Amongst the gently rolling hillsides of Yorkshire lies one of the most unusual natural features on the planet - the famous cheese caverns of Wensleydale.
This labyrinthine network of caves and subterranean passageways is a mystifyingly popular attraction with local visitors - most probably because there's precious little else of interest in the area. Their fame, like their cheese, has spread far and wide, and people who find themselves with nothing better to do will come from as far away as, ooh, Halifax to visit them.
Fortuitously, at the time of my visit the caverns were closed to the public for their annual hosing down. This afforded me the rare opportunity of a personal guided tour by the attraction's press officer, Ms. Sharon Applewood. Lucky me.
A cheesy simile
The approach to the caverns is best described as 'underwhelming'. A narrow gorge slices through the hillside like a... and at this point I'm tempted to say 'like a knife through cheddar' but I shall resist the temptation to plump for a cheesy simile.
A dusty, grey, shale-strewn pathway leads to the tunnel entrance itself - a dark and uninviting fissure, made ever so slightly more conspicuous by the addition of a cluster of sternly worded safety notices, brutal iron turnstiles and a kiosk where you can buy appropriately-themed key rings, baseball caps and 'cheese on a stick'.
Nevertheless, if the view fails to stop you in your tracks, the smell certainly won't. The pungent aroma that wafts from the tunnel mouth is comparable to the foul guff of some minor demon the morning after a staff curry night in Hades. This satanic whiff is funnelled and enhanced by the topography of the little valley and strikes you with its full force, like a concentrated beam of stink.
I feel physically sick, my stomach churns and my head begins to spin - and in my brief moment of delirium I reflect that if ever it was possible to harness the full power of cheese we would have a weapon of the most devastating potential. Thankfully, there are some forces of nature that simply cannot be tamed.
Cheesy Mum! Cheesy Mum!
Just as I begin to feel confident that I can master my feelings of nausea, I become aware of a secondary source of smell. This turns out to be Ms. Applewood herself, a large, bloated, ruddy faced woman, not dissimilar to one of those gaudily decorated bouncy castles that you can hire out for kids parties. She approaches me with a cheery wave, and the kind of breezy "Hullo!" of someone who has witnessed my ghastly pallor many times before, and doesn't give a flying toss.
We exchange the usual checklist of polite greetings, and she is not slow to infer my olfactory discomfort from the way that my nose appears to be curling up and attempting to retreat into my skull.
"I'm quite used to the smell by now," she tells me, with the kind of chirpy smugness that makes me want to smash her face off. "After working in the caverns for over eight years, I really don't notice it anymore. Of course, when I first came here, it was terrible, especially for my family. I would go home reeking of cheese. My kids' classmates used to taunt them at school. They would gather round in the playground and shout 'Cheesy Mum! Cheesy Mum!'. It came to be quite a popular chant, so the teachers told me. They even had it printed on T-shirts - the whole thing was really quite organised. Shall we go in?"
Ominously black and disquietingly dank
The ease with which she slips this final question into her patter leaves me in no doubt that it is rhetorical. I glance cautiously at the cave mouth - ominously black and disquietingly dank - but I decide that we may as well get it over with.
Ms. Applewood seems to be of a similar opinion. She takes my arm and leads me towards the entrance. As we draw closer I feel my eyes start to water, and a strange stinging sensation troubles the back of my throat. Resisting a powerful urge to choke, I remind myself that I am here in a journalistic capacity and in a croaking voice I ask my guide if her family have now come to terms with the problem.
"The smell? Oh, they're fine about it now," she explains, with scant regard for my obvious distress. "At least, I think they are - my husband left me six years ago, and the kids have been taken into care, but I get the occasional Christmas card from them, which is nice. Then shortly after that the dog ran off, but I never felt he was really settled with us, anyway.
"No, the only real companionship I've had these past few years has been Crackers, my pet budgerigar. I used to love the way that he would repeatedly throw himself at the bars of his cage, desperately trying to escape. He never managed it but, by heck, he didn't half have a good go. Of course, even he's gone now. Sad really... You wouldn't have thought a budgerigar would be capable of committing suicide, would you?"
The appalling stench is almost biblical
She continues to gabble at length about some of her other pets, but aside from the occasional pang of empathy with her troubled menagerie, I fail to pay much heed.
I'm much too concerned about entering the caves, and as we reach the tunnel mouth I instinctively pause. Ms. Applewood warns me that it can be quite treacherous, and advises me to watch my footing. Reluctantly, I step inside, and immediately I can feel myself starting to panic.
It's dark, it's damp and the appalling stench is almost biblical. Impulsively, I try to pull away but Ms. Applewood has hold of my wrist in an iron grip. "Just stay close to me and everything will be all right," she says, in a manner that is supposed to be reassuring but comes across as nothing less than intensely irritating.
Still, I remind myself that I am a professional, of sorts, and steel myself to continue. Within moments my eyes grow familiar with the gloom, and I get my bearings by focussing on a string of spotlights. My stomach is still turning like a washing machine going through its spin cycle. I try to control my breathing and it gradually settles down to the kind of gentle sloshing motion more suitable for woollens and delicates. At last I feel able to continue.
"Yes, it gets a lot of people like that," Ms. Applewood says. "Breathtaking, isn't it?"
My sense of smell has been eroded
I do not condescend to reply, feeling that refraining from punching this woman in the throat is as polite a response as I can presently muster. I note, however, that I am becoming accustomed to the reek - either that, or my sense of smell has been eroded entirely.
In fact, I am finally calm enough to take notice of my surroundings - not that there is a great deal to notice. We are crouching uncomfortably in a low-roofed passageway, which would appear to stretch for some considerable distance. The rock is damp, slightly greasy and extremely treacherous.
The actual caverns themselves, Ms. Applewood explains, lie deep within the hillside. Nevertheless, the present owners have gone to some trouble to make the troublesome tramp into the bowels of the Earth just a little bit more interesting. Alcoves have been hacked into the walls, at intervals along the passageway, to accommodate various 'interactive displays'. I know that they are interactive, because there is a sign on the wall telling me so.
The first one we come to is a large, weakly illuminated and grossly simplified cross-section of the landscape. This, I am informed by the cracked, water stained sign above it, is 'AN ILLUSTRATION OF PREHISTORIC CHEESE FORMATION'. Before it is a cheap plastic console offering me half a dozen cheap plastic buttons to press. I press one. It yields with an unpleasant squeak that sets my teeth on edge - but apart from that, nothing happens.
I press another; again, nothing happens. I stab at two or three more with the same result, then use the flat of my hand to press them all at once. At this point I notice a tiny red light flickering feebly in the top left corner of the display. Hmm, if this is the level of interactivity the attraction can offer, I inwardly reflect, then it's a wonder that anyone ever wants to leave.
Deep pit Double Gloucester mining
As we proceed, further displays enlighten me as to the 'fasinating history of the caverns' (sic). I learn that they were routinely mined for cheeses such as Stilton, Sage Derby and Cheshire from the year 1350 right up to the end of the end of the eighteenth century.
This all came to an end with the introduction of more economic deep pit Double Gloucester mining, which was able to produce ten times the yield. Or maybe it was twenty times? There are all sorts of facts and figures to which, in my excitement and awe, I completely fail to pay any attention whatsoever.
I read on to discover that even the Double Gloucester industry fell into decline because the number of impurities in naturally occurring British cheeses make it unsuitable for modern processing methods. Apparently, most of the world's cheese now comes from Scandinavia, which sits on rich seams of Havarti and Danish Blue that were deposited there during the last ice age.
This information is imparted in sombre and tragic tones, and I really might have been quite moved had I been in the mood to give a toss.
Cheesy gasses that bubble up from the cave floor
We move on to the next display, boldly entitled 'THE SECOND GOLDEN AGE'. This would seem to imply that there has been a 'First Golden Age', of which I have seen precious little evidence.
Anyhow, this particular golden age refers to the Victorian era, when the caverns became popular with credulous middle-class families who believed that the heady natural vapours were a powerful restorative. These ailing and fragile examples of polite society came here in their droves to take advantage of the cheesy gasses that bubble up from deep fissures in the cave floor.
There is, inevitably, very little evidence to support the notion that the caverns have any special healing properties. Quite the reverse, in fact, if my own experience of the place is anything to go by, for I am feeling increasingly unwell.
Perhaps the idea was that after wandering around these treacherous and pungent subterranean passageways, the average Victorian gent would feel greatly invigorated by the prospect of returning to the smoke and the grime of the city.
Something in the region of four pounds fifty
We press on. Ms. Applewood is keen for me to see the final display - an animatronic tableau which, I'm told, cost the attraction's owners a considerable amount of money. By 'considerable amount' I presume she means something in the region of four pounds fifty - and even assuming they were prepared to lavish such an extravagant sum, I would be lying if I said they'd got their money's worth.
The display is is not impressive, and Ms. Applewood's enthusiasm, genuine though it undoubtedly is, is not nearly infectious enough. It is meant to depict a family sheltering from an air raid during World War II. During the conflict the area came under heavy bombardment from the Luftwaffe, who sought to disrupt the vital cheese supplies that were so essential to the war effort. The locals would seek shelter from the attacks in the deepest reaches of the caverns, but sadly they were often in just as much danger down here as on the surface, running the constant risk of succumbing to deadly Stilton gas, or being crushed to death beneath one of the frequent falls of Red Leicester. Very few emerged unscathed from their ordeal, and those who did found themselves unable to adapt to a normal, cheese-free environment.
It must have been hell back then. After all, it's not exactly pleasant now. The thought of those terrified people, alone in the darkness, frightened and cut off from the outside world, is truly horrific. In these dark, claustrophobic tunnels you can almost hear the final echoes of their last, rasping, panic stricken gasps for air. The notion of families still huddled tightly together in the shadows is irresistible. It's as if these caverns will be forever haunted by their tortured souls. And I'm sorry, but a display consisting of four mechanical figurines dressed in gas masks, occasionally tilting their heads or spasmodically jerking their shoulders, simply doesn't do it justice.
All the cheeses of the rainbow
But all this is simply the prelude to the main event. I'm just hoping that it's going to be worth it. Ahead of us I can see a hazy yellow glow, becoming brighter as we approach. The smell, too, is growing stronger, and I find myself struggling to breathe.
Presently we emerge into a broad, roughly triangular cavern, almost like a flattened funnel. The walls are mottled in hues of orange, and yellow, and red, and shot through with rich veins of Mild Cheddar, Windsor Red, Lancashire and many, many others. All the cheeses of the rainbow. It's strikingly intense, awe inspiring, and at the same time both frightening and deeply unsettling. I can feel the panic once more beginning to invade my conscious thoughts, and my chest heaves as I fight for breath.
My speech slurred, my mind clouded, I try to tell Ms. Applewood that I must turn back, but my words emerge as a babble of nonsense and the stupid woman drags me onwards, towards the far extremity of the chamber, where a mammoth overhang of Red Leicester conceals another short passageway.
This leads us to a narrow shelf of Single Gloucester, brittle and crumbling. Looking down, at the foot of a sheer cliff face, at least a hundred feet below us, I can see distant spotlights playing over a fast flowing stream of cream cheese. Ms. Applewood is talking to me. At least, I think Ms. Applewood is talking to me. It's hard to distinguish her voice from all the others in my head. She seems to be banging on about some kind of problem with mice, but by now I feel quite dizzy and am unable to concentrate on her words.
Twisted and taut
We inch slowly along the ledge, probing the ground carefully with each step, until we reach a rope bridge, the lines twisted and taut, the planking jagged and uneven. It stretches out across the chasm and disappears into the darkness.
Ms. Applewood urges me on, and as I set foot on the first board I realise that this shaky, shabby construction has been fabricated from nothing more substantial than cheese strings, cocktail sticks and cream crackers. I come to an abrupt halt, but a sharp push in the small of my back sends me staggering out into the middle of the void.
And there I am, suspended in mid air on an unlikely assortment of party snacks, swaying unnervingly, and acutely aware of the constant threat of being pitched headlong into the rushing yellow torrent below. There is pitch blackness ahead of me. There is a mad woman with the cheese fixation behind me. My life hangs in the balance.
So I press on into the gloom, praying with each step that the next time my foot falls it will be on firm ground. The darkness is complete. The constant, hoarse rasp of Ms. Applewood is ever present at my back. Then finally I reach the other side, and with great relief I press myself against a refreshingly cold and reassuringly solid slab of cheddar.
But Ms. Applewood will allow me no time to rest. She grabs my sleeve and drags me through a low arch, and I am startled - no, perplexed - to find myself in a vast, illuminated chamber; a huge cathedral of cheese. Its twisted, grotesque walls are dappled and streaked with a terrifying palette of colour. Massive stalactites of Caerphilly hang down like huge, misshapen chandeliers, and the floor is strewn with boulders of Wensleydale, Cornish Yarg and Dorset Blue Vinny.
A giant Dairylea triangle
It's too much. It's all just too much.
I turn to Ms. Applewood and am alarmed to find that she has morphed into a giant Dairylea triangle, with a ball of Edam for a head and cocktail sticks for arms. Even more worrying, I myself would appear to be a jar of Branston pickle. Well, this is no place for a jar of pickle! I'm trapped here! Trapped with this cheese woman: anything could happen! I must get out! Fearing that my top has become loose, I run screaming from the cave, trip over a stray chunk of pineapple and crash to the floor.Preliminary Report on Wensleydale Caverns
The next thing I'm aware of is being carried out into the open on a stretcher and loaded into the back of an ambulance. The medic reassures me that I'm just suffering from a few Cheddar abrasions, and a small Gruyere wound to the shoulder. Everything's kind of fuzzy and comfy and warm, and I really feel quite relaxed and almost... well... happy.
Apparently, so the medic tells me, Gruyere can fester if left untreated, so they're taking me into hospital for some shots. But it's nothing to worry about, he says. I'm not worried in the slightest. Through the back windows of the ambulance I can see the Wensleydale Cheese Caverns slipping slowly into the distance and, as far as I'm concerned, things really couldn't be better.