Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for the ‘Caves’ Category

A Bruising Encounter with Honeymead Hole

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017

Honeymead Hole is a small, spiky cave on the Mendips, near Maesbury.  It is unlocked, situated in a shallow depression in a field and guarded by a heavy metal hinged cover.  This cover is too heavy for me to lift!

Here is a short film of the opening (digging, as opposed to a champagne reception) of the cave in the ’90s, by Wessex member, Pete Hann.

It was a new cave for me, so I was glad to go with Florence and Will who had been there the week before on a club trip.  I like new caves.  I don’t cave as much as I did at the start of my caving adventures but I do still go and when I go, I (mainly) really enjoy it.  However if you don’t go fairly often, you do lose your cave fitness and also become slightly softer.  Honeymead Hole is not for the soft.

It is a short network of largely vertical passages.  The entrance is a lovely smooth-sided concrete shaft with a thoughtful fixed metal ladder.  No rope/belay needed, you’d be hard pressed to fall off, even me. This is about 25 feet long, and this shaft gives way to cave at the bottom; there is another very short metal ladder that gets you past an awkward bit and then you’re climbing down cave walls.

Basically, it is a very small cave, tight in places.  The interesting thing for me is the shale-layers that you can see as you descend, and within this, fossils.  There are a few sections with fairly pretty small formations and I think if it was less muddy, there would be crystals to be seen on the walls here and there. The rock is not smooth as is often is in some caves in the Mendips.  Maybe it doesn’t get a lot of traffic, (this wears the passages smooth in some places) but I think it is just different from many Mendip Caves.  It is jagged and spiky.  The dark rocks grip your suits and gloves and it makes maneuvering yourself through small spaces quite tricky and painful.

There is a series of fairly easy climbs down and a couple of places where you need to post yourself through gaps on the floor, with low ceilings so you are on your back or your side and thrutching.  The main area of this sort of frankly joyless activity is shortly after the first electron ladder pitch.  I think this pitch would be free-climbable even by me if I had a hand-line.  As it was, we pitched an electron ladder that we took with us but didn’t bother to belay anyone.  I am not a big fan of these wire ladders but this was easy.

This gets you into a small chamber and then on, downwards to some other climbs.  Then a short section of tight tubing, only very sharp and pointy.  The first bit is fine, it is small but you’re able to wriggle along on your back fairly easily.  The end, however, narrows and though it’s not a true squeeze – you never had to man-handle your boobs or hips and force yourself past a rock as you do in some squeezes – it is tight and constricted – and slightly on a down slope.  The lower part of this tube-like section  – so about the lower 12 inches – is really narrow so you need to be above this height – but you can’t crawl or stand, obviously, you have to be lying down, on one side.  So you have to hold your body weight up on one arm and then sort of thrutch forwards.  I was advised to go feet first and I ought to have done so but I wanted the extra control I felt I would have by being able to see (you can’t turn your head once committed to this bit).  This was an error.  I could not support myself on my left arm for long enough, or turn over, so I collapsed. It was fine, I slowly dragged myself on, but you must beware getting the leading arm trapped under your body.  I eventually hauled myself onto Will who was waiting for me at the end, where it opened out into a lofty 4 feet of space.

Onward, to a further little climb, some pokey bits, over a pitch (which we didn’t do but if you do it, it does need a ladder) and onto another pitch that goes down to Blood Alley or up to The Gods.  I watched Will free climb up and down to all of this but did not go.  If I was to go back I would probably be able to get up and down to these with just a hand line I think.  There is a bolt if you want to rig.

This point is not far off the end of the cave; there are other bits and pieces, much of it smaller and probably even spikier than what we encountered. My little mini-meltdown in the squeeze meant I needed 3 glucose tablets and a drink of water.  Then the return trip.  I was dreading the squeezing passage but as is almost always the case, it was easier doing it up and I went head first and managed to stay up on my arm for the really tight part. Fear is a great trainer. The climbs back up were all easier – the cave, whilst really pointy and sharp, does offer excellent hand and foot holds for climbing about.  The issue is really that the climbs are also quite tight, so you have to climb and post yourself into small spaces.

This cave sometimes has ‘bad air’ – low levels of CO2.  I had a bad headache for much of this trip and was breathless at times.  It is normal to be breathless if you exert yourself, especially in very small, hot spaces where you have to use a lot of energy to make a little progress, but I was much more breathless than usual.  I was also unable to recover, which I generally do very quickly, so Will thought maybe there was c0.5% – 1.00% CO2.  In places.  It was fine in the first sections. So if you go there, read up on the signs of CO2 intake and beware.  My headache more or less went away on exiting the cave.

The wire ladder up was great with a dead easy exit, and then, after one or two more climbs and a narrow, short thrutch, you are back at the climb up to the metal ladders.  A strong person needs to go up first to push the lid, I could not have done it.

I was exhausted by this 2.5 hour trip because it was all really physical.  No walking passage at all, and very little crouching passage.  It is you, in an extended series of vertical or horizontal hugs, from start to finish.  On returning home, I found an impressive array of bruises, mainly on my elbows and arms, but also on both hips.  This is testemony to the way I forced by body through the tiny spaces and also my lack of cave hardiness.  However, I loved it! Will go back.

Some Of The Things I Am Still Doing

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

I am still:

  • allottmenting
  • caving
  • running
  • cycling

Today:  CAVING!

It is fair to say that, though I am still caving, I do it a lot less frequently and consequently even less well that I did a couple of years ago which is really saying something.  I caved a few times in 2016 and then last month, we went to South Wales to cave in Aggen Allwedd, a cave often nick-named Aggy.

We stayed at the hut of the Chelsea Speleological Society – they own this cottage, which is called White Walls (misleading; it is grey) which they acquired in the 1960s and renovated from an almost complete wreck.  This is the hut, with me wearing three layers under TWO winter coats:

White Walls - ACS outside hut

I am not someone who does well in cold conditions.  I like heat, sunshine, open fires, central heating, hot showers, electric blankets etc.  So going to South Wales in February, to a hut I had been warned was ‘basic’ in terms of mod-cons was a gamble.  And it was a very cold weekend – but it was OK! The place has central heating which though basic, does really warm up the sitting room; and we found a fan heater too.  The kitchen has no heating, and there is no door between it and the sitting room so that was tricky; and the scullery off the kitchen is unheated, cavernous and absolutely freezing.  This is where they keep the crockery, pans and the fridge – also this is where you wash up.

It is a tiny cottage, and the extensions they have done are (I think) all for the kit/shower/drying areas which are excellent in terms of space.  So upstairs there is just a landing, loo, library/office (members only) and a bunk room, sub-divided into a larger area for guests and a smaller members bunk room.  It’s cosy.

The sitting room, the kitchen, and the drying/shower room:

White Walls sitting room

White Walls shower and drying kit room

White Walls kitchen

The setting is just stunning, with perfect views over the valley and across to some other hills.  It is very remote but on good, tarmac roads and there are inhabited cottages nearby.  I loved it.  In summer, and at £5 a night, it would make an amazing base for walking.

This was the view that evening:

White Walls view

On the first afternoon, having arrived with about 2 hours of daylight, we walked to the cave entrance which is just over a mile away via a level, easy footpath.  This is a beautiful walk and dead flat.

The next day, we woke to snow and for a few hours it snowed quite hard.  But it didn’t cause any real problems as we were walking to the cave anyway. So off we set and entered the cave at about 11.00 am.  The entrance is a locked steel solid gate, through which you crawl and then this gives out into a low rocky passage which is a hands-and-knees crawl to bigger passage.  This is the entrance to the cave. Note icicles:

White Walls cave and icicles

White Walls - cave entrance

From here, you quickly encounter a rift passage which I did not like as it wasn’t wide enough to have your back on one wall and knees or feet on the opposite wall; nor did I think it was quite wide enough for me to drop down and squeeze along at floor level.  Florence just climbed up and shimmied along with knees and elbows out to rift over the drop at about 6 feet up.  I had a mini-melt-down.  But I did it in the end, with a lot of help, though there were actual tears.  The next bit of cave is the same, only this time I just dropped to the floor as it looked marginally less tight, and with one arm out and moving sideways, I shuffled through – and it wasn’t really tight, there was just one bit where I had to squish my boobs up and down to get past a tight-ish rock (my biggest body-measurement!) and then a little climb up at the very end.

Then you are just in climby, bouldery passage where you can walk, crouch and crawl with a few bits of flat-out belly crawling where the ceiling is really low – though at no point is there a tight squeeze and the low bits are nice and wide so it feels OK, even though there are two places where you have to have your head on one side or your helmet will get stuck. It is (or was in the tiny section I did) dry-ish with some pools and you do encounter a stream-way but I only heard it. There is just a lot of climbing, nothing really horrid but the boulders are massive and very slippery.  It was tiring.  In the rest of the cave, there are extensive areas of stream-way which Florence and Will have done to reach The Courtesan.  This is a spectacular formation which I will never see.

This rocky passage then begins to climb and you enter the boulder choke (do NOT go into the dig!) and then you are in Main Chamber.  Our destination was The Music Room, but this is c30 minutes of what I believe is easy walking passage on from Main Chamber.  I never made it. I was tired, largely I think due to my early panic in the first rift, which releases adrenaline and then I get very shaky.  This has not happened for a long time but I remember and know the symptoms.  I had two glucose tablets which really helped but I was thinking about getting back through the choke, back along the climby passages and of course, the last rift, so I had to tell them I was fine to cave out – but might not be OK for another hour plus on top of that.  So we turned back and caved out.

It was, of course, so much easier on the way back.  We were underground for just over three hours and I found it a physically very tiring trip but that may just be lack of cave-fitness and the full-on panic attack early on.  I thought those days were behind me.

When we pushed open the heavy metal gate and wriggled out, the snow had almost stopped and the day was very cold, but bright and beautiful.  I will be back, Aggy, and this time, I will go to the Music Room and even venture a little way along the Southern Streamway…


Caving and Quarrying

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Last year, I caved a lot from January to September and then stopped.  I do this from time to time.  Florence and Will caved less and I always and only cave with them, as I have insufficient skills and confidence to cave with anyone else or anyone from my club.  Anyway, we are resuming and we kicked off our year with a walking-trip to Box.  Box is a mine, but purists will point out that it is a quarry.  If this sort of distinction interests you (it did me, a bit) I refer you to the Institute of Quarrying.  You are most welcome.

This quarry (mine) is a network of dozens of miles – yes, miles – of tunnels.   Here is a good brief description and scroll down for some clear images of what you will see in Box.

The entrance is locked and unlike many locked caves, it does not have a fail-safe door or gate that will always allow exit, so if you were admitted by a party with a key and they locked it once inside, you would be locked in.  I am imagining you all packing your picnics and setting off to Box this weekend, you see so I am just warning you. Here is the main way in from Box village:

There is a very brief and muddy entrance crawl.  All the rest of the trip is walking and scrambling at most.  This is not caving.  It is cave-like in that it is almost all utterly dark, so you need hard-hats and lights, back up lights, good boots and clothes that are warm and that you do not mind getting trashed.

This trip was most notable for being the first time we have lured Lily underground.  Here is Lily, working a Zoolander approach to ‘caving’ gear, with her friend, who also joined us for this ‘fun’ day out.  This was before we went in:

We were a party of 7.  We had a survey which is next to useless once you walk about 20 meters from the entrance.  We had 2 people with us who had been in Box twice.  We all had the right gear.  We also despite all of that, got hopelessly lost.  But to be fair, we were warned that this would happen.

There is graffiti everywhere in the main tunnels, much of which is possibly helpful as it was written by explorers to aid route-finding.  But beware as I think much of it is bogus or just inaccurate.  Each tunnel splits, left and right, and then each new way splits and so on, creating a seemingly infinite network of tunnels, most of which look identical to one another.  A short way in, you reach The Cathedral. This is a vast chamber with a large gap in the ceiling way above you, admitting daylight.  Looking up from the bottom of the pit:

From this hub, passages divert and within moments, you are in a maze.  The things that most interested me were the relics of quarrying that litters this place. For example, an old stone-cutters two-man saw, embedded in a stone, still operable. Here are 2 of our explorers mining:

The quarry (mine) dates back to Roman times, but quarrying continued until the 1960s.  At the far end of one of the passages, the MOD has a locked facility underground.  One day, I hope to get closer to this area.

But perhaps the most poignant feature is the writing on the cut stone walls of the passages.  All over, in pencil, are words and more often, sums.  The miners worked out their sums for quantities of stone cut and moved, and related it to what they would be paid.  Here are some:

I wouldn’t mind going back for a longer trip – there is a good through trip which can take some hours – with a knowledgeable leader.  I was afraid when we got so lost this time, because unlike caves, there is no real way for route-finding by feature or obstacle.  I also worried that we had finally got Lily underground and then we got lost.  Our trip  was quite brief and we were not lost for very long, but I was unhappy.  People have got very lost in here, for days on end.  If you do go, take a survey, try and get a leader, and make sure you have a reliable call out who knows what to do.

Two weeks later, Florence, Will and I went back to my default cave, GB.  My third ever Mendip cave and my favourite of all the caves I have seen, which to be fair is not a  vast list but it is dozens.  It had been very wet, and the upper series of GP, known as Ladder Dig which I have visited, sumps in wet weather but we were just keen to have a leisurely ‘standard’ round trip.  This involves climbing up the waterfall, and I have done this a few times, but this time was the first time it has been really wet. It was great to see the cave being so lively.  Because of my unique caving style, I like to linger in waterfalls and stream-ways, so I did get very wet.  But, I was also permitted to lead the trip (except for the bits where I might have fallen off the cave) and I loved doing that.  GB is the perfect cave.  Fact.

Cave Hut Life & Cave Hut Knitting

Sunday, July 12th, 2015

You probably don’t know this about me, but when I *like* something, I can get a *bit* obsessive about it.  Say…caving.  I also like the life that goes with it.  Staying in cave huts for example, though to be fair I have only stayed in two.

Recently, I had a nine day holiday in South Wales, staying at the South Wales Caving Club.  There were three days set aside for caving, five for walking in the Brecon Beacons, and one for going to the Harvester in Merthyr.  At lunch time.

I have stayed at SWCC lots of times and it’s a lovely place, but nine days is too long.  I am totally cured of my cave hut dwelling habit and never want to stay in a bunk-house, hostel or similar, ever again.  Which is awkward as I have a three night trip to a hostel in Cornwall booked and paid for so I suppose I will have to go.

Here are my observations about Cave Hut Life:

1)  when All Of The Cavers are about (weekends) it’s noisy, it can be great fun, it’s always messy.

2) when they have all gone, it’s really creepy.  But you can light the fire and it’s all better again! Until bed time…

3) when the sun shines, as it did for several days, you have a feeling of euphoria and think, smugly:  why do people go abroad?  This is better than abroad!

Better than abroad shot:

4) when the rain falls and the wind blows, as it did for several days, you have a feeling of dampening and gathering gloom.  Hence the trip to Merthyr.  An attempt to raise the spirits, partially successful as I ate a meal not cooked by me in the hut kitchen.

5) by Day 3, I was forced to undertake some serious cleaning of the hut in order to continue dwelling there.  All visitors are supposed to clear and clean up after themselves and maybe clean some part of the accommodation, but it was very clear that no such activities had taken place for a long time.  First, I used the new club washing machine to hot-wash all the stinking, wet towels that were heaped up under the sink and starting to hum in the unusual (brief) heat-wave.  As the week progressed, I swept and washed floors, cleaned out the fire, gradually washed up and put away all the dishes that the departed guests had left on the Sunday…but you know, it gave me something to do of an evening.

6) you cannot better the views from SWCC.  When I was fed up, and assuming the mist had lifted, I had only to look out and feel better.  View from the front door in the early morning:

7) never, ever, look under the bunks in a cave hut.  If you drop something and it rolls, just write it off.  And never put your hand down there.

8) be not afraid of the wind in a cave hut.  Whilst the wind howls round the eaves outside, so it gurgles and churns inside too, when All Of The People come back on Friday and start belching/farting with no apparent awareness that they are not at home but in a shared space.  You can ignore it or join in.

9) the long solitary evenings make for good knitting time, this is The Throncho, all cast off but not finished off:

and I also did some extensive re-working on these:

10) you get awfully sick of bunk-room sleeps:

Caves That Are Not That Much Fun, (leading to): A Conversation With Lily

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Some caves are just too hard for me and I will never go there.  Some caves are just too hard for me, but somehow I end up there anyway.  Recently I have caved in two such places.  Longwood Swallet was the first.  It was some weeks ago and it had been really wet for a while, so the cave entrance, which is horrid anyway, was very wet, with water pouring in on you all the time. Not jetting, but enough to be very unpleasant and annoying.

It is a locked cave, but we had the key from the club. And the drive there and the walk to the cave itself are deceptively lovely.  The cave begins with an entirely vertical entrance series, in which Will rigged a hand line.  THANK GOD.  I absolutely hate climbing down when I can’t see any foot or handholds and I almost took my arm off with the strangle hold I had on that rope.  Once I got to the bottom, which took about a week, I was unable to think of anything else except how the hell I was going to climb back out.  We didn’t go much further, and I can’t remember an awful lot of it very clearly but it was wet and small – ducked in fact. Nasty though that bit of cave sounds (and it was) it was so much nicer than the bloody entrance chimney.  Actually as is almost always the case, getting back up was way easier.  But I still hated it.  Will says it was my intro to Longwood, which implies a return trip.  That will not be happening.

Once out, we wandered further along the valley path to another cave nearby, Longwood Valley Sink, the site of an active dig.  Some Wessex members were there, hauling bits of ground out of the, er, ground, I suppose.  Most of them were deep inside, down what looked like a death slide.  I declined a trip but the very nice members at the top urged the willing and able-bodied (Will and Florence) to go, which they did, but they said they felt rather ‘in the way’ of the cave-digging crew so they weren’t long.  I am so glad that there are ardent cave diggers.  They do find amazing things.  I just couldn’t be one. Literally, all I’d be good for would be making tea, after.

For some reason, after this less than happy day, Will and Florence thought it’d be a treat to go to another dig, Spider Hole, which is half-way along the Cheddar Gorge and up the side of the cliff.  Again, an active dig spear-headed by the Wessex.  We had in mind a fairly quick evening trip.  I asked Lily to be our call-out, in case there was no one at the hut.  I blithely suggested that if they didn’t hear from us by 10 pm, then begin making calls – to the hut, to us, to the pub etc, before initiating a rescue.   To start a cave rescue, you ring 999, ask for the police and then tell them it’s a cave rescue and they co-ordinate the rest.  In theory. In practice, seasoned cavers, if their mates were over their call-out time – and ‘over’ varies from dead on the dot, to an hour or so after, would weigh things up.  In this time, you might try their mobiles in case they are in fact in the pub and forgot to call you; or you might call the cave hut they went from, if they did; or the Hunters Lodge Inn, Priddy, global nerve-centre of all Mendip cave activity, especially resue.  By then, it might be over an hour.

There is a fine line between not over-reacting, and on the other hand, not wanting to cock-up a call-out where a party might really be in trouble. But it is just so very rare.  So the next step might be to send someone to the place where the car might be parked.  If it’s gone, they’re out or they never parked there in the first place.  Anyway, it usually resolves itself with no-one having to be rescued or leave a pint to go cold in The Hunters.  However, I suspect if they knew I was involved, they’d hope for the best but fear the worst…

So. We were in Spider Hole.  We anticipated a quick trip.  This took no account whatsoever of my extreme reluctance to go down the hole, which looked like Longwood only dry.  In fact, it was much nicer than Longwood, but it still took a while.  The remainder of the cave is a weird combination of very impressive engineering executed by the epic digging team, and very impressive deathy drops of many 1,000 feet (I am guessing) down little tiny rifts between sheer rock faces.  FANTASTIC!

Perhaps you can imagine the faffing (from me).  But I did get down the wire ladders kindly rigged by Will and Florence and (as you can see) I got back up, as well.  Always a bonus.  I can report that there is a really big space at the bottom and that digging continues.  It may well be a VID (very important dig) and I stand ready to make the fruit cake to celebrate the next, um, important thing.  I was impressed – if by impressed, you mean terrified – by the tiny ledges you have to shuffle along over the holes of death, in order to get within hailing distance of the ladder; and by the work that is being done.  But (and I am not being picky, I am just saying) it’s not pretty, guys.  Is it, now? However, maybe this cave was asked the all-important question:  ‘Right-o, Cave, do you want to be beautiful, dangerous, or important? You can only choose two’.  Caves are rarely all three.  In my vast experience.  If I was a cave (stay with me on this), I’d choose pretty and dangerous; that way, my cave-pretties would be safer from many cavers.  But who’d choose dangerous and important, and totes miss out pretty??  Spider, and Longwood, that is who.  Spider is really good fun coming out.  The engineering that has been done in that blasted chimney is incredible and I didn’t use the rope!  Longwood – take note.

But it was really odd when we finally got out.  It was dark.  Darker than the 9 ish I imagined it to be.  We wandered back to the car and glanced at a phone for the time.  Holy Bat Caves!  it was 4 minutes to 10!!  I knew that with Lily in charge of our call out, there would be no 30 – 45 minutes of grace while she pondered the next step, or rang the pub, or the club.  I knew that my daughter, the most risk-averse member of our family, and also the most organised, would have put an alarm reminder on her phone and be establishing a procedural framework to go forward with the rescue scenario by about 9.30.  With 4 minutes to go, and no phone signal, we got into the car in our stinky, muddy kit, we didn’t even get changed, and drove like born-and-bred locals to the top of the Gorge, to get a sodding mobile signal.  Which we did by 10.03.

Too late.

Lily had already initiated Operation ‘Get My Bloody Mother Out Of The Bloody Cave’.  She is like an Exocet.  At 10 pm, on the stroke, she rang 999, asked for the police, got cut off, rang again, and, having explained that she needed to launch a cave rescue, then explained to the operative in the ’emergency’ call centre what a cave, and then a rescue, actually is.  They simply had no idea whatsoever for which I am eternally grateful.  I have no doubt that in a further 4 minutes, they’d have established an understanding, consulted standing orders and started a whole train of horribly embarrassing things.

This took 4 minutes, at which time, a frantic text from Florence to Lily finally bounced into her mobile, as we crested the Mendips and got a signal.  Lily stood the massed ranks of the emergency services down, even though they had never been mobilised, thankfully, apologised for her incredibly stupid family, and waited.  She waited for this conversation with me, about an hour later, when we got home.

Me (in my caving under-suit, quite damp and with mud in my hair):  I am SOOOO SORRY, but…

Lily (more disappinted than angry? not really, no):  WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT ALL ABOUT??

Me (intake of breath only, no words allowed):

Lily:  you said you’d be back by 9.30!

Me:  well, I did think we would, but it was a longer trip than I had imagined, and our call-out wasn’t until 10…

Lily:  can you even IMAGINE what I was thinking??

Me:  yes, and as I have said, I am very, VERY sorry, it must have been scary, I know but…

Lily:  I thought you’d all DIED!!  In a poxy CAVE.

(Florence, helpfully interjecting from the hall en-route to her shower):  Mum nearly did, and we nearly died of old-age waiting for her to sort herself out.

Lily (correctly ignoring this intrusion):  the police didn’t know a thing about cave rescue, by the way, Mum, they thought I was a nutter!  A bonus in my amazing night. Thanks!

Me:  well, yes I do see that it has been really traumatic. What was dad doing?  (Mark had raised a hand over the top of the Telegraph but remained in the sitting room.  There is usually cycling or golf on Sky from somewhere in the world that requires his attention).

Lily:  he was watching telly.

Me:  so…did you discuss ringing 999 with him?

Lily:  NO!! I was expecting you back at 9.30, so at 10 I just did WHAT YOU SAID!

Me:  yes, right, no, right, I totally DO see that, darling…but the thing is…

(Will, from the porch, coming in from stowing away kit):  best if you ring the caver himself, or the pub first, Lils, in future.

Lily:  IN FUTURE??

Me:  yes, great, really not helping, Will, but thanks.

Me:  look darling I really am most dreadfully sorry that you were so frightened, and you absolutely did the right thing. I just don’t know what I can say now.

Lily:  say you won’t go caving again.

Me:  well…if it is any consolation, it was not worth it, it was a weird and fairly unpleasant evening…

Lily:  well, GOOD.  That makes two of us!

Me:  I won’t go to that cave again, how’s that?

Lily (sighing, collecting her things):  I have college tomorrow. It’s late (it was 11 pm).  We will say no more now, but we will talk about it tomorrow.

Me (internal dialog only):  This really is not worth it.  I am going to eBay all my caving kit.





A Week of Great Contrasts

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

This last week just about sums up my life:  2 days caving in Wales, followed by a knit-wear fashion show in Devon at The Artist Guild.

The weekend was spent at the South Wales Cave Club (SWCC).  On Saturday, a hike up the hill to OFD2 and a 5 hour trip underground, searching for areas of the system called Moonlight and Midnight.  It is 0.5 miles each way to reach the cave on foot, and it is a really beautiful walk.  This is the entrance to the cave:

Once inside, you quickly reach the imaginatively named ‘Big Chamber Near the Entrance’.  It is not pretty, but it is impressive.  This image was taken by Will using a long exposure and our head lights to illuminate the cavernous areas of the chamber – this is really only about one-third of it, too:

En-route, we re-visited ‘tourist’ areas which I have only seen once – Trident and Judge.  This is Trident, an impressive, amber coloured stal many feet long:

There are little challenges, such as The Corkscrew, a little twisty slide/climb with an exposed drop to the left as you go down it.  I remember, the first time I went to this cave, sitting at the top of this climb and crying for about 10 minutes, I was so afraid.  I still do not know how they coaxed me down it.  Now I have done it 3 times, it seems just on the edgy side of normal.  One thing I really like doing is traversing rifts (note to real cavers:  I am aware I may have got all the words wrong, but what I mean is, going along a ledge or even just a bumpy bit of wall, with another bit of wall within arm or leg distance, and a significant drop below.  I like it when you can lean your back or bum on one side and shuffle along sideways with your feet on the wall opposite. On this trip, there is a bit of that, but there was also this short passage with very useful foot-sized ledges on both sides.  This is me, the floor below the rift is not that far, but you wouldn’t want to slip.  It’s a very easy bit of awesomeness – which is the best kind:

I really do love this cave system.  We think we ended up about 10 meters short of Midnight/Moonlight (I am unsure which), but we deviated from the passage we were in to go up an awkward little climb, and into a crawly, muddy passage which then gave out to a really lovely bit of cave, well decorated with straws and stals, plus some crystal formations in the floor.  Here are some images:

On Sunday, the others caved but I went for a very cold and windy, wet walk, and then I stayed in the cave hut and knitted for several hours.  Lovely.

But on Tuesday, I was at Spin-a-Yarn for a fashion show with Martin Storey, which was a really lovely evening.  Here are a few snaps:

The room – this is the Guild.

And some of the goodies:

My advice to anyone (real cavers, look away now) – and I know many of you are in this camp – who wish to have a dual life of caving and knitting is this:  have a super-robust manicure every 3 weeks and cave wearing 3mm thick wet-gloves.  Your nails will be fine.

New Cave: Ladder Dig Extensions in GB Cavern

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

You know how much I love GB Cavern?  You do know, you’ve just repressed the memory.  It’s a lovely cave, big, gentle, and beautiful.  Anyway, I have finally got up into the upper series of GB, known as Ladder Dig.  You cave as ‘normal’; in our case, we did the first half-lap of the standard round trip, but half-way, you deviate upwards, via an electron ladder, into the bit of cave called Ladder Dig.  A previous possible trip some months ago was aborted due to rain.  After heavy rain, Ladder Dig sumps.  But it has been quite dry.

We caved with Wayne (he’s the chap who owns a cave, Cuckoo Cleeve.  Yes, really.  He owns a cave).  He knows Ladder Dig really well.  Usually, when I cave in GB which is a cave I go to more than any others except the Wales caves by SWCC, I just take my time and never tire of staring at the scale and beauty of the place.  I am not a speedy caver.  Except that time I fell off Swildon’s.  That was pretty speedy.

But this time, we absolutely legged it to Ladder Dig, and I was really pleased that I was able to cave fast.  Progress.  A ladder was already rigged by a group ahead of us, so we used their kit and left our ladder at the top for them to rig when they left, which they did.  It’s an easy and short climb with a simple, non-scary exit off the ladder at the top.   Once up, there is a short period of quite unpleasant crawling/lying down wriggling.  And then you come to the muddy duck.

A duck is a confined space with water but an air space.  This duck is not that long, but it is really quite tight.  Not squeeze-tight, but you need to do three things, I think:  1)  bail the muddy water for a bit first and then go through as fast as you can before all the water you bailed runs back in.  There is a very broken bucket by the duck to do this.  When I go back I am going to take a new bucket.  2)  feel about for the loose stones/small boulders that are in the duck, which dips quite a bit, and throw them out.  Will went first and got wedged with some boulders under his arse so we had to send Florence in to liberate the rocks before he could proceed.  And 3) place yourself in the right bit.  It’s not wide, but if you aim for the really low part, there is not room for your helmet.  I know, as I did this on the way back out.  Associated with this, it’s a good idea to move as gently as possible, whilst not hanging about, as rapid or desperate flailing  would just make the tiny air space disappear.  You do this duck on your back, both ways.  It’s really fine, even good fun.  I liked it.  I’m weird.

I did not flail or even feel anxious.  I had a good look at it, watched Will go and then I went.  Coming back was harder I think but only because I got a bit stuck due to going at the wrong angle and had to reverse and go in at the right point. Here is a link to someone else doing the duck on the way out.

We caved on to Bat Passage, a very beautifully decorated chamber.  It’s really gorgeous.  At the end, it is taped, so we stopped and hung about there for a bit but sadly had no camera, and then caved back.  Another trip will take us to Great Chamber, but we needed to get back for travelling home and so on.  Wayne showed us two of the ways to this part of the Ladder Dig Extensions.  I believe there are four routes.  The one we will possibly do involves pitching a short ladder over an otherwise very exposed climb which I know I can do if I am belayed but not otherwise.  At least one of the other ways is via a tight bit, I only know that because we met a caver who had let his party go on because he did not fit through that squeeze.  Wayne told him of another route on, and he went off to explore that.  Anyway, he didn’t look all that big to me, so it must be really tight, or perhaps just very awkward.

We climbed back down the ladder – which the other party had rigged for us, having departed first, and Wayne, last down, abseiled it.  Very cool.  He made a harness of two slings.  Then a spirited cave out via the waterfall climb, which was only moderately wet and very easy.

It was a lovely trip.  Ticked a lot of my caving boxes:  GB (obvs); fun; not scary; pretty; and best of all, a new bit of cave.  Even though I love GB, I have probably only been there maybe nine times, in three years.  Because, I love doing new things far more than repetition.  But having caved more in GB than anywhere else, I do see how repetition makes it seem easier with each trip.

Next up:  Easter caving in Swildon’s, back to Sump 1, onto Sump 2, I hope.  And the next weekend, two full days of caving in Wales, land of the best caves.  Evah.  True fact.  If all goes to plan, I will be leading a trip in OFD 1.  I say leading.  I will be in front.  I never, ever thought I’d be allowed to do that, or want to.  I have done this trip twice and the standard round trip is pretty straightforward, plus they won’t follow me if I go the wrong way. Probs.   We will also be going up into The Waterfall Series, which I have only done once, so I will cease ‘leading’ for that part.


Friday, February 6th, 2015

This is big (caving) news, or at least it is to me.  I have finally, as I begin year three of my caving odyssey, made it to Sump 1 in Swildon’s Hole, and I made it through the sump, which is Sump 1, into the part of the cave system known as Swildon’s Two.

This is me, and Florence, having a quick snap taken by Will in Swildon’s Two, just past the sump.  The road sign must have been lugged through the cave and then through the sump.  It refers to the fact that having tested the water flow with dye, it is clear that there is some passage, as yet un-caved and possibly all submerged, to Wookey Hole from this area of Swildon’s.

Now, Swildon’s and I have history.  It’s The Cave to be seen in.  All the best dressed cavers hang out here.  All the cave-royals, the cave-eratti as it were, are forever scurrying about in Swildon’s, free-climbing the 20 foot waterfall, free-diving the sumps, and generally having a cave-party that I could not attend.  Why?  Because I could not conquer my fear of The Twenty. This is a 20 foot waterfall, generally rigged with a narrow wire ladder. First, you climb down; later, after you and Swildon’s have had an amazing time, you climb back up.  At about 6 feet down, the water hits you.  And to get onto this wire ladder, which seems to me to be flaying wildly about in the water, and the breeze that water generates, you have to insinuate yourself over and round a big bulging boulder.  The fear so freaked me out, I was often almost crying with it as I attempted to get on the blasted ladder and then of course, exhausted by this and the adrenaline that fear produces, shaking with cold, I’d make the most monumental hash-up of the bloody climb itself.

I had climbed it four times before the other week.  Only four.  This was of course part of the problem.  I needed to do it more often.  Instead, I’d go to other caves, especially in South Wales.  But in January, we went caving in Wales and I climbed over a tricky little bit called Poached Egg.  And I thought:  this is very much like the nasty boulder as you get on the ladder at The Twenty. And furthermore (I thought), I did that.  I was not sobbing or shaking.  I was fine.  The next weekend we went to Swildon’s.

Another factor is stamina. I thought I had good stamina before I started caving.  I could run 13 miles.  I could cycle all day, given food and drink stops. But caving has tested my stamina like nothing else.  I know I have strengths in caves, such as my legs which are powerful from years of cycling; thus I can clamber upwards for extended periods, and use my legs to brace in rifts, for example, to good effect.  I am quite narrow, and for my age, very bendy, so small holes or gaps are generally OK with me.  But I am fearful of exposed climbs and this makes me shake (adrenaline, again).  My upper body is weak and I cannot rely on the strength of my arms in a crisis.  And I get very cold, really fast.  These latter weaknesses all make my endurance a problem.  I have gradually combated this by the simple devices of:  wear All Of The Wet-Suit Things including socks, hoods, full suits and gloves.  Eat as much cave-snackage as can reasonably be carried on a trip.  Keep practicing.  Stop panicking.

The other week, we set off.  Snow on the ground, just a sprinkle, but indicative of the temperature on the Mendips.  Which in turn, governs the temp of the water running into and through Swildon’s.  It had been wet so this water was as high as I have known it in the cave.  This is an issue, because it’s – um…playful.  It playfully knocked me off a climb, for example and made the water obstacles past The Twenty even more fun.  But do you know what?  I just climbed The Twenty, no drama.  I then steadily, with much guidance from Flos and Will, made my way to Sump 1.  This includes the Double Pots, into which I fell (there is much water, it’s OK), The Inclined Rift, which is quite good fun, and some watery climbs and scrambles, notably The Washing Machine which was very lively.  Nothing difficult and of course to me, all new.

Sump 1 is a flattened tubular space through which you must pass to go to Swildon’s Two.  It is at ground level, about 18 inches high, and I don’t know how wide as I couldn’t see that bit.  But it is filled with water.  No air-gap.  It is however, only a few feet long, so it is possible, having taken a huge deep breath, to submerge yourself and using a thoughtfully secured rope that goes through it, pull yourself in 3 hand pulls of this rope, through the water filled tube.  It’s really easy.

I have been through ‘ducks’ and canals – water passages where there is an air gap, even if you have to have your head on one side and one ear submerged in order to breathe as you swim or scuffle along.  But I had never sumped.

The thing is, water even in small spaces, does not bother me, so I knew that if I had the strength to make it to the sump, getting through it and back would not be a problem.  As I said the water levels in the cave were high, so the sump had no air space. This is usual, it’s rare that it has a gap.  It’s an odd little chamber, quite sandy and quiet.  The sump looks like a wall.  There is a thick rope that clearly goes into the water at the base of this wall, but the water was very murky and covered in foam, which is due to the high water activity at that time.  So it looks as if you will lie down in the water, and pull yourself into a solid rock. However, hidden away is the small space through which you must post yourself.

You are wet through already, having encountered many water hazards on the way.  But still, full immersion is called for and it’s a shock.  As you lie down on your tummy and grip the rope, you just have to trust that it’s only a few feet long and 1,000s of cavers go through it.  I was warned that your cave suit fills with air, and as it’s a very low space, this makes the thick canvas suit drag along the roof of the sump, which can make you feel as if you are getting stuck.  So although this did happen, I was expecting it.

Will went through, very fast, and then he gave three strong pulls on the rope to indicate that he was through and in the next chamber.  Then he came back.  Worryingly, he sort of curled up and down and held his head and pulled alarming faces for about five minutes as his brain froze due to the freezing water.  Florence quietly pulled on her luxury 3mm wet-hood.  Will and I looked envious. She went through, pulled three times on the rope – and then it was my turn.

I laid in the water and grabbed the rope.  One look back at Will, who assured me I did not have to do it, but if I did it would be OK, and I took a massive breath, submerged myself and hauled myself along and into the sump.  It is bitter cold, and eyes closed, ears full of water, suit scraping top and bottom, it is a very weird experience.  Three arm-length pulls later, and I was thinking:  this is longer than I was led to believe, I hope I have enough breath, but then I felt a rap on my helmet.  Florence was alerting me to the fact that I was through and was now just hauling myself through a deep puddle on the other side!

Quick picture in Swildon’s Two, then back through the sump.  It’s  easier from the other side as you can see the space you are aiming for, plus, of course, you’ve done it once so it seems less alarming.  Except, I wasn’t alarmed or frightened.  Just as I expected, privately, once I got to the sump, I was absolutely fine going through it.

The return trip was fast (for me), not very pretty, and the ascent back up the ladder at the 20 foot waterfall was back to my usual standards of rubbish caving, but I did not care.  I did it.  I had the stamina to get to, and through, Sump 1 and back.  This is a landmark for me.  Unless you can do this, you cannot do the classic Swildon’s trip known as The Short Round Trip.  It is not short, other than when compared to The Long Round Trip.  But it does involve Sump 1, and some other bits of the cave system that require stamina and confidence.  My new goal is to train up for this trip, this year.

From the entrance of the cave to Sump 1 is a distance of about half a mile, so the trip there and back is a mile of caving, with 400 feet of drop/climb. That is a lot of caving, for me.  Now I need to do this trip again but carry on past the sump to Sump Two which I will just have a look at.  It’s quite long, I think.  Then I need to do the same trip plus a climb up before Sump One at Tratman’s Temple, because this is the start of the deviation for The Short Round.  The Short Round includes a few muddy ducks or sumps, I suppose, but you bail them; and some awkward squeezes.  I think I will be OK with these, as long as there are no horrid climbs.  It’s my work in progress for 2015.

I now feel rather differently about Swildon’s. I think I am starting to get the Swildon’s ‘bug’. I am in year three of caving, with lengthy periods of weeks or even months when I have not been caving but on average over these years, I have caved at least once a month.  The last few trips have really been different.  I note that I am not feeling sick with nerves before a trip, and perhaps because of this, I am enjoying it far more.  I’ve always loved the pretty things that the cave unicorns make, but now I am starting to enjoy the physicality of the sport.  I love sport (only as a participant, I detest watching sport of any kind other than You Tube caving videos), so this is a natural progression.

Furthermore, I could not give two hoots that it’s taken me so long to make it through Sump 1. I have spent this time exploring a lot of different caves, returning to Swildon’s every now and then but not exclusively flogging myself about in one (admittedly amazing) cave system.  I have also spent this time exploring my own mental and physical toughness.  I am wanting.  But I am improving, and I will keep on trying new things until I can’t try anymore. At least when that day comes, I won’t regret not having a go at this awesome, incredibly wonderful activity, scurrying about in my world below the so-called real world.  The underground world is more real to me now than ever.  It does call you, once you get used to it.  Luckily, I am immune to addiction of any kind…


Straws and Unicorns (Caving)

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Last weekend I went to the South Wales Cave Club (SWCC) and stayed at their very spacious yet cosy club house.  The main purpose of this visit was to cave, for the third time for me, in the magnificent cave: OFD ll.  I love this massive cave system, because it is so vast, there are literally dozens of potential trips, offering varying degrees of challenge, ranging from fairly novice caver to really epic trips.  It is awe-inspiring in its scale, offers lots of challenges, some of which I can do, and it also harbours formations of outstanding beauty.  Such as this, me (not the thing of beauty) in Straw Gallery:

Straw Gallery ACS in Straw Gallery

This trip, which is also part of my training to cave for long enough to make it to and through Sump 1 in Swildons some time in 2015, was planned to last for up to 5 hours.  In fact, we caved for 4.5 hours and this included some photo taking and a brief stop for a snack and water.  Our target was Straw Gallery, which is very close to the part of OFD ll that will eventually take you on into OFD lll.  We went in, as is conventional, at the main entrance, and then on to Big Chamber Near the Entrance (best cave name ever), through Gnome Passage (not real gnomes; let down), over The Mini-Traverses, down The Corkscrew* and into then straight across the streamway.  Eventually we reached Timmo’s Table (snack time) and then on, via 4 really quite nice climbs up, and, via a very pleasant series of narrow tunnels and crawls, we reached the main challenge:  The Poached Egg.

This is an awkward little climb, not that high really, but the way takes you round an inconvenient bulge of rock and mud, on which are some fairly well-worn stals, and where, once upon a time, there was a formation, small and round, hence its name of poached egg, which cavers used to loop an arm or hand round as they attempted to swing round the bulging overhang and make it across and up.  One day, with a caver attached, it relinquished its grip on the rock and the mud and they both – caver and egg – fell down about 20 feet at that point.  She was alright, but the egg was no more.  Now, there is a short metal spike at the same point in the rock and mud to aid you;  plus two bolts to which you can rig a rope or slings.  We used slings.  This means you can loop this sling, which is rigged across, around one arm; thus reassured, you tentatively reach for the only foot hold, which is not really big enough for two feet whatever Will may say, shuffle about a bit, get both feet safe, grab hold of the spike and launch onwards to the other side.  You do it in two really bold steps, basically. This is me on the way in:

Poached Egg Climb

And this is Florence in a shot I took on the way back; I am standing at the very bottom, on the same side as where she will pop out of the climb:Straw Gallery F on way back over poached egg


I had heard of this Poached Egg, and it had the potential to make me have a ‘moment’ but in fact it was relatively easy and I really enjoyed it.  Directly after this, you need to climb up again, but from a sort of small plateau of rock, up about 10 feet.  I could see now way here, so I stood on Will.  He did it by launching at it.  I think he just overcomes some climbs by pretending they are not there.  Then I think we got a bit lost, re-traced our steps, corrected the problem and were at once crawling into Straw Gallery.

It is a low, wide passage, well taped off, as the straws populate one side of the roof.  There are hundreds, probably thousands, of straws, growing from fault lines.  Some are very long, some appear white, others are amber.  From many, helectites are growing, which are gravity-defying formations which sprout horizontally or even back upwards, from walls in caves, or from other formations, such as these straws.  I have read the theories about how helectites are formed.  It may be capillary forces, drawing water against gravity; or some suggest wind in caves, which does exist, may blow the calcite-bearing droplets one way and then another.  The shapes they form are really incredible and until you see them, especially in areas where they are massed, it is very hard to imagine. And when you do see them, it is very hard to believe they are real.

Straws are, as the name suggests, hollow – in fact, they are hollow stalactites.  If the end got blocked up it would just be a stalactite.  I assume. They are incredibly delicate, and beneath the gallery, on the floor of the cave, and on the other side of the tape, lie hundreds more broken straws or parts of straws.  These are casualties of nature, not of man.  Seismic activity can break or dislodge delicate formations, or they may develop with a fault and then break off.  They are just left, on the mud floor of this chamber, where they fall.  I think (and here I am drawing on my incredible reserves of science theory, innit?) that sometimes, these straws may develop with tiny holes in the hollow structure, and water gets drawn up or sideways through these, depositing calcite into the weird shapes that some – but by no means all – of the straws exhibit, like mad crystal wigs. It’s that, or the unicorns which roam about in the caves when we leave, breathe special unicorn air onto them to make the helectites.  This theory has not been tested.

As water loaded with calcite drops to the ground, so stalagmites are formed, growing from the ground upwards, and in Straw Gallery, there are several of these, one notably bigger and much more vivid in its amber shade than the others.  It’s odd.  The straws are all so pale, often white and so slender.  Then the stalagmites are so much bigger, and rather orange.

I lay on my back, on the outside (i.e. the side you are allowed to occupy) of the tape, and you can then gaze up at the straw-strewn ceiling and marvel at this utterly amazing sight.  It was the ultimate in luxury – the luxury of time.  Because we were taking some pictures, which really only involves me in being in one or two, or holding and pressing the flash.  We were on our own, no-one was in a hurry.  No-one was exhausted, cold or hungry.  We knew all we had to do was cave back largely the same way we went in, and we had hours before our call-out time.  So I lay here, on the floor of Straw Gallery, for about 20 minutes.

Finally we left this chamber and made our way back in 1.5 hours which is pretty fast caving for me.  I was very keen to get out and have a wee, a cuppa and a shower, followed by hot food, a beer, some knitting, and a group crossword puzzle with some of the other hut-dwellers that night.  I am very proud that we cracked the puzzle in under half an hour and I demonstrated to my fellow cavers that crosswording can be a team game.  They retaliated with scrabble.  I have never played scrabble, but last weekend I witnessed it three times.  It just does not appeal to me.  Silly tiles, weird numbering rules…and a lot of squabbling about if words that (in my opinion) were clearly made-up, are real.  But then, I really hate all board games. In fact, the only group-games I do like are pictionary, which I have played twice, and Cards Against Humanity, which I played once, and it’s rude.  But very funny.

I rate the trip to Straw Gallery as my personal best cave trip to date.  This cave also involves a hefty walk of about half a mile directly up the steep hillside to where the entrance is located, and of course the walk back down, which is not easier because it hurts my shins.  So, 4.5 hours of caving (with rests) plus the hiking.  My acid test for endurance activities, mainly running and cycling, is:  how much more could I do if I had to?  I reckon, with another snack break, I could have caved on for at least another 1.5 hours, even allowing for climbing/moderate peril.  This means I am ready to try Swildons again, and attempt to get to, and through, Sump 1, which will take me very briefly (for as long as it takes to get a photo) into Swildons 2.  Don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted.  It may not be soon, but I am feeling more confident.

*when I first went into OFD ll, and that is eighteen months ago now, I sat at the top of The Corkscrew and cried.  I cried for five minutes, and I protested and begged for a further ten before being coaxed down and round it.  Needless to say, this is simply exhausting for everyone.  If I needed evidence that you CAN improve and see real progress, this is it, because this time, whilst I was still cautious, I unhesitatingly if slowly slid and climbed down this nasty little climb with no apprehension whatsoever.  This lends some weight to a theory which experienced cavers have been telling me for some time, namely that caving whilst not sobbing, and with one’s eyes open is rather easier.

Caving In a Pub Car-park: Hunters Lodge Inn Sink

Friday, January 9th, 2015

Last week, Florence and I went caving on our own.  I really admire Florence for agreeing to cave with me alone.  Respect.

We just wanted a two hour ‘bimble’ with no kit or faff, so we requested the key for Hunters Lodge Inn Sink.  This cute little cave is in the car-park of Hunters Lodge Inn, also known as the magnetic centre of the caving universe.  The publican basically owns the cave, plus another one in a nearby field, which is Hunters Hole.

It’s a slightly odd looking pub from the outside.  The windows appear to repel any light emitting from the interior, so it always looks closed, even deserted.  It does in fact keep old fashioned pub hours, so if you want to go there, you have to go at lunch time or after 6 pm.  This pub has some rules.  For example, the landlord lights the fire in the bar from October to May.  So even if May is really cold, the fire is not lit, I assume.  There is also a rule about mobile ‘phones so I leave mine in the car when I have been there, just in case the rumours of mobiles being nailed to the walls are true…

It is an amazing place though, because it supports a lot of cavers, cave rescue, and caving in general.  Years ago, when the British countryside was closed due to the foot and mouth outbreak, cavers could not access most caves, because they couldn’t walk across paths, fields and farmland.  So, the landlord of the Hunters Lodge Inn, aware that there was some cave-like evidence in his car-park, allowed cave-starved speleologists (that’s ME!) to dig it.  Thus, they dug into and found Hunters Lodge Inn Sink.  They dug the 5 meter drop, now furnished with a metal fixed ladder and then they ‘modified’ the super-tight passage that followed so it is not at all tight now – this is known as the Pub Crawl, and it’s a lengthy steeply downward sloping tube, which is big enough in places to crawl, but largely it is too narrow so you lie down and wriggle.  Much easier on the way in.  There are still digs here and there, I am not sure how active they are now, but the cave they found, and its bone deposits, make it one of the most intriguing caves, with a lovely history.

There are some moderate little climbs, one of which has been furnished with a tiny wobbly ladder, and a very handy rope, jammed under a boulder at the top.  There’s a bit where you pop over a deep hole (which, if you take the right kit, you can descend, it has the bolts all ready) and then you just carry on into areas such as The Barmaid’s Bedroom, and along the way, here and there, you do see some very nice formations.

Here I am climbing out (this was the first trip, not this one):


Next time, perhaps with Will, we will be going down the pitch, which looks awkward in terms of getting the ladder rigged and then actually getting on the ladder, but I am confident that by then, my levitating will have come on no end.

It was my second trip to HLIS, the last being about 18 months ago.  It’s an easy and interesting trip, ideal if you want a 1.5 – 3 hour mess about, depending on where you go.  It’s not taxing, except the thruching up The Pub Crawl on the way out, but I am a proper weirdo because I really like this sort of activity, along with the Cwm Dwr Crawl, boulder chokes in general, the Woggle Press in Eastwater and the like.  I even liked the seemingly endless crawl and wriggle to the Red Room in Hillers, but it’s not my favourite because it is very HOT.  HLIS (at least the bits I went into) has no tight bits, it’s just low in places so you have to lie down.  It is spectacularly muddy.

Here is a pic of me in the Pub Crawl.  It looks vertical but is in fact about 35 degrees at this point:

And here are some of the formations:

Caving in Wales this weekend! Planning a long (this is five hours for me) trip on day one, and a shorter, three hour trip on the Sunday.  I really hope it stops raining as the Sunday cave is very reactive to rainfall.


Christmas Caving

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

An email has flooded in asking if I still go caving.  Happily, I have just been!

Last Saturday, I joined my lovely cave club, The Wessex, on  their Christmas Caving Extravaganza.  Some of the members organised a lot of different trips, all on the same day, with the onus being on the trips to caves that are usually closed, with access restrictions including leadership requirements; caves that are locked with leadership schemes; and cave trips that are ‘sporting’*

*hideously impossible for me

I went on two trips.  These two caves are located in the same quarry, also locked.  This quarry harbours several caves, and I have now caved in five of them; there are (I think) about three more for me try.  So, we first went to Withyhill Cave.  Here is your writer, looking relaxed prior to crawling into the entrance shaft/storm drain:

So, this horizontal pipe is about 6 meters long.  There is then a locked metal door/gate, which our leader opened with a magical key, and then the natural cave starts.

Withyhill is a moderate cave, with a bit of climbing, and short passages of crawling, one episode of lying down and wriggling through a puddle, but largely, it is roomy passage with a still active stream-way, which was very quiet when we were there.  It’s absolutely my sort of cave.  Not that hard, but it offers me just the right level of challenge, and I only needed to stand on Will once.  I rate my trips against a number of highly personal criteria, which I assume no other Wessex members need to worry about: 1) did I cry; 2) did I have to stand on someone/be lifted up or saved by my belt; 3) was it pretty; 4) did I do anything which made me proud?  I didn’t cry!

The cave then, almost at once, begins to reward you with really beautiful formations.  There are straws, wriggly-bits, stals and curtains.  Here are some of the images, taken by Florence and Will:

Withyhill ACS at Elephant's Trunk


This is me, staring at some formations, notably the long thin one hanging down in the centre, The Elephant’s Trunk.

Here are some more lovely formations:

And a back-lit curtain formation:

Really good fun, and I very much hope to go back to this cave.

Elated by my triumph in Withyhill, we then tackled the second cave, Fern Hill.  This cave is really a fairly deep hole, vertical, with a short, low and horizontal muddy passage at the end, giving way to a rift passage, which signifies the end of your trip, as this houses some of the most impressive curtain formations I have ever seen. I say this as if I do little else except seek out, and then look at, curtain formations, which isn’t really true. But still, they are amazing:

And also:

Look at the serration!  look at the colours!  Yes, I know, it’s begging to be knitted as a waterfall edge shawl.  Obvs.

The only slightly tricky bit to Fern Hill is the entrance shaft, viewed here from the half-way down point and looking back up:

There is no fixed ladder, so two wire ladders are rigged, one from the very top, which goes to the half-way point.  Up to here, the ladder is, as you can see, on the smooth wall of the drain pipe, which is not quite vertical so you can sort of slither and brace your shoulder against the concrete as you go.  Easy.  Then there is a little ledge – you are now in natural cave – and the second ladder is pitched from here to the bottom.  This section is ladder on natural rock, with a slightly tricky ledge and a few bumps.  The problem was, I stood and watched another group go down, all of whom basically seemed to swallow-dive in, without touching the rock.  I don’t like wire ladders, and I could feel my levels of anxiety, always high, even when I am asleep, starting to grow.

This is when I cock things up, when I get really anxious.  However, my lovely leader, who has had the misfortune to cave with me a fair bit, probably recognised my silence (I usually chat quite a lot) as the anxiety she has, I expect, come to know and despair of.  She said, quietly:  don’t get worried. And do you know what, dear reader?  I just thought:  she is right, screw it, I know I can do it.  And I did.  It’s been ages since I did a climb on the wires ladders – and it was fine.  OK, in the second half, I *may* have given myself a little pep-talk, unaware that the acoustics of a drain pipe are similar to an opera house, but anyway, I told myself not to be afraid and I was not afraid. Coming out was easy.  I am not as fast as the others, but it was no big deal at all.  And totally worth it.

Here I am (red suit) looking at the second half, and about to begin my amazingly smooth transition into the cave:

Why do I share these mini-triumphs with you? Well, simply because I sometimes think that there may be a similar caver to me out there, on the interweaves, looking for a trip report which features some elements of scardy-cat that are not about 12 hour long trips, involving swimming across underground lakes, levitating up slick-smooth rock faces, and posting yourself through 2 kilometers of bolder-choke with no sections that are bigger than your shoulders.  My club is great for people like me.  It has, in its ranks, amazing cavers who can, and do, cave in all sorts of  challenging spaces.  It also accommodates me.

I love caving, in spite of the evidence of some of my attempts at it.  This year I have not caved a lot – thinking back (as I have abandoned my sparkly log book) I think I have caved 8 times in 2014.  Not enough.  I am however, caving in Wales for a whole weekend, two weeks after Christmas, and I cannot wait.

So. This is for you,  possibly timid caver who likes the pretties and enjoys the fun  times in caves!  If you are also a knitter, please make yourself known to me.


The Long Wet Way – Swildon’s Hole

Friday, June 20th, 2014

You know how I am about Swildon’s? (Yes, this is cave-post).  Yeah, you remember  how Swildon’s and I have this hate-hate thing going on…? No? Well, it’s The Cave You Are Supposed To Love.  I don’t love it.  I respect it, and I fear it.  I once had a little fall in this cave, exiting a round trip in the upper series via the Long Wet Way.  Here is video of some parts of this bit of Swildon’s.  It’s not me, obvs.  I was alright after the fall, I was easily able to cave out and just had a bruised hip really. I caved the next week, elsewhere.  But it did shake me up a bit.

Anyway, I had not been in Swildon’s for almost a year – since that day, in fact.  So Florence and Will decided it was time to do the trip again.  It was fine.  In via the Zig-Zags, which is really good fun, pootle along the usual Upper Series ways, Long Dry etc; had a look over the top of the old forty, back along and down the forty (which is a little waterfall, quite lively, as there had been rain for 2 days before), down to the twenty, just for a look and then back via the Long Wet Way.  This time, it also included a climb very close to the exit that I had never done – a narrow rifty climb with water showering fairly lightly down.

By the time you’ve done this route, you’re pretty wet anyway so I didn’t mind the water.  The thing I don’t really like is that climbing up into waterfalls or shower-baths makes me feel all mythery.  You know, mythered.  I like to see my foot and hand holds.  But anyway, it was OK actually.

I am glad I went back to Swildon’s.  I am still revving up to get all the way to and through Sump One.  And, with luck, back again.  Of course, this involves the dreaded twenty climb.  One day…


Try Caving on 1 – 3 August in Somerset – you might like it

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

I do know how much you enjoy my posts about caving.  Despite that, I am posting another one.

My regular reader knows that I started caving (I am going to say ‘I cave’, ‘I’m a caver’ etc, though of course, I am not a real caver, but it’s too bothersome to say that each time) about 2 years ago.  I have kindly logged some of my trips and many random thoughts about my underground experiences here.  You are most welcome.

I first went caving with my friend Lou, who in spite of clearly exhibiting a natural and irritating talent for caving as she does for anything sporty, has since given it up, because she wanted to try it.  We caved in Prid and then Bakers, in Devon.  We migrated to try out two Mendip caves, and by now I think I was starting to get hooked. Then I went on a ‘Try Caving’ weekend with Florence (who was already a good caver, and is now a very good caver indeed) at the Wessex Cave Club.

Over this weekend, I did a lot of ‘firsts’.  I caved in two new caves, one of which, GB, is now my favourite cave, the other is my nemesis.  Yes, Swildon’s, that’s you.  I also climbed a very fragile-looking, swingy wire ladder on the tower at the club and then next day, amazingly and terrifyingly, did this in a cave.  Yes, Swildon’s, that is one reason why I just don’t think you and I are going to work out.

I slept in a club house.  Now, this may seem such a small thing to you, as a seasoned wilderness back-packer/youth hostel veteran/Ray Mears, as I imagine my typical reader to be. But to me, who had never stayed in a tent, a hostel, a camper-van or anywhere under 3 stars, this felt so – odd!  But it was great.  I have since stayed in several cave-huts (it’s not a hut, by the way, it’s a large detached house with extras, such as a climbing tower and bunk rooms; also heating, so if hut-dwelling is your thing, best to be honest with you from the get-go), and I enjoy this as much as the caving.

This August, my club, the Wessex, of which I am a proud if shamingly intermittent and scaredy-cat member, is holding another Try Caving weekend.  It’s on 1 – 3 August at the club HQ, which is in Priddy, Mendip-central.  I want you to think about giving it a go!  It’s £15 (and you can’t even buy 2 balls of Kidsilk Haze for that), all in.  Kit, caves, learning, bed, food, BBQ, games, slide-shows!  There were no slide-shows at my Try Caving weekend, so it’s even better this time.  I love slide-shows.  They remind me of my dad.  I hope there will be some on members’ holidays.

You do not have to be local, lots of our members are from all over the UK and even from those places across the water.  That there Europe, even.

Why do I think you should consider it?

1) The world that exists underground is always there.  It’s secret and hidden from almost everyone, because almost no-one caves.  It’s like if the National Trust had a secret garden that only you could walk round.  OK, it’s nothing like any National Trust garden I have ever visited, but their gardens do get very busy.  It’s not like that in a cave. It’s incredibly peaceful, even when the water is coursing and boiling around like it owns the place.  Also, no ice-cream or tea-rooms but you can take your own snacks.

2) It is a beautiful place.  Even caves that are not decorated with spectacular formations, and many are, are awesome.  I mean awesome in the real sense, not in the modern sense that ‘my dinner was awesome’ when in fact my dinner was very enjoyable.  I mean, I get in a cave and I am awed.  The majesty of underground spaces is something I am so glad to have experienced.  When a cave is beautifully decorated (by nature, not Lawrence Llywellyn-Bowen), it is spectacular.  GB, my favourite cave, is simply stunning.  Perhaps because it is also an ‘easy’ cave, it may sometimes be overlooked, but do try GB:  a perfect blend of majestic spaces, beautiful formations, and achievable caving  challenges.

3) Caving is fun.  Alright, in my blogs about ‘caves I have visited’, I do give you a warts-and-all account of my struggles – and also some little triumphs.  But believe me, if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t be doing it at all.  If you like a sporty challenge, there are caves for you.  I personally like a moderate challenge and some pretties.  There are also caves for me.

4) The cavers I have met are really nice. They’re not going to make you feel stupid, scared (beyond what is reasonable, because, you know, you’re in a cave), or as if you are a nuisance.  On the other hand, there may well be a healthy dose of practical and no-nonsense guidance, such as ‘Alison?  What are you doing with your feet??  Turn over and start again!’  And a little gentle ribbing (not the K1, P1 type, the ‘Alison, What are you doing with your feet??’ sort).  I have been shown immense kindness.  It must, at times, have been very trying for my companions, with my incessant  cry of:  ‘I am sure I will not be able to get back up this!’

5) We need to expand numbers in the so far quite limited knitting-meets-caving genre of cavers. I have seen two other people knitting at cave huts, one of whom was a caver too.  I know of  several others who can and do knit.  I know it’s niche, but come on – lots of you do other ‘daring’ stuff, I know, stuff I can’t do, such as swim.  Knitting after caving is even better than just knitting.  Also, I have drawn a lot of design inspiration from caves.

6) Cavers come in all shapes, sizes, ages and degrees of caving prowess.  If I can do it (sort of) so can you.  I promise.  Remember when I told you that you could totally master that Moebius cast-on/sock/mitten/sixteen stitch-marker shawl/design challenge?  I was right.  I am right now.  Also, in spite of what you may suspect, it’s perfectly possible to cave and not ruin your manicure.  Rubber gloves, doubled if needs be, are the answer.  I have never had a nail-related casualty yet.


You definitely should not try it if you know you get claustrophobic.  I knew I didn’t, and I don’t. Also, if you have an injury or a specific condition that you know of, I’d give it a miss, or ask a real caver what they think.  Cavers are, despite the obvious fact that they go underground and climb about etc, very risk averse, which is why accidents and rescues are very rare.   Aside from that, there are no barriers.

I will be there if you will, on 1 – 3 August, at The Wessex Cave Club.  I will not be leading your trips, no need to panic, but I will cave with you!  And then we can knit, afterwards. And have a BBQ, have a glass of wine, look at a slide-show about cave-related things, and watch the sun-set over the lovely Mendips.  I have booked good weather, light winds, no rain and balmy evenings.

Here is a flyer about the event.

wessex leaflet 2014

Please contact me or Maxine (details on the flyer), who is leading the organising of the event, as she did for the one I attended, and is both a great caver and thoroughly lovely person.

It won’t be as much fun without you, and seriously, fifteen quid for a whole weekend of joy/moderate peril – so – see you there…!


Mark Goes Caving

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

Today, Florence, Will and I took Mark caving in GB, which is my favourite Mendip Cave.  It’s lovely, straight-forward, offering small but satisfying challenges, rewarding.

Before today he had basically only had a poke about in the muddy caves of Devon.

It was good.  I mean, Mark isn’t like me.  He doesn’t enthuse or express excitement.  So whilst I think he appreciated the beauty of the cave – it is beautiful and also majestic – he didn’t say much.  He certainly didn’t exit the cave like a champagne cork out of a bottle, and attempt to high-five everyone in the party – and himself; nor did he skip back across the fields, elated at the experience and keen to go back.  Which is what I did, the first time I caved GB.  Which was also the first time I caved with The Wessex.  That was two years ago.

Aside from that, all I am going to say about it is this:  simply everyone I ever cave with who is new to caving, is better than I am.  Does anyone want to buy a nice, well-cared for lot of cave kit, small to medium?

Caving Set-Back

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Two things:

1) a very nice chap came into the yarn shop in Cornwall where I was teaching on Saturday and we had a lovely chat about caving.  He used to cave in the Mendips.  The cave he remembered most clearly was Longwood, which I then went away and read about – and discussed it with Florence who has been to Longwood.  I am not going to go there.  But the man I was talking to about it, did it when he was 11!

2) I then went caving, the next day, in the Mendips, with Florence and Will.  We went to Eastwater Cavern.

This is my Eastwater Boa:


It is one of my favourite designs.

This is Eastwater Cavern:

It’s one of my least favourite caves.  Photo copyright Cheddar Caving Club.  That’s not me/any of us.  And also, I did it on my front.  We all did, so that is not why it went so very wrong.

This bit of Eastwater is called The Upper Traverse.  It is absolutely and totally vile.  A 45 degree slope of bedding plane, with a similar ‘ceiling’ of bedding plane above you, never leaving you more than about 3 feet of depth, and narrowing to about 18 inches at one pinch point.  Your task is to slide along and upwards, post yourself through a little gap or hole and finally you reach a channel that has hand and foot holds so you can climb up to the small chamber above.  The problems are: a) it’s very slippery.  b) there are no foot or hand holds to speak of.  c) it’s too narrow to do what I’d have liked to do, which would be to use my back against the floor and my feet or knees against the ceiling and actually traverse; or, I’d have been happy to go sideways and wedge myself with spread out arms and knees – but you can’t, it’s too narrow.  d) if you slide down, you enter the way onto Hallelujah Hole.

Anyway, the way to do it appears to boil down to levitation/magic.  Which is the advanced caving course, and I haven’t done that bit yet.  So I launched myself into the traverse and despite being very determined (which was exhausting), I found it very difficult to make the sideways and upwards progress that was needed, without Will also launched but slightly beneath me.  Very slow work it was, hindered by the fact that Will couldn’t see round me and I was unable to turn my head to see him, nor did I know if I had to go up further, or post myself through a little eye-hole after a squeezy bit.

It was the latter, which I did manage, because there is a sort of foothold there.  Buoyed up by this momentus gain of about 2 meters, I then promptly lost it again and slid alarmingly quickly down towards Halleluljah Hole.  Had Will not grabbed my belt, I expect I’d have reached the bottom of the rift.  I had not realised that there is a way on here, so if the worst had happened, we could have caved out that way.  Probably.  But I didn’t know that, and I very much wanted to avoid being at the bottom of the rift.

Anyway, heaved up a bit by Will, I reached the series of little but very useful foot and hand-holds that appear in a channel at about this point.  I climbed up here and into a chamber which leads to Dolphin Chimney.  Florence then levitated quickly across the Traverse of Death (as it is now called) and Will actually did it three times, once with the tackle sack which must have weighed 3 stone.  Mainly this weight was ladder.  This was such a shame because we didn’t use it.  We had intended to go on after the chimney to The 13 Pots, but I realised that I was now too tired to safely do the full trip.

So we ended the trip after the chimney and caved back, up The Canyon, through the boulder choke, which isn’t that long, but it’s vertical and of course, on the way out, it’s all up.  It’s just a bit tiring, lots of just slightly awkward climbs. There is the option to come back via the Traverse of Death (which I think would be easier on the way out but I really couldn’t face it), or you can exit via the Woggle Press – a small, spiky dog-leg up-and-down hole with a bend, not ever tight enough to be a real squeeze, but small enough to require some contortion and posting of legs one way, spinning round, posting your head out of the next hole and gingerly standing up.  It’s called the Woggle Press because in the 1970s, a scout was sadly killed in this bit of Eastwater, when a large chunk of cave fell off the ceiling and squashed him.  It’s *a bit* unstable throughout the choke I think, and then again, especially at this point; for this reason, some cavers prefer the Traverse of Death.  But I quite like it, especially when compared to The Upper Traverse (of Death).

Anyway, I was bitterly disappointed when we got out, because until this trip, I had been making small but real advances in confidence and strength.  But I came out feeling very tired, much as when I first started caving over 2 years ago.  I was (and am) sore in my back – and also in my spirit, because I didn’t make the round trip as planned and I was properly frightened in the traverse. Really frightened, for about 5 minutes, and quite frightened for about another 10.  Which is in itself simply exhausting.  And really boring!  And very annoying.  I am also slightly concerned that another very large party of cavers who were also in Eastwater, and whom we met shortly after this traverse, may have heard my squealing, swearing, and general faff.

I think when I go back to Eastwater, as I probably will, if I could negotiate The Traverse of Death without fear, without slipping, and without a melt-down, I could do the round trip.  So next time, I am going to suggest that one of the levitators shimmies across and rigs a hand-line.  With this, I will be able to at least make it on my own and maybe gain the confidence to do it without a line.  No-one else needs a hand-line, and I know it’s a bit shaming, but I think on balance, it’s OK.  After all, I only made it because Will was ‘cave’ for me several times, and also grabbed me by the belt as I whizzed past his right ear…if it’s no good after that I will relegate Eastwater to the list of  caves I Do Not Like and re-name the lovely boa I named in its honour.

Caving again on Easter Saturday!  Brace yourselves.


Something Added, Something Taken Away

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

In very exciting cave news, I have got a new pair of caving boots.  Caving usually happens in wellies.  I know. I didn’t believe it either.  Anyway, a good thick rubber sole and a reinforced toe section, such as you get with Etche wellies are ideal for safety and grip.  Not you, style:


The problem I have with my Etche wellies is that in order to get my foot in, wearing a wet-sock, I have to have my wellies a whole size and a half bigger than my usual size 5 shoes.  So my feet literally feel like they don’t belong to me.  I am, at best, a bit of a Bambi-on-ice down the caves, so this has been a real drawback.

Until I went caving last month in my old walking boots, not by choice but I had to lend my wellies to someone in the group, as they had forgotten theirs and mine fitted, plus I had some walking boots to use instead.  These are old boots that I leave in the car or the cave trug, and they have next to no useful tread left so the caving was a bit slippy, but the feel of the smaller shoe on my feet was great.

So last week, I bought some Etche Canyoning boots:


I LOVE these boots so much!  They are an Etche wellie shoe, with a reinforced back to the heel and toe, but as you can see, they’re ankle boots so I can wear my usual foot size – in fact I got a 4.5 and then I went caving for eight hours last weekend in them.  A revelation!  A miracle!   They did not (and to be fair, the chap I bought them from did not promise this) make me an epic caver, possessed of profound skills, and quiet, calm courage.  But, they did make my feet feel like they belong to me and this, it turns out, is a massive bonus.  Who knew?

I miss the front-of-shin protection the long boots offer and I have a lump on my shin the size of a quail egg.  But I think children’s shin pads will sort that.  Oy, more kit…

Last weekend, we returned to the majestic caves of South Wales.  Oh, how I love these caves.  I also love the place we stay, the South Wales Caving Club.  Here is its Club House:

A row of former quarry cottages, now converted into a fantastic cave hut.  Hut?  It’s a palace.  Lots of bunk rooms, a family cottage area, a huge kitchen, a lovely big sitting room, a dining room – and look at The View!

Also, some of the best caves evah are in walking distance of this hut.  The first of these, this weekend, and new to me was a cave called Cwm Dwr.  Cwm Dwr is in the old quarry a few hundred meters from the hut.  Here is a link to the fantastic video that Dudley Caving Club made of their trip.  Our trip was very similar but we didn’t go to Diver’s Pitch.

The entrance is lovely, easy climb down a tube, another tube and a well-engineered drop/climb to the cave itself.  Shortly, you reach the CD crawl, which varies between easy hands-and-knees, and belly-down elbow-thrutching, but at no point is it a proper tight squeeze.  There is one low bit of passage, where yes, you are in close contact with both the gravel floor and low ceiling, but there is side room to really push and it’s very brief and easy.  The trick is to turn your head so your helmet goes easily and then keep shuffling.  I loved it!

I know there are challenges in this cave, such as the complex boulder choke, through which Flos and Will route-found with complete ease.  Here, the going is bendy rather than difficult, it’s quite a long boulder choke, and you are posting yourself in and out of small gaps, but it’s never super-tight or at all hard, it just makes you breathe a bit hard, as if you’d walked fast up a steep hill – at no point is it any more arduous that that.

Once you get through these two obstacles, the cave is your oyster.  There are huge walking passages, with many options.  We wanted to find the best way to the Main Route, which we did, with some deliberate deviations along the way to explore features, all of which were new to me.  At 2.5 hours, we had a drink of water and decided to head back, thinking well, it might take 2.5 hours to get out, and I am building stamina, so didn’t want to push it.  In fact, we rocked out in 1.5 hours and I was very sorry we cut it a bit short, but better safe than sorry.  I was thinking of the exit via the choke and the exit crawl – both of which were rapid and easy.

Four hours caving is nothing to a lot of people, but it’s a good trip for me.  There were no lengthy stops, no photos, no snacking.  I used to cave with energy gels in my pocket, because I got so scared and shaky and tired, but I just don’t need them now.

I had never been in CD which is the middle section of a huge linked series of caves called Ogof Ffynonn Ddu – OFD.  There is OFD 1, at the bottom, then in the middle is Cwm Dwr, then at the top of the hill, is, um – Top! Or sometimes called OFD 2.  These caves can be ‘done’ as through trips, one linking to the next though I think that route finding is a bit tricky and it might be a long trip, for me.  

The next day, we caved for four hours  in OFD 1, where we did the standard round trip, with a detour to the Waterfall Series. I have done the round trip once before.  I love this cave except for the first part, where you walk (or stumble and moan like the east wind) up the streamway for about a decade.  It’s sporting!  No, it’s not.  It’s a right pain, but there we are.  I don’t like it because the water is more than playful and I can’t see what I am doing.  The last time I did it, I hadn’t caved much so while the others ‘traversed’ as far as possible to avoid getting really wet, I waded through it.  This time, following Florence, I did the traversing thing too.  Kind of.  I was OK for the first bit then my legs seemed to shrink and I was alternately trapped on one wall or another, often leaning right over to place my hands on the wall opposite.  There are scaffolding poles across great big whirling pot holes, so these are not too bad, but the endless yomping  through the merry stream was just not my idea of fun.  This cave floods, by the way, so there is a step on the way in and if the water over this stone is higher than your foot (or it might be ankle, I am not sure), you don’t go on, or you go the other way.  I also clears of water fast so despite rain last week, it was OK.  It was lively though.

The streamway bit is totally worthwhile for the rest of the cave though.  There are challenges, such as two wire-traverses, where you clip yourself onto a rope or wire that has been bolted to the cave wall in places where there is a very narrow ledge to get along, over a big drop down, with maybe a bulge in the wall here and there.  I absolutely love doing these. An image, again from the Dudley Cave Club, of the start of one of the traverses in OFD1:

There is also a neat little traverse and a couple of quite nervy ‘bold steps’ in the Waterfall Series;  you can leave this part of the cave  by means of climbing (very fast as it’s wet through!) down the little waterfall itself.  I loved all this, and the bits I had done before, such as a shoot down a chimney, called by us, maybe not its real name, The Elephant’s Arse Hole.  Yep.  Try it.  You will see why.  It is fantastic fun, if you like your fun tinged with fear.  I do.  More boulder choking, some rolling, some crawling, some traversing, a neat climb up Low’s Chain, with the aid of, this time no ladder but 2 ropes and Will’s hand-jammer, which is actual MAGIC.  It makes you levitate up the climb with no effort whatsoever.

The cave is dramatic, moody, pretty and really good fun.  Here is a pretty bit, called The Bees Knees:

Yes, the bendy column looks just like a bee’s knee!  Clever cave.

There is also a huge chamber that looks like the lighting consultant whose last gig  was The Oscars and also Peter Pan’s Neverland, minced through the cave and sprinkled a bazillion little fairly lights and then added some Clinque body glitter powder.  I wanted to find you an image, and when I Goggled ‘sparkly chamber in OFD1’ images, I got (along with a fair bit of weirdness) this:

It’s me!  Caving on my birthday in June 2013, in the Mendips, and Will and Florence had brought surprise treats! I love that if you put in sparkly cave you get me.  My work is almost done.

I am also proud that my cave suit, now  2 years old, has just come back from cave suit ER where it went for reconstructive surgery as I had caved the arse out of it.  Not all the way through but I’d seriously worn the outer layer of bottom-canvas.  I like to think that this is because I am a frequent and energetic caver, and not because my default cave setting is on my bum.

So this week, in caving terms, I added a new pair of caving boots.  I also gained eight solid hours of caving  with few rests in the trips, over two days.  I was not tired.  I was not  scared.  I felt I had really changed.  OK, these things are relative and my starting base line is low.  But I am pleased and I am ready to try for the Swildon’s Sump 1 trip.  Gulp.

What have I lost?  About 2kgs!  All packed back on with a huge roast on Sunday!  But really, I did notice that something was missing.  Fear.  I have always, without fail, approached every single trip with a sense of high anxiety bordering on fear, often degenerating into actual fear, and sometimes tears.  This year, that has gone.  I feel elevated sense of awareness, apprehension at times, but I am not afraid.  Someone in my club once told me that the fear (I may not have said fear, I may have said anxiety, but it was fear) would pass but that it is good to retain a sense of caution.  I waited.  I caved.  I had breaks.  I went back.  The fear was still there, but the urge to see new caves was just strong enough for me to (usually) overcome the fear, just about.  But, perhaps with caving, as with so much in my life that I love and value and cherish, I am a late adopter and a late developer.

It’s going to come back at times, I know it is – and I think I will be more ready for it, but I did say that if caving kept being something so challenging that it made it very hard work, something to overcome rather than to love, I’d quit.  I just will not put myself through emotional torture just to prove some random and possibly irrelevant point.  But happily, and without me even noticing it, the dominance of fear has slipped away.

Something else has gone.  It is the pretty constant feeling that I had underground of this being odd, radically different to my norm, a sense of complete other-worldness.  I think this may have been a side effect of the fear.  Because I suddenly noticed, back in February actually, that I didn’t look at the cave entrance and think:  seriously?  I am going in there?  I just thought:  let’s get out of this wet gale force wind.  I didn’t think, whilst caving:  oh my God this is so weird, I am under the ground!  It just feels normal.  I still feel awed and amazed.  But I have slipped a little further into the world where to cave is (almost) as normal to me as it is to cycle or to run.

Who’d have thought it?  Certainly not me, and probably not the legions of patient, stoic and kind cavers who have got me this far, especially Florence and Will.  Not you, rude man who said to me recently that he should have brought a sharp stick along with him down the cave, to poke me with.  I know!  I *may* have had a sense of humour failure at that moment. It’d be like me (or you) saying to a knitter next to you at an event:  blimey, can’t you knit any faster than that!  you loser! No, we’d never even think it, let alone say it.  Well, mean sharp stick man, you won’t be getting any sparkly body dust at Christmas, that’s for sure.







The Cave Formerly Known As Contour

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Sludge ACS exiting tight mud crawlSludge acs on ladder at entrance pitch…but now this cave is called Sludge Pit Hole.  Seriously?  Sludge Pit Hole?  This is a cave that is not getting a knitting design named after it.  I can’t imagine presenting you with the Sludge Pit Mitts.

OK, it’s muddy.  (All caves are either in spate at the moment or muddy – or both).  But Sludge is such an ugly name.  And whilst this cave is not actually pretty, it’s nice.  It’s good fun.  It’s not sludgy.  Not compared to caving in Devon.

It’s a short walk to the cave from our club, so we set off in the teeth of yet another Mendip howler.  It was so cold and wet that it was a real relief to get inside the cave which is, as usual, in a hollow in the ground, with a nice little path leading to some steps, and the locked, gated entrance.  A slither down for a few meters, leads to a deep ledge and at the end of this, a 25 foot drop to the cave proper.  This we rigged with a wire ladder and climbed down.  I don’t like wire ladders, but this trip was good practice for me, as it’s free-hanging and I need to control both my nerves and the swinging ladder if I am ever to conquer my nemesis, Swildon’s Hole and the hated 20 foot waterfall climb.

Here we are, climbing back up, later:

Alison Crowther-Smith's photo.

This is me, and here are Florence and Will:

Alison Crowther-Smith's photo.

Sludge acs on ladder at entrance pitchAlison Crowther-Smith's photo.

The trip was easy enough after that.  I’d never been to Sludge but the others had, and even though it’s not a huge cave, there are a few maze-like bits, so we took a survey (map, kind of) and this helped me a lot to make sense of what we were doing in terms of route-finding.  Here’s a bad picture of the ‘map’ as I call it:

Sludge survey

I also call the helmets you have to wear ‘hats’.  And I call the wriggly, curly formations you sometimes see in lovely caves such as Shatter, Nic-Nacs.  Do you remember Nic-Nacs?  I used to love them.

You potter along the main way, very obvious and also ahead of you in the ladder chamber.  There is an entrance here also to a passage called Aragonite Rift, described as not obvious and to the right.  We found a not obvious hole, but it was if anything to the left, so we ignored it.  As it turns out this was Aragonite Rift, but we ended up coming back out that way, by way of a couple of fairly tight upwards squeezes – more pinch-point than squeeze to be fair – and this is the more awkward way, so we felt quite chuffed.

None of the cave is that big, and parts of it, such as the Skeleton Series, are tight.  There are some fairly roomy chambers though, plus a streamway that I suspect is usually quite quiet, because even after all this rain, it was really quite gentle and small.  We went down the streamway almost to the sump.  There’s an active dig here.

There is a rift called Four Pots Rift that we looked at and almost did – but the first bit looks awkward, so we decided to come back with someone who has done it.  Then there was a fun, narrow flat-out wriggle and back – here we are – poor picture quality is due to fogging of condensation:

Alison Crowther-Smith's photo.

And here is Florence, same exit:

Alison Crowther-Smith's photo.

On the way back up the streamway, we were looking out for the way up into Aragonite Rift, which has deposits of, um, Aragonite.  Aragonite is a crystal formation, and it differs from calcite in that because (I assume) of its composite makeup, its crystals are sort of long, square and pointy.  In  Sludge, they are not that pronounced, but they are there, and they have a sort of art-deco, 1920s New York sky-scraper style about them.  I’m pretty sure that’s how they are described in Mendip Underground.

So although, despite having a survey, we were not 100% sure we were in Aragonite Rift at the start (which involved a neat, tightish thrutch upwards from the main passage and a sharp right turn), once we saw the deposits of Aragonite and also, many deposits of particles and sections of sea shells, we knew it was the right place.  Very cool:  route-finding by means of minerals.

Aragonite Rift was excellent, easy and yet still interesting.  There’s another quite snug-not-tight thrutch up near the end, then a choice:  left, to Back Passage (I know, sorry), or right, where, with a wriggle and a twist, you see the ladder you left rigged at the entrance chamber and you slither out.

My only problem was that for the last hour of the trip, which was 2.5 hrs, due to taking pictures which just takes forever to sort the light, I was dying for a wee.  You really cannot wee in caves.  I mean, it must happen and I guess it’s not such a big deal if there’s a raging torrent of streamway, but Sludge is quiet and fairly dry.  So that’s a no-no.

It started – the idea that I needed to ‘go’ – as a whispered suggestion, a memo from bladder to brain, about 30 minutes in, and then slowly developed into an urgent need to keep moving and not listen to the tinkling of the streamway.  I was faster up the ladder than usual (bonus), and once I was safe by the entrance scramble, I started de-kitting (the kit is EPIC.  It makes knitters’ kit bags look empty) because I knew I had to go behind a hedge the moment I bounded out of the ground.  And I can tell you that, despite the howling gale and being very cold, it was the best wee I have ever had.


Cave News

Monday, January 20th, 2014

In response to an email from my reader that flooded in last week, I have once more been caving.  After a lengthy gap (six months), I went to The Wessex Cave Club’s members’ weekend on Friday.  My cave trug, where I keep the improbably huge quantity of kit needed to go caving is stored in the greenhouse and it was covered in cobwebs.  Shaming.

I wasn’t entirely sure that I would actually go caving once it came to it, but as soon as I arrived, bearing fish and chips for Florence and Will (nothing says ‘I love you’ more than the gift of battered fish), I was greeted with the news that we had been offered a trip to a cave called Cuckoo Cleeves, which is – prepare to be awed – owned by a cave club member!  I know!  I love going in new caves, rather than exhaustively going back to the same cave over and over again and I hadn’t been to Cuckoo Cleeves.  Plus it is billed, whilst not really a beginner-cave, as a cave that is good for recently initiated cavers, or rusty returners.  News flash:  it’s not that easy!

So of course I said yes please and the next day we set off, a party of six.  One of these was the chap who owns the cave.  Another was a French guy who’s a Wessex member and who was just the most lovely chap to cave with.  He doesn’t speak much English, I speak almost no French  and yet, via the international sign language of ‘oh my God! please help me, I am about to fall off this cave!’, he soon got the gist of my caving style and helpfully grabbed my belt/suit/arm/hand, here and there.  All I needed to do was squeak ‘Francois!’  Amazingly, Francois caved with me again the next day.

Cuckoo Cleeves is a lovely cave.  It’s not that pretty, but it is quite sporting.  Sporting is a phrase used by cavers to describe aspects of a cave’s challenge, and it can mean good fun, or it can mean horribly difficult.  I think this depends entirely on how good the person is at caving.   The cave is largely vertical. You enter via a round concrete block house, descend a concrete tube on a wire ladder – which you can see here, but this, obviously, isn’t me.  I dislike wire ladders but this was fine.  At the bottom of the tube, you’re in a pretty vertical descent, climbing down between choked boulders.  The other challenges include a slide down and across a steep, narrow rift passage, which was horrible on the way back due to it being not very handy in terms of foot/hand holds, quite slide-like and I was a bit tired at this point. I slid back down it three times before acknowledging that the power of cursing + flailing about wasn’t going to get me up it.  Francois!?

There is a short stretch of curving, fairly narrow passage which is sort of key-hole shaped.  I didn’t like the look of it and backed out once, but I then managed it with no problem.  There was also a flat-out crawl – very brief – that was a bit on the tight side.  Once you get through these, you’re basically at the end of the cave – so far, that is, as the man who owns it is also systematically digging it.  There is a further area of cave with a lake in it but the way is extremely tight and the cave owner has only been there once, with the assistance of a very slim caver who fits well.  On our return to the club house, I was regaled with some tales of a couple of rescues from this part of the cave. *shudders*.

The cave, apart from the lake, is usually dry.  It trickles a bit, I am told.  As we arrived in the depression in the field where the entrance is, I observed that the ground around the block house entrance was flooded to about 6 inches with muddy water.  Hmmm…so, that day, the cave wasn’t dry.  But as I’ve never been there before, it was fine with me! You climb down with the water, especially near the entrance, which made me try to cave faster than I usually do.

I enjoyed it and it was a nice cave in which to return to the underground world.

The next day, we walked from the club across some Mendip mud, to a massive cave dig, called Templeton.  We did check that it was OK to go over and we did walk.  This is an impressive operation.  There is a series of ladders, with platforms, descending several hundred feet down a gradually narrowing hole.  The engineering is staggering as must be the tonnage of earth and rock that has been moved.  There is cave down there!  What it will finally reveal, I do not know, but I bet it’s going to be amazing.

Back to the cave club and a snack, before kitting up, this time in a wet-suit under my cave over-suit, because we were going for a swim in Waterwheel Swallet.  You can watch a pretty murky video of the fun part of this cave here.

The cave, much like Cuckoo Cleeves, is entered via a concrete vertical tube, but it’s very short and has metal ‘staples’ to get you down, with your back on the opposite wall. Then, another vertical climb down starts really nicely with actual steps that were engineered many years ago, before it turns into ‘real’ cave and you keep descending steeply, through boulders, usually with good foot and hand holds.  There is only one way to go – down.  Also, it is pretty narrow so helpfully, you can often use the opposite rocks to ‘brace’ yourself.  Oh, and we rescued a frog!  I caught it and Will caved back out to release it into the field.  Cave rescue.

The cave’s real point is the water at the bottom end.  There is a short pooled passage, which, due to the rainfall we have had, was knee-deep, giving you a fun, if pointless challenge of trying to ‘traverse’ it using the side walls and not getting your feet wet.  Pointless because you are soon up to your neck in water.

Soon you come to a small pool, which you splash through and this leads to a series of ‘canals’.  Tubular, flooded passage, with low-ceilings and water that is, at some points, leaving about 6 inches of air space.  You immerse yourself and with your tummy down, you paddle horizontally along in the water, turning your head here and there to stay above the surface.  Your cave helmet scrapes and bumps the ‘roof’ and it’s a good idea not to follow your leader too closely as their bow-waves could get you fully immersed!

The water was high and very cold, but it is just such good fun.  At the end, there’s a short descent to a pitch that you can rig in order to climb down into a small lake for a proper swim but we knew we didn’t want to do that so we didn’t take any tackle.  Then, you just turn round and do it all again, only in reverse.  I much prefer climbing up than climbing down and the water is not a shock this time as you’re wet through anyway.

The cave is attractive, there are some straws and there is a pretty black and white formation chamber – the black being from the lead in the ground here, which is also the reason why the locals by Charterhouse advise you not to eat the rabbits.

Waterwheel, which I have done once before, is one of my favourite caves, purely because it is just so much fun without a lot of effort.

I don’t know why I like water in caves so much (not you, Swildon’s), but don’t like climbing down exposed bits of cave.  I don’t know why I like  traversing, but I do, and I like wriggling through low passage – but I don’t like vertical squeezes.

My caving style remains blatantly thrashy with over-reliance on border-line-sobbing-under-the-breath cursing, but hey, I knitted for years before I actually wore anything that I made…I remain, an optimistic caver.

I decided that if I had a bad weekend, which, had that happened would have been entirely due to my own fault, but anyway, I decided that if that did happen, I was just going to quietly quit caving.  This would have saddened me, but I just don’t want to do things that terrify me or which I see as endlessly challenging without being fun.  That is what lace is for.  If every cave made me melt down – and some have – I’d just stop doing it.  Or if I felt I had to go back to the same caves in order to ‘defeat’ them (or something), again, I just don’t think I’d bother.

But in fact, it felt great to be underground again.  It felt natural to me and not at all like starting all over again from the beginning.  Yes, I have lost some of what little technique I had acquired, but not all of it and I didn’t feel scared, bruised or exhausted.  Always a bonus.



Cave Pearls

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Caving without the going underground bit is happening here this month in the Cave Pearls workshop.  This event will be repeated on 3 May and there is still good availability on this course, which you can view here.

Anyone who attends these courses also gets a bonus pattern:  it’s for a luxurious throw knitted in Rowan Cocoon.

cave pearls throw

I do hope you can make the date in May.  You also get a choice of Cave Pearl beaded mittens or the beaded scarf.  And I promise you won’t need to get wet, wear a cave suit, or go underground.

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.