Monday 20th January 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.