Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for December, 2013

Conversations with Lily: in which Lily decides hols are not for her

Monday, December 30th, 2013

This is basically why Lily didn’t go on holiday with us this year.  It’s a long story, make a cuppa first.

Back story:

last year, we went to Yorkshire for a week, our family holiday.  Mark, Lily and me.

Yorkshire in August – well, I liked it a lot. Despite the rain we had on 4 of the days, despite the frost we had 1 day (bonus:  it didn’t rain).  I think what may have scarred Lily was the caving trip I took her and Mark on.  Not actually a proper caving trip all kitted up, squeezing, climbing and so on ‘cos they don’t cave and I don’t lead anyone and I’ve never caved in Yorkshire.

BUT I had heard about this very cool cave-club thing that they do up there twice a year, called The Gaping Gill Winch-Meet.  Over 2 of the bank holiday weeks, including August, a cave club sets up and runs 3 days of public access into the mouth of a huge underground space called Gaping Gill.  In order to get 100s of visitors down there, they divert the small river that runs into it, thus creating a space to set up a winch-seat.  The engineering for this feat is amazing.

Only 1 ‘caver’ can be winched down at a time.  Bear that in mind.

You cross the scaffold-planks and are seated on the chair, lightly bolted in and then they winch you into and down the mouth of Gaping Gill.  It’s several hundred feet and basically, despite what they say, you go through a waterfall and get soaking wet to your scanties – unless you are in full waterproofs. We weren’t.  We had waterproof jackets, hats and boots – mine were not waterproof as it happened, by the end of the day;  but not waterproof trousers and to be honest, not the sort of North Sea Deep Fishing Trawler-man style kit that the weather and then the waterfall demanded.

In my defence (and I was in the dock for this adventure –  in fact, I still am) their website mentions the wisdom of  ‘appropriate’ clothing as it is ‘damp’.  Hmmm.

This was the first full day of the holiday and to get to the cave you have to hike about 4 miles of what starts as paths but then degenerates to craggy moorland – or whatever it is in Yorkshire  – with a fair bit of rock scrambling and so on.  To get to the village where you leave your car in order to set off on this route march in the first place, we also had to drive 40 miles of pretty but winding lanes.

The Yomp To The Site

To get there early is the key.  As it turns out, I think that even if you arrived in the dark, you’d still be numbers 471, 472 and 473.  Remember, only 1 person can descend at a time.  But we didn’t know that, Your Honour.  However, I roused my slumbering fellow-cavers at 6 am on the first morning of the holiday, after our 8 hour drive the day before, with a sustaining cooked breakfast, made a picnic and we shipped out of the cottage, with varying degrees of enthusiasm at 7. By 8.30 we were booted and suited, yomping across to the meet.

As we marched onwards and the path gave way to track and then to moor and rock, we gradually found ourselves among small groups of fellow hikers, which grew to a throng as, 4 miles and about and hour and a half later, we saw, in the distance:  Camp Gaping Gill.

We Approach The Destination…

Now we numbered several hundred.  It felt oddly apocalyptic – prophetically as it turned out.  In the distance, a motley collection of tents clustered about a stony river, which were some distance from the actual site which had a winch-house and a bizarrely angled walk-way of planks, barriers and scaffold erected at the entrance to Gaping Gill itself – a gigantic space, looking for all the world like a scene from Jurassic Park, with water pelting in from the diverted stream-way and forming a boiling, thundering waterfall.

The Main Site

In groups, our fellow Gaping Gill-ers slid down the muddy banks and path to the hollow in the moors that housed this frankly rather hell-like scene, where we queued.  NOT to go down the winch, but to get a ticket to go down the winch.  Under a flimsy white small marquee style tent huddled some of the cave club volunteers, dressed as if for an arctic expedition, as well they might, this being August Bank Holiday Sunday…they doled out the numbered arm bands and raked in the mountains of cash.  We were 471, 472 and 473.  How long, we enquired, would it take to get to us?  Oh, about 2 hours, maybe 3 at the most.

Slightly dismayed, we retreated with our armbands and minus the price of a flight to Paris from Bristol if you’re OK with Easy Jet.  The numbers being lowered were displayed on a board.  Every 30 minutes or so, a cave club volunteer’s child would dart out of a tent or hole in the ground, and move the number displayed, up.  At that moment, it mentioned that numbers 80 – 100 were about to descend.  One at a time, remember.  There being only 1 chair, it’s a double process of course – 1 up, and later, 1 down.

Not really daunted, I suggested a walk while we waited because 2 or 3 hours is, after all, nothing when the scenery is so beautiful and the walking so tempting.  Is it?  Lily murmured that we’d already hiked 4 miles and had a further 4 miles to hike back to look forward to – but I think she was just excited about the trip.

We set off, striking out away from the camp and towards the welcoming hills.  My goodness!  Doesn’t the moorland in Yorkshire get wet?  It wasn’t raining but probably due to the long wet summer, it was soaked.  Or maybe it’s just always a boggy marshland, I don’t really know.  Lily was wearing my walking boots and I was wearing my second best boots.  Which are no longer waterproof, as I discovered about 15 minutes after starting to plough through the emerald-green hummocks of spongy, wet-through turf and moss.  I decided not to lower the tone of our day by mentioning this, let alone moaning about it.  I can only wish that the others had been able to adopt a similarly stoical attitude to the challenges that the day was to offer.  But, they didn’t.

Just as the camp was out of sight, the sky began to darken.  The wind roused itself from what had been a playfully nippy breeze into a series of fairly insistent, damp gusts.  We decided to head back and have our picnic, because surely the sun would come out soon and we’d be able to while away the remaining hour or so with some people-watching, knitting and reading.  Our back pack contained food and water of course plus gloves and scarves – this being a summer holiday in Yorkshire – my knitting and books.

Most of the trippers had the same idea and spaces on the cold, damp rocks around the river were in demand, but we snuggled in and ate our picnic.  Which took about 15 minutes.  We read – that is to say Lily read my book, having forgotten her own, Mark read a map and I knitted.  I did this until, frankly, my hands were just too cold and stiff to go on.  At one point, as I knitted – it was a grey and lemon Moebius – a lady walked past me and said:  That is the first sensible thing I have seen today!  I had to agree, but did so silently so as not to discourage the others.

After 2 hours, we stiffly walked the few yards to the number display area.  Surely they had forgotten to up-date it?  it still said only 200 and something.  Mark queried this with the people in the ticket-tent.  No, there was no mistake, it was just a bit slow today.  Mark came back and enjoyed a few moments of mental maths before returning to the ticket tent – his 3rd of about, oh, let’s say 10 visits in all that day, to explain that at this rate, we’d be here for hours and those with numbers higher than ours would be there all night.

I think they were grateful for this input.

Then, it started to rain.  It rained so hard that the landscape went grey, the sky was black, the hills vanished in the sheeting weather and the wind really got going.  Aside from the winch-station and the camp of  living tents that the cave club members and volunteers were staying in, there was only the ticket tent and a smaller tent beside it, with  three sides and an open front, where back-packs could be stowed while you descended.  This was half full of back-packs but eventually all the remaining trippers – aside from those who had hiked a long way while waiting and were presumably deploying survival tactics on the moors – attempted to force themselves into this tiny space.

A long period elapsed, in which the creeping cold from my boots, wet trousers and the gap at the back of my jacket took their toll, but it was worse for Lily because she is so unused to The Outdoors or Weather and this was Weather of Biblical proportions. My plan was to wait until it stopped, see if we could get the money back and then hike back.

But…and I am not proud of this – I so wanted to go down Gaping Gill!  I had heard so much about it, seen the pictures, and now I’d made it to the winch-meet, spent a thoroughly miserable 4 plus hours getting there and waiting about…it seemed such a shame to turn back now…

Once the deluge let up, a lot of less hardy (though better dressed) hikers cashed in their arm-bands and high-tailed it back down the moor to the village.  Instead of joining them, as I suppose we should have, this gave me hope.  Surely now, with fewer people to go, our turn would come quickly.  There followed one of those agonizing periods of indecision where you really do know what you ought to do – but are torn because this is not what you want to do.

I wanted to sit on a rock and stare alternately at the people being winched down (and up); and the slowly rising number display.  I noted that, wet though we all were, those that came up were not just wet, they were literally soaked.  They exited the chair and walk-way with water actually streaming off them.  Lily and Mark noticed this too.

We prevaricated for so long that eventually we reached the point of no return – and soon it was our turn to be given a playschool-style yellow hard hat (no light) and join the queue on the walk-way.  Down, one at a time, we went.  I was determined to do this with my eyes open, because when climbing wire ladders in caves I often find that I have screwed my eyes closed which makes it awkward and also, I wanted to see this famous Gaping Gill.

It was beautiful, a bit frightening and very exciting, going rather faster than you’d imagine, in an open chair, with nothing for your feet and a bar across your tummy, elbows and hands tucked in, past grass and ferns growing in the cliff sides of the cave-mouth; then out of the light and into the Gaping mouth of the Gill, past water-rushed rocks and then – shockingly – through a waterfall that bangs and raps on your hard-hat for just a few seconds – and suddenly, you’re in the Gill itself, a cathedral-like space, with what looks now like a small opening way above you as you continue, like a spider on a web-strand, to bob quickly down, finally and firmly nudging the cave floor and being grasped by the hands of cave club guides, yanked out of the char and pulled across the space to a sort of  underground beach.

There was Lily, shaking a bit but, you know, basically fine.  Then down came Mark.

There are at least 3 things that strike you at once – there are many more but there are 3 main things:  first, the noise of the waterfall is overwhelming and in order to be able to hear the guide, you have to move unsteadily across the floor of this vast cavern to a place many meters away.  This has the added bonus of getting you away from the thick spray that is chucked out from the waterfall as it both descends and lands, as thick as fast-moving fog, generating its own underground wind, and as hard on your legs and back as a garden hose.

Second, there is a generator and there are some lights.  These eerily light parts of the giant chamber.  Obviously caves do not, as a rule, have light other than that which you take down with you, so this was odd to me, though welcome.  Despite the lights, the space is so huge, they really serve to illustrate how much more there is, unlit.  Very inviting, I felt.  I think it is fair to say this was a not a shared view in our party.

Third, small groups of people, ant-like and dwarfed by the scale of the cavern moved like shadows in all parts of the area that we were allowed to occupy.  Some of these, distinguished by their headlamps, proper caver attire and general ability to stand up and speak without dithering and shaking with cold, were members of the cave club who were our hosts.  The rest were the trippers, aside from a few ‘real’ cavers who take the opportunity offered by the meet, to use the winch and get down the Gill by this means in order to dive off down or up one of the ways that the cave system ‘goes’ from this space.

A lovely, knowledgeable club member showed us round and pointed out the ways that real cavers could go on from here, explained about the geology of the system and patiently answered our (my) many questions.  We were with a really nice couple with whom we’d struck up a Blitz-style friendship, the kind forged in the adversity of a rain-soaked August Bank Holiday spent together, huddled in a back-pack store.  She – a Yorkshire lady who spoke quite plainly about what was on her mind – had formed some very strongly held views on the entire expedition, ranging from the hike up to the meet and ending with the cave itself.  He – a mild-mannered yet clearly doggedly determined man – simply smiled and squeezed her hand – what he could grasp of it, since their hands were so firmly swaddled in Gortex Arctic gloves, as well they might be, this being August, down a cave, in Yorkshire.

The club member who showed us round told me that some Wessex Cave Club members (WCC is the club I belong to in Somerset) were at the meet and were helping, and camping, in the little tented-village.  Excited, he explained that next year, I could come back and do the same and they’d winch me down the Gill on a non-public day and teach me to SRT!  This is a sort of self-winching climbing technique.  Well, I expect the subdued reaction that this news provoked in Lily and Mark was possibly because they hadn’t quite heard him, over the thundering  roar of the water and the growl of the generator.   But the Yorkshire lady had heard him alright and she grabbed my arm and articulated her firmly held view that such a plan would be folly, urging me to dismiss the offer.  I’m paraphrasing.

An ominous queue was forming on the beach where we had landed.  It slowly dawned on me that getting out wouldn’t be a simple matter of hopping on the chair whenever we were ready.  Again we had to wait, but now we waited in a further state of seriously cold misery and really, for the first time that day I was anxious because I do go downhill, as it were, very fast when I am cold.  Lily was the same and I felt very guilty, so I (rashly as it turned out) promised her fish and chips for supper and hot weather for the rest of the week, while urging her to imagine that she was on a beach, in Spain or somewhere warm and sunny.

Finally, it was our turn and Lily was sent up first.  I told her, more in hope than expectation, to await us while standing in any patch of late afternoon sunshine that might be up there.  I was then ushered into the chair-waiting area, a space so infested with jetting waterfall water and spray, you might as well be naked, and then shoved into the chair, my spirits soaring with its ascent.

Until, at about 100 feet above ground and 100 feet or so short of the light, it stopped.  This had not happened before, so far we knew and I had watched that wretched chair’s progress all day.  It swung, to and fro.  A rising sense of panic forced a squeak of fear from me, loud enough for Mark to hear and look up…then I thought, woman-fully, of my club, The Wessex of which I am proud if intermittent and fairly dismal member – and I knew that I must not scream, for that would be shaming.  This is absolutely true.  I had told him I was a Wessex member and he had invited me back, next year, to cave there.  I couldn’t bring shame on myself or the Wessex now and anyway, if the chair was going to plummet back down and kill me as it did so, it would do so whether I screamed or not.  This is possibly the most rational reaction I have ever experienced to anything in a cave so far – and it is also the only reason I don’t scream more when caving.

Slowly, jerkily, I was returned to the cave floor.  Shaking so that my legs almost gave way, I staggered out of the cursed chair and was detained in the jet-stream of the waterfall area by the kindly but dry-suited operatives while they sent the chair up and down empty a few times to test the mechanism.  Mark later said, in his usual understated and brief way, that had the damage to the winch been long-term ‘we’d have been in trouble, it was that cold’.  Lily later said that she felt – let’s go with alarmed – when, waiting in the sliver of evening sun that she was able to locate, she saw an empty chair arrive – and disappear.

Well anyway, clearly we did all  get out and then I deployed my leadership skills by encouraging the others to jog as safely as you can jog down a boulder-strewn, soaking wet, muddy moor, back to the car, in order not to lose anymore heat.  By the time we reached grassland and then paths we were almost warm.  The nice couple had of course legged it well before us and I glimpsed them in the car park, through the window of their gigantic and, I assume, cosy motor-home tourer.

Fish and chips may not be procured in rural Yorkshire at 8 pm on a Bank Holiday Sunday.  However, I had hot water for their showers waiting and a Waitrose pizza to cook for them, so it wasn’t all bad.  In all, we were out of the cottage for 14 hours, of which about 1.5 was spent in the cave.

Lily often refers to it.  I am no longer allowed to organise or even suggest day trips.

Fast-forward to 2013.  We begin the painful process of planning our holiday.  Mark finds a cottage in Angelsey, with notes about the quality of the cycling, canoeing and walking.  I begin to look for cave clubs…

Me:  Lils, dad has found a lovely looking cottage for a holiday this summer.


Me:  it’s near 3 beaches…?

Lily:  I have told you, I am not going on holiday again.

Me:  it’s not in Yorkshire.

Lily:  Good!

Me:  it’s on Anglesley.

Lily:  is that abroad?

Me:  no.

Lily:  where is it *with marked suspicion*

Me:  it’s in North Wales.

Lily:  no! Just *struggles for words* just…NO!

Me:  now look, you have to get over Gaping Gill  – *cut off by withering look and further outburst*

Lily:  I’m over it, oh I am so over it!  I’m never going on holiday again, that’s that.

Me:  that’s an over-reaction. OK, it wasn’t great but we laugh about it now, right?

Lily:  I don’t laugh about it, no.


Me:  what if it was a luxury villa in Greece?

Lily:  no.

Me:  what if it was in Scotland?

Lily:  for God’s sake mum, what is wrong with you?

Me:  imagine how dull your hols would be without me.


Me:  …Lily…?


So this year we went to Matlida in Wales and Lily stayed at home with the dogs and Florence.