Swildon's Hole - Priddy, Mendip - September 1985.
Some people call me a Nutter - I can only agree!
John and I had been talking about it for some time. It had been put off time and again for various reasons but it was time to go for it.
Part of the reason had been lack of suitable equipment, particularly cylinders but I'd recently purchased my first twinset, a pair of 2240 p.s.i. 45's and although pictures showed divers with small sets, we hadn't any and as students were unlikely to afford any in the near future. Things were becoming desperate and it had to be done.
Swildons hole at Priddy in Somerset's Mendip Hills was discovered in 1901 and over the years has been explored to sump 12 which has proved so far to be impenetrable, choking at -70 feet.
The cave swallows a fair size stream and is one of the major feeders for Wookey Hole, the system resurgence some 2 miles further down Ebbor Gorge. Wookey Hole has itself been explored to sump 25 leaving a gap of less than a mile between the two systems. The shallow gradient however, makes a passable connection unlikely.
We read extensively on the system's sumps and planned our assault. We both knew the non-diver accessible parts of the cave like the backs of our hands but the limit of our explorations to date had been Swildons IV, the passage between sumps 3 and 4, reached by the torturous Blue Pencil Passage, a generally 'body' sized tube which ends in an ungainly feet first exit, emerging twelve feet up the wall of the passage. A rusty fixed chain eases the descent a little - if you can maintain a grip on it!
This time it was to be easier in as much as we could follow the streamway through the sumps that had until then prevented our progress.
The weekend arrived and we drove down to Mendip on the Friday night having previously booked ourselves a bed at the Wessex Cave Club. A few of the local beers were sampled and we settled in for the night.
The Saturday was fine and we set about final preparation of the gear. We were each to use a single side mounted 45 cu ft (7-litre) cylinder. The side mounts were home made and consisted of a bracket fabricated in aluminium that allowed the cylinder to be mounted on the belay belt. This belt also carried eight pounds of lead and a seven-pound miner's lamp. It's not quite as uncomfortable as it sounds as the weight is mainly on the hips, but the total still amassed to about forty pounds.
We both wore our usual tatty wetsuits but added the luxury of a hood - the water in the streamway is generally cold.
Kitting up attracted various comments from other cavers but we were undeterred and entered the system at the crack of noon. We were soon grunting our burdens through the 'Wet Way' of the entrance series, stopping to pay our respects to 'Sir', a 40 ton boulder that slipped out of the roof in 1977 between two of my visits. (He has friends in high places!)(Sorry!).
Continuing down the streamway we passed the 20-foot pitch using a flexible 'electron' ladder and lowering the cylinders by rope. The remaining traverse to Sump 1 was hard work but uneventful and an hour and a half after entering the system we arrived at the sump pool. Sump 1 is only about three feet long and so we free dived through into Swildons II.
The streamway now changed character from stepped waterfall type passage (Vadose development) to much shallower angled smooth walled passage (Phreatic - developed below the water table). This enabled us to carry the gear belt mounted, the only real obstacles being two 'ducks', where the roof dips close to the water and a couple awkward crawls.
Eventually we reached sump 2 and kitted up with hoods and masks, adding a further eight pounds of lead from the small pile deposited just upstream of the sump. We went through our rope signalling scheme whilst we fitted regulators and I led off with the line in my left hand. The first four sumps are lined with 11mm Kernmantle so that free divers can pull on the rope.
The visibility was about 2 feet and I held my breath for a while and took my time. The passage was about five-foot in diameter with a muddy floor into which my boots stuck. I thought of John having to follow in zero viz. After a short while and 25 feet of travel I reached the bulge in the roof. Ducking under, I rose to surface in Great Bell, Swildons III. As the name suggests, Swildons III consists solely of air bells. Consequently, there was no dry land and I moved to a shallower part before signalling to John. He came through and we waded through into St. Johns Bell, locating the line for sump 3. John led off. I watched his lights disappear into the muddy water and waited.
The rope twitched as he made progress and after a minute or so three tugs signalled he was through. I fitted the gag and dived. The viz was zero and with the light from my lamps a white coffee colour appeared in front of my mask. Touching my mask reassured me that at least my fingerprints were intact. I pressed on feeling my way. The sump gained depth and the proportions reduced to two feet in diameter. The floor was covered in thick mud and I tried to swim rather than grovel. After 35 feet or so the roof rose and I surfaced to a grinning John. We were in familiar territory again in Swildons IV.
The streamway in the lower part of Swildons IV seems more active as the cave takes on a somewhat more Vadose pattern but it is short lived. The cylinders were by now becoming uncomfortable and we stopped for a rest below Cowsh Avens, a vertical series ascending to within 25 feet of the surface under the Milking Parlour at Manor Farm where the car was parked some 400 feet above us. We'd explored the Avens some months earlier, it's name derived from the salubrious gunge that adorns the system.
Sump 4 was only a further 50 feet on and I led off through a veritable soup of Shrimps and effluent. The way on was low and I cranked my head sideways to make progress. Following the line by feel I surfaced after about 20 feet into a low smelly passage. John came through and we crawled off through what was obviously a settling tank for the previously mentioned effluent. Fortunately we were using electric lighting, as I fear a naked flame might have caused an explosion! We pressed on through Buxton's Horror (I'll spare you the details) and came to sump 5. The general water level had previously been lowered by breaching a streamway dam beyond the sump and it now consists of a series of low ducks (in dry weather!). The level was not too high but we decided to dive. John led off and I followed. The visibility was zero - the lamps had no effect at all.
Surfacing in Swildons VI the prospects were much better as the smell had abated (or we'd got used to it) and the passage size had increased such that we could almost stand upright. The cylinders were still a pain and seemed to be getting heavier.
We pressed on and were soon at sump 6. This one was awkward and I led off into deeper water. The floor dropped away to -4m and I felt ahead for the way on. It seemed to be under a lip of rock and so I readjusted my position and ducked under. So far so good. I swapped the line to my right hand and as I progressed, the passage tightened. To my right it was tighter whereas to my left it seemed larger. Further progress was halted as the roof lowered and I could make no further progress. I pushed but was jammed. I struggled to move my cylinder to allow reversal not daring to pull on the line which was by now taught. Breathing out fully allowed me to pull out of the slot. I tried to move my feet left, stretching to maintain a grip on the line (5mm thick and old!). The line twitched and went slack. Had the line snapped? I hadn't pulled that hard surely? A pull up and down told me that it probably hadn't and I moved left, progressed forward and floated easily up the slope into Swildons VII. I signalled to John and a short while later he surfaced totally unaware of any tight bits! The line had obviously been snagged around a rock projection.
From here to Swildons IX there are bypasses to the sumps. We had to admit we were knackered and in view of the vertical maze characteristics of Swildons VII caused by its position on the Priddy Fault, we decided to ditch the gear and carry on, meaning we'd only get to Swildons IX.
We pressed on and after some minor route finding problems bypassed sumps 7 and 8 finding ourselves in Swildons IX. Sump 9 is 130 feet long and 15 feet deep but it would have to wait until another day. It would also have been inadvisable with a single set - well that's our excuse anyway!
We retraced our steps taking time to explore a feature on the north east side aptly named the 'Thrutch Tube', a steeply ascending mud filled passage. It took us a good half-hour to fight our way up the sixty feet or so until it tightened too much to make significant progress. We were plastered in mud and jamming ourselves in, lay gasping for breath. About twenty minutes must have passed as we lay recovering, thinking about the effort that would be required to regain the surface.
We slithered back down into Swildons VIII and made our way back to the sets we'd deposited at the downstream end of sump 6. The cylinders now seemed heavier and we realised we'd stupidly been to Swildons IX and up the Thrutch Tube with sixteen pounds of lead on our belts.
Conversation was somewhat sparse as we set off out. At least once we reached Swildons IV we'd be able to exit without the gear if necessary through Blue Pencil Passage. We pressed on and eventually reached Swildons II where we could de-kit ready for the carry out. Sump 1 was refreshingly cool and we spent some time recovering and demolishing a Mars Bar or two.
The next hour was hard work to the foot of the 20-foot pitch. Our ladder was still in place and we hauled the gear up. We were both suffering severe cramps now both in the arms and legs and it was a supreme final effort that saw us back on the surface some eight hours after we'd last seen it.
The only food in the car was a couple of stale buns, but along with a couple of litres of Orange juice they were swiftly demolished. A shower at the cottage was followed by a welcome 'Faggots and Peas' at the local washed down with a few pints. We were out before closing time and in our pits counting 'Z's' before long.