The Giants Cave

Bristol, England

Clfton Observatory is a fantastic reason to visit Bristol and is well-worth the journey alone, but beneath the Tower there is more to discover: The Giants Cave.

Beneath the lonely rise of Clifton Observatory nestles a further secret: The Giants Cave, a natural cave and viewing platform in the side of the cliffs overlooking the stunning Avon Gorge. It was made easily accessible by the Observatory's most famous owner, William West.

Previously the cave and its viewing platform had only been accessible by making the short, dangerous climb 27 metres down the cliffside. West oversaw the carving of a tunnel from the Observatory to the cave permitting new gorgeous views of the gorge below. Consisting of 130 steep steps, the passage is a 61m long descent through the downs which opens out into a spectacular viewing platform some 76m above the bottom of the Avon Gorge.

But why is it called the Giants Cave when the structure itself can only hold 20-or-so people?

The answer lies in local folklore and legend.

Fantastical history

Two giants - Goram and Ghyston (or 'Vincent' as he's known in some versions) were fantastical forces of nature whose antics have been used to explain many quirks of the local geography. The Avon Gorge, visible from the cave, was said to be the product of a love triangle.

The fair and open-minded Avona - the target of the brothers' affections and sometimes giant herself - decided that she would choose her suitor based on who was able to complete a formidable task: draining a lake that once existed between Bristol and Bradford-on-Avon. This declaration made, Avona left the brothers to fight between themselves. While the industrious Ghyston set about his work and created the Gorge, the lazy Goram overheated and drank too much. Drunk, he fell asleep in his stone Chair having created the significantly narrower Hazel Brook near Henbury. His poor decision cost him the wager and, ultimately, dear Avona's hand.

Goram was said to have been so angry about the outcome he stamped his foot, creating the Giant's Footprint formation on the nearby Blaise Estate.

There are many curious variations of the brothers and their antics. The giants have been attributed to many formations of interest including, but not limited to, Stonehenge, Maes Knoll hillfort, Wansdyke. Their tales are of competition and belligerent arguments, some of which resulted in death.

When Goram finally died, he was said to have dropped into the Severn Estuary where his head and shoulders became two islands.

So what's in a name?

The 'existence' of Ghyston or Vincent is disputed more than that of his brother in terms of historical folklore. Dates and discrepancies sometimes see Ghyston omitted entirely from stories.

So why then does he have two names? One version of his name is said to have originated from the former chapel and hermitage of St Vincent which was established on or near the cliff face close to where Clifton Observatory now stands. A modern take on the area's geography refers to the entire cliff, on which the Observatory sits, as Ghyston. Over time the geological feature and legendary giant have been combined, resulting in the cave's name through association: The Giants Cave. In 1837 the Cave was also recorded as being called The Giant's Hole, Vincent's Cave or Ghyston Cave. Regardless, the giant brothers and their legacy is never far from mind.

Gigantic Legacy

The earliest recorded stories of the brothers have been dated from the C17th.

In 1993, a Mummers' play was performed at Blaise Castle near Henbury in Bristol following work by Marc Vyvyan-Jones who reviewed the tellings and recorded legends of this earlier time and created the script. Henbury was an apt place for the play to take place not only due to the beautiful surroundings, but because of its mention in the original tales.

The giants remained celebrated by creatives in stories and artistic works. Sculptures such as that of Goram's head at Ashton Court and naming conventions persist as part of strong local identity. Of particular note, there is a fabulous book for children with colourful art available both online and at local booksellers. It retells the tale of the brothers' bid for affection from Avona.

Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Bristol Treasure Hunts - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of England.


What you need to know

The Giants Cave
Observatory Rd Clifton Downs Bristol, England, BS8 3NA United Kingdom
Tips before you visit