11 June 2010

Caving weekend in Mendip Hills

When you drive from Bristol airport to Plymouth, as Roland and I did after the Scotland fieldwork, you soon see a strange scar in the horizon. That scar is Cheddar Gorge, in the Mendip Hills. So I saw my near future when I drove past; only two days later I was due there for a caving weekend. And when I say caving I often mean mining, but this time we would really go caving sensu stricto.

Originally I would drive Neil and Rebecca, his girlfriend, there, but at the last moment they reconsidered and travelled with another lawyer duo. So on a sunny Friday evening I placed my car on the pavement in front of Ali's house and honked. We were go!

When we arrived we were greeted by Lionel, Sarah and her son Daniel, who had already been there for a few hours. The four solicitors, who had been going for a walk, appeared too. We dumped our bags inside, and I changed into something less inviting to mosquitoes, and altogether we headed for the pub. It was a bit of a strange, remote-farmland-kind-of-pub, where we enjoyed their odd beverages and our anticipation while waiting for Dave, Dave and Rupert. When they arrived we were complete for the time being.

When we got thrown out from the pub I went to bed, listening for quite a while to the ongoing merriment downstairs. After a while that unfortunately changed to involuntarily listening to Dave's disconcerting snoring. I tried to get all the sleep I could get, so by the time I got out of bed everybody else was already downstairs and the aromas of a proper English fry-up were already invading the sleeping quarters. Fortunately my continental yoghurt breakfast takes much less time...

The plan was to have Ali faf around with the lawyers for a while; do some basic training, and then take them to Swildon's Hole, while the other cavers would divide into a group going into Shatter Cave and one going to Fairy Cave. Shatter Cave has very delicate structures, and can only be entered with a leader, and with a maximum of 6 people. So we drove to the quarry that held these (and several more) caves, and met our leader for the day. Dave, Dave, Rupert, Sarah and me followed Mandy, a local caver, while Lionel and the brothers Richard and Dan went into Fairy Cave.

The Shatter Cave group

Me elucidating our guide

Shatter cave is a beautiful dripstone cave, but in order to keep it that way one has to stay within demarcated paths in most places. There were some minor squeezes to be negotiated, but nothing wild. But we had Dave, and he's a bit of a photography nutter, and we all appreciate his dedication to that art and are more than willing to scurry around with flash guns in our hands. That does mean, however, that we did not proceed particularly fast. At some point we did, however, go too fast for other Dave, though, and he stayed behind.

The Canopy Room

Me idly pointing a flash gun somewhere behind a beautiful serrated curtain

Glamour picture of Rupert and me (Shatter Cave pics by Dave)

We did not reach the end of the cave; at this speed that would have meant both Dave and the Fairy Cavers would have been bored and/or starved to death waiting for us, so we went back, making sure Dave left his camera in its bag. We found Dave who had started to get cold, but that was quickly solved once we got outside. The weather outside was such that we found Lionel back sunbathing on a rock, being quite in touch with his inner lizard. They had had a good time too; they had encountered some challenging climbs and some cold water. And now they were hungry.

Some dried up structure; this picture I actually made myself!

We changed, thanked our guide, and went back to the hut, where we found four oversuits drying in the sun, and an abandoned Ali. It turned out the lawyers had gone! They had gone into Swildon's hole, and already at the entrance had had difficulty with negotiating the rocks and slopes. They had decided to give up, pack their stuff, visit the much more comfortable show cave in Cheddar, and then bugger off, back to Plymouth. This also my explain why they decided to travel together... Stwange cweatuwes, these lawyews. But we are not strange at all, and we had a cup of tea and something to eat, and were off again, first to the local caving shop, and then to the next cave.

I had started caving in my fieldwork waterproofs, had then changed to waders, had changed back to waterproofs, had then switched to a random cheap-ass boiler suit, but it was time to go for a proper caving oversuit. They are fairly waterproof, don't retain much water, and are very sturdy, which is good, considering the amount of time you spend abrading them on rock. So upon finding the targeted shop I walked in and started to try some on. Lionel did the same, as his was due for replacement. I quickly settled for a sassy outfit in Brazilian colours, and only because they did not have that in his size we did not walk out with identical suits. A narrow escape from what would have been quite a good middle-aged married-couple-on-holiday look. I added some neoprene socks and was done. There was some hesitation to leave, as this was a typical children-in-a-toy-shop atmosphere, but we ripped ourselves away from all these gadgets and went back.

I wanted to save the suit for in case we would visit another cave like Shatter Cave, which can only be entered with clean kit, but Ali assured me we wouldn't, and insisted I wore it into Swildon's Hole. He was wary of people getting hypothermic; something that had happened in the past. My new socks came in handy too. So looking all shiny I followed the men (and lady) to the entrance. It was a beautiful cave! A lot of it was a subterranean stream, about a meter wide, and who knows how high. In the wall the sedimentary structure could often be seen, but some of it was covered in speleothems. There was some clambering and squeezing involved too.

Me getting into my brand new suit, which seems to get approval from the men

Dave and his kneepad bitches

At some point we reached the concisely named 20 ft drop. It was quickly rigged, so one by one we could descend on a wire ladder, secured by a safety line attached to our belts. And then on, through the "double pots"; their proximity was announced to me by a splash and roaring laughter. It's two small climbs around small pools, and evidently, Dan's grip had slipped, to great amusement of his mother. I made it dry, amongst others because Lionel saw my slow progress and just grabbed me by the way-too-long belt I wore...

Dave and Ali clambering down a small waterfall

We followed the stream further, until it seemed to end, except for a rope vanishing into the water, indicating there was a passage below the waterline. A sump! I'd never done one. Richard was our first man, and he lay down in the water, and decided against it. Lionel was still dry and wanted to keep it that way. Dave might not even fit through. I thought that may mean the end of our exploration, but I had evidently not reckoned with Ali. He did not hesitate, grabbed the rope, and vanished. And I'm not a fan of having other people have all the fun without me. I took a deep breath and followed. A good baptism for the suit! And myself. It's a cold wet thing to do, but it was less than 1.5m, so there's not much to it. These caving lights are waterproof... On the other side I found Ali, and a humorous traffic sign. He said we could just go on to what in practice would be the end, and then go back, and catch up with the rest. So we raced over the gravel and bellycrawled though more water to the second sump, which is much longer so we would not pass, and then turned around and did the whole thing again. I was glad I'm not cold very quickly, for the water definitely was.

The sign on the other side of the sump

When we emerged again Ali suggested we took the prettier but more difficult road back to the double pots. That required me using Ali's shoulder as a foothold on more than one occasion, but it was pretty indeed,as far a I coulsee that hrough my self-made fog cloud. A sump is not without consequences! Being as soaked as anyone could be I could just wade through the pools, but for the practice I climbed both, though up is always easier than down. And at the 20ft drop we teamed up with the rest again. Richard and Sarah were up already; Richard was manning the safety rope. Dan was next, and he went for it so enthusiastically it got eratic and he had me worried, but it all worked out. Dave got there too, in spite of his well-known dislike of rope ladders. I was next, finding him catch his breath. Rupert was right behind me and with the three of us we went on. We went wrong somewhere, but found out soon enough, and not much later we came out again, into the nice weather.

By that time it was already nearly 8 o'clock, and the pubs there don't serve food to very late, so we had to get out of our wet stuff and into civilian clothes quickly, and make a dash for it. Sarah, who was out as one of the first, brought Richard back to his car as he had to get to work, and picked up the other Dave, who hadn't joined us. Big Dave worried us by not being hungry. He did feel like a beer afterwards, though... and after a few beers this time I was not the only one going to bed immediately after getting back to the hut; most of us were knackered.

This night the noise levels were down, as Dave volunteered for sleeping downstairs, and I slept so well I was already up before the Brits started their fry-up. Sarah and Dan would leave, and the rest of us, except for Dave, who is our calm gentleman caver and not a wild-eyed maniac as most of us now left were, would visit GB Cave. I had no idea what to expect but it would probably turn out amazing. We parked the cars near a farm, helped Big Dave into his knee pads, and went to the entrance. This involved some stepping over fences, and at the second fence Dave halted. He reconsidered; he'd worn himself out too much the day before and felt crap. This is a state in which doing demanding caving is not a good idea. So we wished him a good kip and continued with the four of us. We had started out with 13!

We clambered down, crawled through "the coffin", and soon ended in a chamber that illustrated well that this cave system contains the biggest underground open spaces in the Mendip Hills. Impressive! The room was adorned with a natural bridge, which we crossed. Soon after the bridge there was a corridor Ali wanted to take pictures in, but that didn't work out, as my flash gun refused again, and even though we had tested this configuration above ground, my camera did not work with a borrowed flash gun from Dave either. So we packed our gadgets away and stored what we saw in our own memory...

The ceiling with stalactites, but also helictites; gravity-defying, curly speleothems.

Onwards there was a vertical climb, to be negotiated with a wire ladder. That ladder, however, was in our bags, and Ali demonstrated skilfully how that works out. When he had it in place it was of course peanuts for us to follow. At that higher level there was a lot of boulder-climbing and belly-crawling to be done. We also encountered an almost-sump; bailing out the water made it a passage. And as this water, quite unlike that of sump 1 of the day before, was foul, it had several advantages to get rid of as much of it as practically feasible. Soon after that passage there was a squeeze to the Great Chamber; Ali found it, but did not manage to get through. We three lean caving machines did, and were rewarded with a majestic sight. But looking around me I noticed I was tired, and I did not mind going back, no matter how amazing this cave was.

Rupert coming through the sump-like passage

We squeezed back to Ali, and made our way back to the ladder. Ali now had the chance to show you can really abseil only using a belay belt. And then we took the alternative route back, that would come out underneath the bridge thet we had first crossed; this involved beautiful clambering over a subtle waterfall over nicely frictionally eroded limestone, with pretty bivalves and other fossils in it. At the bridge we heard and saw some other cavers; the first time for me, and something that the famous Mendip Caves are prone to provide. But soon we were crawling through the coffin again, and we were out.

Some white speleothem we could make a picture of without flash

We found the two Daves back at the cars. They had visited a boot sale, and acquired a roll of the finest biscuits. We eagerly helped them finishing these; even Ali, even though we did not cease reminding him of his incapacity to squirm into the Great Chamber.

All that was left to do then was have a cup of tea with some coffee cake, reflect on this nice weekend while slouching on couches, and then pack our stuff and our last energy to drive home. As we did. I'd never been underground so much over two days, and definitely not in caves instead of mines, but it was great! I learned a lot, I practiced more, in amazing surroundings and with experienced men making it both very responsible and very pleasant to do so. And it was good to simply share a weekend with a whole bunch of blokes with the same quirk as me. Or rather, a same quirk. I have been reported to have several. But when I got home I only had energy left for unpacking the bag, cleaning the kit, eating something easy, and going to bed. Dreaming of the Great Below!

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