Caving Page - a journey into the inner recesses.....
Caving - what a strange pastime! For some an obsession and a passion to venture underground following water worn passages - the paths of ancient or modern streamways as they form part of the local hydrology. For those who dread the thought, there may be some pointers here as to why we do it. For the experienced caver, the content will appear tame but hopefully there will be something here for everyone.
Caving, Potholing, spelunking - call it what you will, the exploration of underground passages has attracted man since he (she?) first walked the earth - mainly as a means of shelter and protection from the elements. Caves were purely functional then and man decorated them accordingly with scratchings, paintings carvings and sculpture and there are many fine examples of cave art around the world. It was not until the 18th and 19th century that man's curiosity got the better of him on a larger scale and he began to explore caves with a scientific purpose. Archaeologists examined the contents of caves and excavated their floors and burial areas and in doing so learned much about early man.
Caving, for me, started back in January 1976 when my mate Jon's brother took a group of us for a weekend of fun! It was January and freezing. I drove down to Frome with Peter and Ian. We found the rendezvous and settled in for the night. Ian and I kipped in the back of my Ford Escort van as the hut was full to overflowing. I was pleased I'd brought two sleeping bags! The next morning we awoke to find thick snow everywhere. We set off to explore the area and found the field was beside a single track railway line near a tunnel. The ice on the ponds was some 4 inches thick and easily took our weight. We had some brekky and set off to find Robert. He took us to Burrington Combe and an adit driven by Bristol Waterworks and abandoned after it failed to produce the expected flow. The tunnel was a hundred metres or so and two foot deep in water. After this, we walked the short distance to West Twin Brook Valley and Goatchurch Cavern. Surely everyone does this as their first trip? We scroted round the system, trying to maintain the precious light from the helmet mounted ‘stinkie’ which produced a meagre light. After fun in the drainpipe, we surfaced and moved a hundred metres or so across the valley into Sidcot Swallet, another comparatively dry system and tighter! Here we sampled the delights of the ‘Lobster Pot’ and some tight interconnections before setting off back to the hut for the night. After another cold night, we set off for Priddy and Swildon’s Hole. This is one of the larger and certainly the most popular caves on Mendip. It swallows quite a stream. Boiler suits and cord jeans were all we had so we got pretty wet. Once inside, we wriggled our was through the long dry way into the Old Grotto and the Water chamber. From here, we were in the streamway and got suitably wet! Down the first Water Chute and on to the 20’ Pitch which we laddered. Time passed too quickly and by the time some of us had got down, others were cold so we re-climbed and headed out – via the wet way! We were now soaked - OK if you kept moving. Back on the surface, we realised how cold it was and headed back across the fields to the barn. Changing, upstairs, was a painful process as any movement got you into contact with freezing cold parts of your clothing – not pleasant. We struggled on until four ‘experienced’ and wetsuited cavers came in to change after their trip. They were clearly not as uncomfortable as we were and were certainly, how shall we say, "unencumbered by traditional modesty" as they stripped off without a care, including the two ladies! That got the blood flowing!
Suitably experienced, we went again in 1978 and this time got to sump 1. We tried to pluck up courage to pass the sump but in boiler suits, Robert advised against it. However, we made it back to the surface and sampled some of the Mendip ales. That was it – we were hooked.
The summer of 1979 saw us on Mendip for a two week holiday, having bought lamps, helmets, belay belts and a ladder! We got back to sump 1 in Swildons and found Tratmans Temple and the way on to the Mud Sump and the round trip. We also had a look in Sludge Pit Hole, Nine Barrows Swallet, Manor Farm Swallet, Eastwater Cavern and Cuckoo Cleeves. Pete came down for a week and was the only one with a wetsuit - not that it mattered much for summer caving.
Later in the year, we remedied the situation and after much measuring, sent off to Wemlor Marine for a 4mm single lined one piece wetsuit. They were £40 each and fitted quite well. That was it - there was no stopping us now! A trip to Mendip a few weeks later saw Chris and I racing each other to get to Sump 1 first. However, the brash courage we boasted evaporated as the dismal pool was far from inviting. With tenuous resolve, I immersed myself in the sump pool after much "after you" - "No, no ... after you" etc. went on. I lay there for a good 5 or 10 minutes doing nothing much except getting cold. "I'll do it" say's Chris. I let him take his turn. He does similarly well and we only succeed in getting colder. Eventually, after a bit of poking around with my feet, I lay down, take the rope and after telling myself not to be such a wimp duck under and pull. I'm suddenly in Swildons 2 and much relieved. I signal back to the others and wait, quite pleased with my achievement and with not much thought to the fact that I had to get back and that I'd made no contingency plan with the others! However, after a few minutes, the line tightened and Chris emerged spluttering. There was significant back slapping and we remembered to signal to the rest of the party. Chris reported that the others would stay where they were and we set off to explore. We probably only went to creep 1 or thereabouts but we were in the Swildons 2 streamway - described in the guide book as "Severe Cave" - we'd gone up a grade. We made our way back to the sump and without much fuss (we were old hands at this sump diving now) dived back to a relieved party in Swildon's 1. The next day, we embarked on a round trip. The ducks were all full and needed some serious bailing - a new phenomenon to us - and we had a few problems route finding but eventually fought our way to The Landing and the Swildons 2 streamway again. Trogging upsteam, Chris and I soon recognised the area and we all arrived at sump 1. Chris dived through first followed by the rest of the crew - Rob and Dave and I came through last. We'd completed a major trip and enjoyed ourselves immensely into the bargain. The CSG - Chafford Spelaeological Group - is formed. The members are Chris Arnold, Rob Gillespie, Hamish Gillespie, Dave Harris, Lee Fisher and Myself. Later on, Pete King joins for a while and also Trevor Myles - my apprentice from work. Chris and I seem to be the driving force, particularly when it comes to the actual caving, but to be fair, we are all quite keen.
A CSG weekend trip to Mendip in February 1980, camping at Mr. Dyke's (pardon?) farm helped with our caving progress. We undoubtedly did another round trip, probably including a trip to Black Hole or the South East Inlets, but it also guided us toward joining a caving club. The weather was cold - there was a lot of snow in Dyke's field and after waking up at 3am (still the worst for wear from the pub!) in a tent with 6" of water in the lower end, in which my lower limbs had been gently cooling, the limit had been reached. The thaw had begun and it was very unpleasant. We were never dry, having wriggled out of a cave into your clothes, then trying to find some dry gear to go to the pub…..The next day, we went to investigate the Wessex Cave Club headquarters in Eastwater lane. This luxurious abode, with its central heating, drying room, hot showers, cooking facilities and dry bunkroom were ours for a small fee. The tents were abandoned!! Later that year, Martin Smith reported that he had a member of the WSG on his campsite and we went over to meet him. Dave Gibson told us about the club and it's headquarters in South Wales. We went up to the Freemason's Arms near Covent Garden and joined - in fact the WSG membership went up by 10 that night! In August 1980, we had two weeks at Caerllwyn, the WSG cottage, exploring a new caving area and discovering the joys of The Little Neath River Cave and other sites such as Wills Hole, Porth-Yr-Ogof and Shakespeare's Cave. Access to other caves such as Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, Agen Allwedd and Dan Yr Ogof were privilages that WSG membership brought and over the next couple of years, many trips were made
I couldn't get enough of caving and in between trips made good use of the college library, using it to obtain various books through the British Library on caving. Of note were Bruce Bedford's "Challenge Underground" and some American stuff. They couldn't, however get one of Herbert Ernest Balch's books from the 1940's - not for want of trying!
Since then, caving has been part of life. During the mid 80's, college took a hold and the trip frequency reduced. After college I got back into it, adding a newer weapon learnt at college - diving. This enabled me to explore the parts most others couldn't reach and Little Neath River Cave, Swildons Hole, Porth-yr-Ogof and various other sites were investigated with John and Mike McLean.
Of course, other pastimes such as open water diving and climbing also shared my 'outdoor activity' time, reducing the number of trips away whilst trying to hold down a responsible (!) job and earn enough to fund the leisure activities!
I remain a member of the WSG. They're a friendly and certainly 'non-cliquey' bunch and new members are made to feel very welcome.
Images - a few caving shots - Click Here
A few caving quotes.....
Caving is a pursuit where you generally rely on being part of a group for safety reasons. You can cave alone but, of course, the risks are increased although it can be quite enjoyable. In the groups I've caved with, there has generally been a lot of 'interaction' between the various members of the group and a significant amount of cajouling and 'mickey taking' has resulted. There have also been some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) incidents whilst underground such as falling into the potholes in the streamway in Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, which will only seem hilarious to the participants. However, there have been a few memorable quotes and I present a few here.
Broadest South Wales accent....."You like chocolate then, do you boys???" - shopkeeper in Hirwaun as he returned with a box after we asked him if he had any more Mars Bars in addition to the 20 or so on display.
Again, broadest South Wales accent....."I got this pimple on my 'ead - see" - man to Pharmacist, ahead of us in the queue in chemist shop in Glyn Neath.
"Oh! another hang-gliding accident then?". - Nurse at Prince Charles Hospital Merthyr as we presented Chris after a fall in Little Neath.
"Leo, - what is the meaning of life??......mmmmmm.............well it's not my wetsuit..." Dave Harris talking in his sleep one night at Caerllwyn after a heavy session at the Red Lion.
Walking back along the road to Maine's barn after a trip in Swildons, (wetsuited and clearly from another planet), we were accosted by a young 'A' level student (and her mother) and persuaded to take part in a 'survey'. After twenty or more searching questions, specifically about the locality, we could tell they were less than impressed by our lack of intimate local knowledge. ....."and finally", she asked, ... "where do you live?"......."Brighton", came the reply.
Accidents and Injuries - Not to be repeated.....
Hamish ended up with a gash to his head after being discovered semi-conscious having fallen head first onto a chair from the top bunk level at Caerllwyn. By the morning it was a congealed mess which caused some discussion as to the necessity of having it stitched. Hamish was taken to the hospital where they steri-stripped the gash back together and sent him on his way. The next few days caving were a bit uncomfortable as his caving helmet headband lay right over the top of the gash.
Chris ended up in Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr after falling in Genesis Inlet on an exploratory trip with Graham. "One moment we were both chimneying about 15 feet up the inlet, when next nanosecond Chris wasn't there!". He'd slipped and gone feet first back down the chimney, cracking his head open as his feet were flicked out from underneath him by the sloping floor. This rendered him unconscious with blood everywhere. Skipping further details, it was a struggle to reach the surface, and there followed 3 days bed and bored (sic) and a massive needle in the backside. The remainder of the group continued caving taking advantage of other WSG members with leaderships for Dan-yr-Ogof and OFD 1. We also went over to Llangattock to Agen Allwedd, picking Chris up on the journey back to the cottage.
Hamish plummeted 20 feet whilst climbing upstream in Pant Mawr Pot. He landed on his back in a narrow pool containing about 6" of water - no lasting injury (apart from his pride!).
Chris also sustained a gash to the hand on a Swinsto through trip. This required attention - this time at Lancaster Hospital.
Was it only these two who were injured??
As a member of the Westminster Spelaeological Group, I have caved extensively in South Wales where the club's headquarters are. Caerllwyn Cottage is situated on the southern extremity of the Brecon Beacons National Park, about 4 miles North West from Aberdare.
South Wales - Caves exist in many places across the limestone regions of South Wales, particularly to the south of the Black Mountain and Brecon Beacons, the Gower Peninsular, the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley. The caves of the Black Mountain are characteristically river caves.
Caves visited in this area include: Agen Allwedd, Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, Cwm Dwr Quarry Cave, Ogof Fechan, Tunnel Cave, Dan-yr-Ogof, Porth-Yr-Ogof, Ogof Afon Nedd Fechan (Little Neath River Cave), Ogof y Darren Cilau, Ogof Dreanen, White Lady Cave, Bridge Cave, Town Drain, Pant Mawr Pot, Shakespeare's Cave, Cathedral Cave, Ogof Rhaeadr Ddu, Eglwys Faen, Price's Dig, Wills Hole, Llanelly Quarry Pot.
Mendip - This compact area about 20 miles south of Bristol and Bath has some excellent caves, ranging in length from a few metres to a few kilometres. Many of the caves here have been hard won by digging.
Caves visited in this area include: Swildons Hole, Sidcot Swallet, Eastwater Cavern, Cuckoo Cleeves, Hunter's Hole, Manor Farm Swallet, Longwood Swallet, GB Cave, Read's Cavern, Rod's Pot Sludge Pit Hole, Nine barrows Swallet, North Hill Swallet, Aveline's Hole, Goatchurch Cavern.
Derbyshire - The Peak District has many fine caves - a mix of horizontal and vertical systems.
Caves visited in this area include: Giant's Hole, Nettle Pot, Peak Cavern, Knotlow Mine.
Yorkshire - The Yorkshire Dales has predominantly vertical systems, (hence the term Pothole).
Caves visited in this area include: Alum Pot, Diccan Pot, Swinsto Hole, Gaping Ghyll Cavern, Tatham Wife Hole, Meregill Hole, Upper Long Churn, Lower Long Churn.
Other Areas - Devon, North Wales, North West Scotland and of course Ireland.
The WSG website is here Westminster Spelaeological Group
The new British Caving Assoc.
The Council of Southern Caving Clubs (CSCC) Link
National Cave, Karst and Mine Register Link
British Cave Research Association Link
South Wales Caving Club. Link
Caves Org Link
Caving UK (Descent Magazine) Link
British Geological Survey - Geological maps of the UK on line. Link
NAMHO National Association of Mining History Organisations. Link
You've got an ascender or descender but don't know what it is ... try this site! Vertical Devices! Link
Caving Supplies in Matlock Derbyshire (Shop and Mail Order) Link
Dragon Caving Supplies (Now sadly gone).
Kit in the USA - mail order - Link.
Ogof Fynnon Ddu - the deepest cave in britain - Ogof.net- Link
Caves of South Wales - Ogof.org.uk - Link
Books ..... Note for library users - The Dewey system categorises Geology at 551.44 and 'Spelunking' and 796.525. Caving books will be found in both sections.
Mendip: Its Swallet Caves and Rock Shelters. H.E.Balch 1937 - revised 1941. John Wright and sons. Bristol. Simpkin Marshall (1941) London.Challenge Underground. Bruce Bedford
The Great Caving Adventure. Martyn Farr.1984. Oxford Illustrated Press.
The Darkness Beckons. Martin Farr. c1980 Diadem.
Ten Years Under the Earth - Norbert Casteret, 1939, J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd. (French Translation from 'Dix ans sous terre', published in France, 1933).
My Caves - Norbert Casteret - 1947, J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd.(translations from French)..
The darkness Under the Earth - Norbert Casteret.- 1952, (English Translation 1954) J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd.
More Years Under the Earth - Norbert Casteret.- 1962, Neville Spearman Ltd.
"The Limestone and Caves of Britain" series.....Published By David and Charles.
The Limestone and Caves of the Mendip Hills- Edited By D.I. Smith and D.P. Drew. 1975.
The Limestone and Caves of North West England. A.C.Waltham and M.M.Sweeting.
The Limestone and Caves of The Peak District.
The Limestone and Caves of South Wales.
The History Of Mendip Caving. By Peter Johnson. David and Charles 1967.
Down to a Sunless Sea. J.M Boon. 1967. Stalactite Press, Edmonton.Alberta. Canada.
British Caves and Potholes. P.R.Deakin and D.W.Gill. 1975. D.Bradford Barton Ltd. Cornwall. ISBN 0 85153 239 X
A Pictorial History Of Swildon's Hole. Wessex Cave Club 1975. (Limited Edition).
Caves of South Wales by Tim Stratford. ISBN 0-904405-43-5
Mendip Underground by Dave Irwin and Tony Knibbs
Mendip - The Complete caves and a View of the Hills - Nicholas Barrington and William Stanton. ISBN 0-9501459-2-0
©GA 2002-2003. Last updated 15th Jan 2003.