Along the way is at least one (gated) cave entrance, equipped with a winch, and later on a section of stream, flowing just a short distance before the water disappears into a sink, or swallow hole. Access to the cave below is guarded by an old concrete structure, beside the path. Just beyond is a pool and a wall, where the stream flows through a small gate, then soon after the path crosses on a footbridge and climbs to the edge of the woods. A 0.6 mile loop can be made by taking another path which also climbs the east side of the valley, shortly before the stream, runs south along the rim then descends back to the floor.
Velvet Bottom Nature Reserve encloses the dry upper section of the valley, mostly all grassland apart from a short patch of trees at the southwest corner. The valley sides near the east end, the usual entrance, have a few patches of limestone, and a good wildflower selection; most unusual is probably meadow saffron, while for most of the remainder the soil is more acidic, and some parts have high lead concentration, resulting from many centuries of mining, so the plant variety is less, though even here are found a few unusual species such as alpine pennycress and spring sandwort. The path climbs over the remains of four stone dams, formerly used to control residual water from the mining operations, then, after a wide bend, it winds through a group of grassy mounds and gullies, the main lead excavation location. On the east edge are some exposed patches of earth and stones, yet to be recolonised by plant life, after which is another gentle bend leading to several buddle pits - hollows once used for washing lead ore. Just beyond is the minor road which marks the boundary of the nature reserve, on the far of side which are more mining relics at Ubley Warren.