Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for the ‘The Wessex’ 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.

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.